visitors travel up modern day Highway 395 past the now
semi-irrigated dry lake bed known as Owens Lake, it’s hard to
imagine the ample body of saline water that was once the natural end
for all streams that flowed into the great valley between the Sierra
Nevadas and the White and Inyo Mountain ranges. In the days before a
thirsty southern metropolis created the great 240 mile aqueduct for
their needs, Indians dwelled near by and called the lake Waqucobi
Modern day visitors ponder the disappearance of Owens
Lake Bessie, along with the water, in this view from the
white man passed through, most notably John C. Fremont‘s 1845
expedition. Fremont honored his lieutenant, Richard Owens, by naming
both the lake and the valley Owens after him. It took another ten
years for a survey party to come through, under the direction of A.
W. Von Schmidt, who recorded, “This valley contains about 1000
Indians of the Mono tribe, and they are a fine looking set of men.
They live principally on pine nuts, fish, and hares which are very
summer of 1859, on a 200 some mile wild horse thief chase from Fort
Tejon to Owens Valley, U.S. Army Captain J. W. Davidson soon
realized that the native Owens Valley dwellers were an ”interesting
peaceful, industrious people, deserving the protection and watchful
care of the government,” and they could not possibly have been
responsible for the theft of horses in white settlements in San
Joaquin and San Fernando Valley as he had originally thought.
Captain Davidson also observed that “They have already some idea of
tilling the ground, as the ascequias (irrigation ditches)
which they have made with the labor of their rude hands, for miles
in extent, and the care they bestow upon their fields of grass-nuts
abundantly show. Whatever the water touches this soil of
disintegrated granite, it acts like the wand of an Enchanter, and it
may with truth be said that these Indians made some portions of
their Country, which otherwise were Desert, to bloom and blossom as
addition to being great hunters and gatherers, with primitive
agricultural skills, the Paiute Indians were great story tellers.
They often talked about the old days when groves and meadows
abounded in the valley, instead of sagebrush, desert and desolation.
Fish and game were plentiful, and the tiger lurked about the land.
Even as late as the 1880’s the shore of Waucoba was full of every
form of bird, from teel to honker goose. Millions of ducks feasted
on the black fly along the banks that also provided the kustavi
(larvae) the Indians harvested as a precious food source.
many, years before these first white pathfinders, surveyors, and
military men wandered through the Owens Valley, an old Paiute woman
sat alone on the beach of Waucoba. The fly were particularly thick
and the harvest of the kustavi was proving profitable. It was quiet,
except for the lonely howl of a coyote in the distance, and the
constant singing of the ever blowing wind. As she methodically
dipped her shallow bowl-shaped basket through the brackish waters,
the gentle waves would tickle her ankles, and cleanse her feet. It
was the first evening of the full moon and she meditated upon it’s
brightness, seemingly oblivious to the constant basket sifting for
the fly larvae she needed to feed her family. Night time was not
usual harvest time, but the old woman preferred the solitude and
peacefulness, just herself and nature, to the gossip and giggles of
the younger women of her tribe during daytime hours. Besides the
flies and the kustavi didn’t care. They were always there waiting to
be gathered, be it night or day.
clear beautiful night, the old Indian woman imagined herself as the
sister of Hainolu and Popnaquz, whose parents were a
bird and a rattlesnake. She saw herself flying everywhere sketching
on the rocks methods to make baskets. After her rock sketching was
done and the Indians were appropriately educated in making and
decorating baskets, one of the brothers turned into a snake and the
other into a bird, like their parents before them. They picked up
their beautiful maiden sister and carried her away never to be seen
again. But the wavy snake lines and bird and feather designs on
baskets, like the one the old woman now used to harvest kustavi,
commemorated the basket learning. The old woman enjoyed soaring
through the stars looking for appropriate rocks to etch upon, and
she particularly enjoyed the thought of legacy she would leave
getting late and the moon was beginning to slip over the mountains.
The old woman gave up her dream flight and basket designing to
concentrate more on the kustavi. Satisfied with what she had, she
turned her back to Waucoba and started to head towards her village.
Before her feet hit dry sand, the earth rumbled, and a great wave
threatened to swallow her up. She tried to run, but her aging legs
refused to move. As she cried out in terror, the earth rumbled once
more. Her lips barely tasted the salty water as it started to spray
her face, then violently swayed in the opposite direction. She
cackled loudly at the spirits, watching as the tidal wave settled to
a choppy sea. In the distance, she saw a tail whipping around, and a
giant sea snake arise from the water. She rubbed her eyes a few
times, hoping to focus better….but the moonlight was completely gone
now, and dust from the wind and the quake destroyed her view.
story of the Waucoba sea snake grew to legend proportions amongst
the Paiutes of Owens Valley, but somehow never was translated for
the white settlers that eventually took over the area. They were
more interested in farming, ranching, and searching for gold and
silver, than old Indian stories of sea snakes and otherwise, anyway.
1870’s the Cerro Gordo mining district in the Inyo Mountains high
above the lake was pulling out silver-lead ore faster than it could
be transported down the Yellow Grade Road and around the lake bed by
freight wagons and mule. A man named James Brady came up with a
quicker way to transport the Cerro Gordo ore once it got down to the
shores of Owens Lake. He built a steamship 85 feet long with a 16
foot beam and a six-foot deep hold with a relatively shallow draft.
It was powered by a 20 horsepower 10 x 10 inch steam engine. At
10:30 in the morning of July 4, 1872, Brady’s daughter,
Bessie, christened the ship after herself, with a bottle of wine.
a maiden voyage party complete with champagne and fireworks, the
steamer went to work regularly transporting both passengers and
bullion from the wharf at Swansea to Cartago. This cut the old five
day land trip down to three hours. The Bessie Brady was
joined later by Colonel Stephens' ship dubbed the Mollie Stevens
after his daughter. The Mollie hauled much needed lumber and
charcoal to the mines, and together the two steamers reigned over
the waters of the of Waucoba.
activity was slowing down in the winter of 1882. The Bessie Brady
was loaded with 83 pound bars of silver lead bullion, headed
southwesterly across Owens Lake, towards Cartago for the last time.
A cold wind came up churning the blue-green water into alkaline
foam. The Bessie found herself fighting against a 40 knot wind. The
legend of her crash and the lost cargo of silver bullion is well
recorded. The steamer and her cargo was never recovered, but the
ships' crew miraculously found it safely back to land. Witnesses
swore that a sea monster was seen gliding swiftly away from the
scene of the tragic accident and blamed it for the demise of the
silver transporting steamship, but few were willing to talk about it
recently uncovered photo shows Owens Lake "Bessie",
breaking water off shore from the town of Keeler. Dark
building at the right is the tram terminus from Cerro
Gordo. The back of the photo was marked "Bessie, Sea
Monster of the Owens Lake."
the second decade of the 20th century, Louis D. Gordon
came to Cerro Gordo and began extracting zinc ore from the Union
Mine, causing the old silver town to rise once again. Under his
direction a new Leschen and Sons wire-rope aerial tramway was built
to transport the ore down the mountain to the terminus at the
railroad in Keeler on the shores Owens Lake, replacing the old
Montgomery tram. At some point during Gordon’s zinc era the old sea
snake decided to take to the waters once again. A photograph, from
this time period has recently been uncovered with a picture of the
monster emerging from the still waters near Keeler. The back of the
picture is clearly marked, Bessie, Sea Monster of the Owens Lake.
And another legend is born….
For stories of
other sea monster sightings, please read:
Bring More Than Floodwaters to
Cecile Page Vargo, Explore Historic California, April, 2005
sincerest thanks to Douglas O. Gordon, and Robert C. Likes for
collaborating with me on this story.
my deepest apologies to the following sources:
The Lost Bullion Ship
Historic Legends Of Inyo County, A Bi-Centennial Book
Edited by Fred S. Cook
California Traveler, Inc.
The Reinvention of Cerro Gordo
by Cecile Page Vargo
paper published in
Centennial Celebration of Nye County, Nevada
Death Valley Mining
Jean Johnson, editor
Jostens Printing and
The Saga of Inyo County
by Southern Inyo American
Association of Retired Persons
Taylor Publishing Company
The Story of Inyo
by W. A. Chalfant
Chalfant Press, Inc.
Western Times And Water Wars
State, Culture, And Rebellion In California
by John Walton
University of California