April 2007 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts







Click on the 4Runner or contact us at info@explorehistoricalif.com for tour information.

Join us at the 11th annual Moose Anderson Days, April 28-29, 2007.

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Friends of Last Chance Canyon is a new organization interested in sustaining and protecting areas within the El Paso Mountains, near Ridgecrest, California. The main focus is preserving and protecting historic sites like Burro Schmidt's tunnel and the Walt Bickel Camp.

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Explore Historic California!

     Not too many years ago, the family station wagon was the magic carpet to adventure. Today, that family station wagon is likely to be a four wheel drive sport utility vehicle or pick up truck. SUV's and other 4x4's are one of the best selling classes of vehicles. Ironically, industry statistics show that once purchased, few owners will dare to drive their vehicles off the paved highway. Click your mouse through our website and enjoy our armchair adventures and the histories behind them. If you are interested in taking one of our guided tours with your vehicle, please contact us at: info@explorehistoricalif.com.

     Several years ago, we bought our first SUV. We went to a one-night class at a local community college entitled "How to 4-Wheel Drive" by Harry Lewellyn. The following weekend we attended the hands-on day tour. We liked what we were doing so much that we began going out nearly every weekend and learned how to negotiate a variety of dirt roads. Our spare time was spent doing research on the history and ecology of our favorite areas. A one-day outing turned into 16 years of leading others on mini-vacations throughout Southern California and the Owens Valley.

     Our 4WD outings involve driving on easy to moderate dirt roads and are ideally suited to novice and intermediate level drivers. All tours are suitable for stock vehicles in good condition, although some tours do have vehicle size restrictions.

     Our tours are operated under permits issued by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and other authorities.

     We share our knowledge of the backcountry over the CB radio with our guests. We frequently stop to explore mining areas, old and new, and ponder the rocks, plants and animals we may encounter. We'll occasionally visit an old cabin or deserted mountain lookout.

     California has a fascinating history, from geologic unrest and prehistoric petroglyph scribes to the "Radium Queen of the Mojave" and the "Human Mole of Black Mountain." Load up your 4X, fasten your seatbelts and get ready to explore historic California.

Roger, Cecile and Marty

The Legend of

Owens Lake Bessie

 By Cecile Page Vargo

           As 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 or Waucoba

Modern day visitors ponder the disappearance of Owens Lake Bessie, along with the water, in this view from the Inyo Mountains.

           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 plenty.”

           In the 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 the rose.”

           In 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, 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.

           On this 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 behind her.

           It was 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.

           The 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.

           By the 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.

           After 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.

           Mining 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 afterwards.

A 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."

           During 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:

Rains Bring More Than Floodwaters to Death Valley

by Cecile Page Vargo, Explore Historic California, April, 2005


           My sincerest thanks to Douglas O. Gordon, and Robert C. Likes for collaborating with me on this story.  

           And my deepest apologies to the following sources: 

The Lost Bullion Ship taken from:

Historic Legends Of Inyo County, A Bi-Centennial Book

Edited by Fred S. Cook

California Traveler, Inc.

Pioneer, California


The Reinvention of Cerro Gordo

by Cecile Page Vargo

paper published in Boomtown History

Centennial Celebration of Nye County, Nevada

Death Valley Mining Camps

Jean Johnson, editor

Jostens Printing and Publishing

Visalia, California


The Saga of Inyo County

by Southern Inyo American Association of Retired Persons

Taylor Publishing Company

Covina, California


The Story of Inyo

by W. A. Chalfant

Chalfant Press, Inc.

Bishop, California


Western Times And Water Wars

State, Culture, And Rebellion In California

by John Walton

University of California Press



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