Monday, June 27, 2011

Cottonwood Charcoal Kilns

Noehill photo

Inyo County, August 30, 1993

Driving this section of 395 south of Lone Pine, it's hard to imagine these days that there was a large lake just off the road to the east, and what that might have looked like with trees and foliage poised against Mt. Whitney, with steamers crossing Owens Lake befor the water was diverted to Los Angeles, making this area the caustic dust bowl it has become.

Noehill photo

Looking into and researching this subject prompted the following song today:

BESSIE BRADY                   © Radio Flier Music

From the stand of cottonwoods, head west along cottonwood creek
The steamer’s bow beyond the rise, shines of polished brass and teak

(chorus) Roll on, roll on, across the lake so wide
The Bessie Brady’s silver run to the Cero Gordo side
Old adobes standing still, the lake has up and dried
The water goes somewhere else, and everything around here died

Burned and sank in Owens Lake, Bessie Brady won’t reveal
Silver somewhere buried there, ‘neath the desert steamer’s wheel

Sherman Stevens

This 2009 article by Kathy Weiser is a great read:

‘In Owens Valley on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Range, Desert Steamers once served the silver mining boom of the 1870’s. This curious maritime history began in 1872 when the first steamboat was christened on the saline waters of Owens Lake. The pioneer steamer, the Bessie Brady, proudly proclaimed to be "The Pioneer inland steamer of the Pacific Coast.” Though this was untrue, as steamers had already been used in Lake Tahoe in 1864 and in Meadow Lake in 1866 and Donner Lake a few years later, the sight of a steamboat in the midst of Death Valley must have been a strange site.

 The idea was conceived by James Brady, superintendent of the Owens Lake Silver-Lead Company's smelting furnaces on the eastern shore of the lake. Its purpose was to haul the silver bullion from the furnaces to waiting wagon teams at the foot of the lake.

A unique pioneer, the Bessie Brady was followed by a handful of other steamers over the next several years, discontinuing the need for the many teams that once plodded through the deep sand around the lake.

 Though the steamers effectively hauled the ore, ironically they caused another problem, as the bullion shipped across the lake began to pile up at the foot of the lake because the teamsters hauling it away couldn’t keep up. At times during these years, the surplus of ore became so great; it forced the mines to cut back production and the steamers to be docked.

Finally, a new freighting company bought out the smaller ones in the area and placed fifty-six teams on the road south, dramatically improving the bullion shipments. Highly successful, the new freighting company continued to operate until 1876, when the Southern Pacific Railroad was completed through to Mojave, becoming the southern terminus of the freight lines and the reducing the freighting distance by over one hundred miles.

 Another enterprising man, Colonel Sherman Vanderventer Stevens, owned a sawmill which supplied the mines and smelters around the lake. Stevens soon built his own steamer to handle his thriving lumber business. The craft, though smaller than the Bessie Brady, had a more powerful engine and was launched in May, 1877. However, within just a few days of her maiden voyage a heavy wind storm swamped the new steamer, sinking her to the bottom of the lake. But Steven’s steamer was not lost as he immediately called for help and with the aid of the Bessie Brady, the boat was raised. Refitted, the steamer was christened the Mollie Stevens, in honor of the Colonel’s daughter and she made her first voyage across the lake in early June.

 However, about this time mining activity around the lake was beginning to decline and the Mollie Stevens utility was short lived. Within a year, she was making only occasional trips across the lake by the end of 1878; the boat spent most its time idly moored. The Bessie Brady continued on about a year longer, before she too was hauled ashore at Ferguson's Landing and her machinery removed. The success of the steamers appeared to be ending until, in the winter of 1879, a man named Captain Julius M. Keeler arrived in Owens Valley. As an agent for several eastern capitalists, Keeler began the

Owens Lake Mining and Milling Company, who laid out a town and mill sites in March, 1880 near the Cerro Gordo Landing at the foot of the "yellow grade."

 To obtain construction materials more economically, the company purchased Stevens' sawmill property, including the Mollie Stevens, and put her back to work. The mill was completed in the spring of 1881, producing a much higher refined ore than was previously seen making it much easier to transport. The mill was soon producing about $6,000 bullion a week, with the Mollie Stevens hauling the silver across the lake. However, the Stevens steamer was not as efficient as hoped for and in the spring of 1882 the Bessie Brady refitted with the engines from the smaller steamer. As the work was nearly complete on May 11, 1882, the oakum, oil, paint and tar spontaneously ignited and the Bessie Bradywas instantly a blazing inferno. The steamer was quickly consumed before the fire could be extinguished, spelling the end of the steamboat era on Owens Lake. Later that year, the railroad tracks entered the north end of the valley.

 Though the steamers were gone, a treasure legend began to circulate almost immediately telling of some $200,000 in gold bullion that had been lost on either the Mollie Stevens on her maiden voyage or the Bessie Brady when she “died” in the blaze.

Though it seems unlikely that the Mollie Stevens would have been carrying cargo on her maiden voyage or that the Bessie Brady was laden with gold before she was entirely refitted, the legend persists.

 Today, Owens Lake is nothing more than a sterile sandy basin nestled in Owens Valley between Death Valley National Park and Sequoia National Park. The lake, lying at the end of the Owens River for eons, was about 23-50 feet deep and covered over 100 square miles during the late 1800’s. However during the early 20th century, the City of Los Angeles began diverting water from the Owens River and runoff from the Sierra Nevada mountain range. In 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed, dramatically draining the blue salt lake. By 1926, Owens Lake was completely dry and today the 110 square mile lake bed is one of the nation’s dustiest places. Owens Lake is located in Inyo County, California.

Though it is debated whether there is gold hidden beneath the sandy depths of Owens Lake, there is no doubt that other treasures may very well lie in waiting. Such was the case when a 300 pound ship propeller was found and a 400 pound hand wrought iron anchor’.

Noehill photo

Plaque inscription: NO. 537 COTTONWOOD CHARCOAL KILNS - In June 1873, on Cottonwood Creek directly west of this spot, Colonel Sherman Stevens built a sawmill and a flume that connected with the Los Angeles bullion road. The lumber was used for timbering in the mine and for buildings - the wood turned into charcoal in the kilns was hauled to Steven's Wharf on Owens Lake, where it was put on the steamer The Bessie Brady, and hauled across the lake. From there wagons took it up to Cerro Gordo Mine. Since all the wood available around the Cerro Gordo had been burned, this charcoal was necessary to continue production.
Location: 1.0 mi E of State Hwy 395 (P.M. 44.5), 70 mi N of Cartago
Google: 36.415196,-118.011913

1 comment:

  1. Our father would take us to this lake in the early 60's. The legend was alive then. It was told in those days as the greater treasure is a load of silver, since the shores were stacked with silver awaiting shipment. Also that a ship went down with a load! Legend? Wasn't then! Thanks, Jeff