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Racist Burma Shave sign along highway at Loomis, California - 1942. California’s most widely publicized “land of solitude” will become a bustling land when the Government carries out its plan to establish Japanese farm colonies in Owens Valley, down in Inyo County. Solitude has characterized this corner of California since it was discovered—and that was remarkably late, hardly more than 100 years ago. It is a remote mountain fastness, about 280 miles from Los Angeles. Deep in the rugged land is a narrow, rock-guarded, 75-mile-long valley, chiseled out between two mountain ranged by glaciers eons ago.

On the eastern side rise the lofty, rugged White Mountains, clean sweeps of granite walls 10,000 feet up from the floor of the valley. On the west the massive Sierra Nevadas rear equally high, culminating in the crest of Mt. Whitney, 14,495 feet up in clouds and snow. Guarded by these walls is Owens Valley, no more than a trough sunk between them, so narrow at its head it is only four miles across, and rarely more than 15 miles wide.

Travelers on the Reno-Los Angeles highway pass through Owens Valley, south of Mono Lake.

Blighted Land

A gloomy, desolated land, it was once right and fruitful. Where empty farmhouses stand watch over barren fields, there once lived hardy, ambitious farmers, eager to make their community productive. Today it is a blighted land, a succession of “ghost towns,” an abode of pathetic, frustrated hopes.

This narrow, isolated gulch has had some exciting chapters in California history, all of them a result of its geography.

Near the Desert

It is about as lonely a spot as you could find in America. Four towns string along the valley, beside the shriveled Owens River and the broad highway that links Reno and Los Angeles. But between those towns, and particularly at the head of the strange valley which tapers almost to a complete dead-end, is desert country, weed-choked and barren. If you look over the sagebrush you find it grows on land marked by rusted fences, with lonely, abandoned farmhouses and broken-down machinery scattered abroad, as though a disgusted community had fled.

Once this was the haunt of prehistoric animals, whose fossils have been discovered in the rocks. After the glacier period it was filled with luxurious vegetation. The Piute Indians knew it as a delightful landscape of meadows and groves, filled with fish and game.

Scene of Indian Wars

It became a hiding place and refuge for the Indians when the white man came to California, a secret, bottled-up spot; later the scene of bloody Indian wars. In 1833 Fremont, chasing a marauding band of Indians, came upon it and was astonished at its charm. He named it for a member of his party, Richard Owens, “a good mountaineer and a good shot,” and later pioneering parties discovered that it formed an easy pass through the mountains between the Salt Lake City region and Southern California.

As cattlemen came through, driving their flocks, a few settled in the fine pasture land of the protected spot, where climate was mind, water abundant, rainfall mild. In about 1861, when some 1000 unfriendly Indians showed resentment, a period of fierce fighting began, and the white man’s supremacy was put to a severe test for five years or more.

And here, a century ago, warning was voiced that the white man would win his fights between of superior supplies and reinforcements.

An Indian chief sought to keep his tribe on the warpath with an impassioned counsel: “Your enemies are like the sands in the beds of your rivers,” he is reported to have said.

In a few years, the white men did cover the land, and the wars ended. For by 1866 the valley became part of Inyo County, the first school was established, the Army reservation at Independence became a town and Bishop, at the valley’s head, was the center of [a] small agricultural region.

Owens Valley though it had a big future.

Then Bad Luck Strikes

But in 1872 an earthquake struck the first blow in a history of bad luck.

After that came the valley’s “crime-stained” decade, when it was the aunt of bandits and cut-throats. Speculators south to have the rich land written down as “marsh” and tried to grab it up. Bitterness over land titles arose.

The Owens River, draining some 2800 square miles of watershed, was the source of farming richness to the valley, and permitted experimentation in irrigation, with orchards and fruits as well as grain. But some regions were always alternating with flood or drouth, so in 1903 the U.S. Reclamation Service proposed careful studies preparatory to some dams and a control system that would insure proper irrigation to the entire district.

Happiness Short-Lived

Enthusiastically the Owens Valley people welcomed the idea, gave up some of their rights to advance the study, and then, in 1905, were aghast to learn that new interests altered the future of their sheltered lands.

Los Angeles, growing rapidly and supplied with inadequate water, was hunting distant sources. The city convinced the Federal Government of its needs, persuaded the Reclamation Service to withdraw its plans, and in 1907 voted for a 23-million-dollar bond issue for an aqueduct that would stretch 235 miles into Owens Valley and tap the river.

To the valley residents, this was betrayal. They felt they had never been represented in the plan, and they soon saw a change in their fertile valley as water drained out to the terminal reservoirs of the San Fernando Valley. The river was not enough for thirsty Los Angeles, and in a few years wells were drilled which used up the sub-surface moisture.

Farms went dry. Bewildered farmers drifted off. One by one, Los Angeles County bought up the property until today practically the entire valley is owned by the city and property-owner Los Angeles pays 80 per cent of Inyo County’s taxes.

Construction of the highway through the valley, with interest in winter sports which drew crowds of people, has kept alive the four little towns along the valley floor. But they live on the proceeds of passers-by, now. If the valley were closed, as it might easily be, they, too, would find themselves drained and desolate.

San Francisco News
March 5, 1942

Go to the Japanese Internment page.

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