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CA 136: The Owens Lake Link

[This photoessay is presented with a 16:9 aspect ratio.] Sign Route 190 in 1934. In 1933 California adopted three new routes into the state highway system consolidated as LRN 127 in 1935, from LRN 4 (US 99) at Tipton to LRN 31 (US 91-466) at Baker via Lone Pine and Death Valley, but using two sign numbers with the initial designation of state sign routes in 1934. The bulk of the routing was designated as CA 190, running from Tipton over the Sierras on unconstructed routing to Lone Pine, then along a zigzag to Amargosa Junction. Rather than continue as CA 190 down to Baker, however, a new SSR 127 was designated using the remaining piece of LRN 127 plus the stub LRN 128 [1933] to the Nevada state line.

In 1960, the Division of Highways determined a new proposed routing for CA 190 from Quaking Aspen over the Sierras, this time crossing through Olancha, south of Lone Pine. The new routing connected with the old highway southeast of Keeler on its way to Death Valley. With the California Great Renumbering of 1964 and the abolishment of the old LRN system, the CA 190 designation moved to this new southern Olancha leg and a new number, CA 136, was applied to the old alignment.

Both routes now act as a circle around Owens Lake, all but drained by the City of Los Angeles for its water supply and ending the viability of the Owens Valley for most large-scale farming (the Owens in Owens Lake and Owens Valley is Richard Owens, a member of John Frémont's 1845 survey party in the region; see US Highway 395 Part 3). There isn't a great deal to look at on CA 136's brief routing and its primary purpose now is its primary purpose then, a cutoff to Death Valley from points north. But it's fast and easy to travel, and it passes through a little bit of inland California history that not many people know about.

Photographed August 2010.

We approach from the south on modern CA 190, heading east from Olancha, at PM 24.
Approaching the junction.
CA 190 is shown turning right, as it does, but the road to the left is CA 136 and is not signed.
Junction CA 136, at its eastern terminus.

CA 136 Eastbound

There is no END CA 136 on this end, but there is a sign for CA 190 "straight ahead," and a turnoff for Olancha.
The last postmile, at PM 17.30, though this is clearly wrong: we will pass PM 17.50 going the other way, and the Caltrans log gives CA 136's terminus at PM 17.88.
Continuing on CA 190 past the junction, with hideous distance signage to points in Death Valley that has since been replaced.

We turn back around, passing an elevation 4000' marker (yes, we really are up that high).
PM 25.50 (CA 190).
This mystery folding sign probably says "JUNCTION 190" but I can't get enough out of the threshold gating to say for certain.
From this direction, however, CA 136 is "straight ahead."
CA 190 curves off for Olancha, but we continue on.
This smashed sign at the junction makes the cutoff nature of CA 136 clear: both roads go to US 395 (note the kilometre distances), just at your choice of Lone Pine (CA 136) or Olancha (CA 190).
CA 136 Westbound

So, we choose Lone Pine, passing the first CA 136 shield at PM 17.50. Also note the kilometres signage again. Caltrans hasn't posted these since the mid-1980s, but some still survive out here.
WB CA 136.
PM 16.50.
PM 15.50.
The attractively (ahem) named Sulfate Rd (and 100 Sulfate Rd).
Some mining works still occur on Owens Lake, skimming alkali from its barren crusts. There is also a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) substation here.
PM 14.50.
Curving around the northeast corner of the lake.
A Point of Historical Interest: the Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Program.
At its greatest extent, the endorheic Owens Lake was nearly 300' in depth, though climate changes over millenia already were causing it to become dry and increasingly alkaline long before white settlers arrived in the region. However, the process was hastened by agricultural diversion in the late 1800s and by 1905 it was approximately 60 percent of what it had been circa 1850.

The killing blow came with William Mulholland's water expansion project in the early 20th century. In 1913 the City of Los Angeles purchased most of the water rights in the Owens Valley and Mulholland's Los Angeles Aqueduct diverted the remaining water south (see also Mono Lake, which the city also started diverting from in 1941; see US Highway 395 Part 8). The L.A. Aqueduct, to be sure, was a legitimate engineering marvel. Entirely gravity-driven, the water it carries not only serves the city directly to this day but is also a hydroelectric power source, bleeding off to penstocks in the aqueduct to drive turbines. However, by diverting virtually all available sources, the lake rapidly shriveled, leaving it dry most times of the year since the 1920s. The California Water Wars enabled Los Angeles' rocketing growth during the early and middle 20th century but at the cost of ruination for the economic and environmental viability of the local communities. In addition to limiting local agriculture, dust from the derelict lake subsequently became a major problem and eventually a violation of federal air quality standards.

In 1998 the City of Los Angeles and the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District entered into an arrangement committing LADWP to mitigate the dust from the dry lake. Rather than taking the entire amount, LADWP is now obliged to apply a portion of the water to problem areas of the lakebed, wetting the surface sufficiently to prevent it from emitting additional particulates.

It's a start.

Entering Keeler.
Keeler is the only community of note along this routing. It was originally a small community named Hawley of unknown derivation which became more prominent after the 1872 Lone Pine earthquake. The magnitude 7.4+ quake, one of the most severe in the recorded history of the state, was so powerful that it altered the shoreline and the pier at Swansea to the north (we'll point it out). As the steamships that then prowled the lake could no longer dock there, the mining smelters (also wrecked by the quake) pulled up stumps and moved south. A new mill was in place by 1880 and Hawley was replatted by Owens Lake Mining and Milling Company agent Julius M. Keeler, a '49er and a Civil War veteran who had returned west after the South's surrender. Keeler's name was applied to the new town.

In those days, silver was the ore that mattered. The most significant of the steamships that serviced the mining operations was the 1872 Bessie Brady which ran between Keeler and Cartago to the west (along current US 395). The boat was the brainchild of entrepreneur Mortimer Belshaw, part-owner of the Union silver mine who already operated the Yellow Grade toll road controlling shipments to Los Angeles. The wagons couldn't carry enough ore fast enough, however, so he hired James Brady from the Owens Lake company to establish steamboat cargo service as well. It cut days off the time a freight wagon would have required and carried far more silver to boot, but the mining operations eventually slowed and the boat itself exploded and burned to the waterline in 1882. This was just as well because the railroad arrived in 1883.

Keeler boomed for about a decade more until a silver glut caused prices to plummet. While zinc mining briefly brought new life to the town around 1910, eventually most mining ceased by the mid-1950s and the train tracks were torn out in 1961. Meanwhile, dust from the dying Owens Lake plagued the remaining residents, causing most to depart. Today its population only numbers 66 [2010].

Blowing dust remains a problem for Keeler to this day. An old alignment of CA 190 goes through the town, but was never part of CA 136.
Cerro Gordo St ("Fat Hill"), named for the Cerro Gordo Mines just east of us.
Belshaw's Yellow Grade ran near here, run largely by Frenchman Remi Nadeau, whom he hired in 1869 to do the hauling (which cost him nothing on his own road, of course). Their relationship was fractious and strained by the underperformance of both the wagons and the steamboats. It was used again during the zinc boom, and today the Cerro Gordo Mines are a privately-owned ghost town that may be toured by arrangement. Belshaw's 1868 residence still remains, though the 1871 American Hotel burned down in 2020.
Malone St as we leave Keeler.
WB CA 136.
PM 12.50.
PM 11.50.
The terrain gets a little more hilly here.
PM 10.50.
Turning more due west.
Roughly at the location of old Swansea we find another Point of Historical Interest, the Owens Lake Silver-Lead Furnace.
The Silver-Lead Furnace and Mill were built in Swansea in 1869 by Colonel Sherman Stevens and operated until 1874 when a severe thunderstorm inundated what was left of the town. Named for the Welsh town, James Brady himself assumed its operation in 1870, building Swansea around it. Between this smelting furnace and another at Cerro Gordo, 150 bars of silver were produced every day; each single ingot weighed approximately 83 pounds. By the furnace's shutdown in 1874 the town was all but abandoned already due to Keeler's new operations to the south, and today nothing visibly remains of the furnace except part of the foundation.
A rocky path against the hills.
Turn-off for the Dolomite Loop Road, which appears to have been an old CA 190 alignment.
In 1862 a high quality limestone deposit was discovered in the region but could not be exploited due to the remote location. Even when the Swansea dock existed, it was too far away, and no roads nor railroads ran nearby. Not until 1883 when the Carson and Colorado Railroad was constructed did its development become viable; the Inyo Marble Company, under Drew Haven Dunn, filed claims and began mining in earnest in 1885. Unlike most local mining operations, however, this one still operates. Now operated by F.W. Aggregates, owners since 1992, it remains the largest dolomite marble mine in the United States thanks to recent surveys showing the remaining deposit to still be a gargantuan seven miles in length and approximately 1,400' deep. The plaque here and most of the others in the region are mounted on dolomite rocks that came from this very mine. The marble is considered high grade and is widely used in flooring, roofing, landscaping and industrial applications.
PM 7.50.
A sort of hal-fassed cattle crossing, since range land is still an important part of the local economy.
PM 4.50.
Descending into the western Owens Valley. The terrain greens up as we near the remnant Owens River.
The other end of the Dolomite Loop Rd.
WB CA 136.
The Owens River at PM 2.67.
Approximately 183 miles along, the Owens River is (or at least was) the major feeder of the Owens Lake, likely formed during the rift valley process that formed the Owens Valley itself, and like the lake has no outlet to the sea. In ancient times it may have drained to as far as the old Lake Manly which today only ephemerally occurs in Death Valley, but shrank owing to the similar natural and later anthropogenic pressures put on its outlet. From its headwaters in southwestern Mono County north of Mammoth Lakes, it flows through Long Valley and Lake Crowley into Bishop and feeds many of the remaining farm areas. It then proceeds down past Big Pine and into the Los Angeles Aqueduct, where most of the water is thus diverted. After a court order in 2006, LADWP returns about five percent of the pre-aqueduct flow to the river, which is thus seen here, and is part of what is used to wet the lake surface under the local agreement. Its discharge in Big Pine measures roughly 390 cubic feet per second.
PM 2.50.
PM 1.50.
PM 0.50, our last postmile on the westbound direction.
Approaching the intersection with US 395.
Looking back, both CA 190 and CA 136 are signed in the eastbound direction, with distance signage to Furnace Creek in Death Valley.
Control signs at the junction for Los Angeles (via CA 14) and Bishop.
END CA 136.

US 395 as we enter Lone Pine.
Continue on US 395 into Lone Pine
or
Get out of the car (and suck in all the lake dust)
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