Navigating on Owens Lake
MARKING POSSIBLY THE FIRST TIME a powered vessel has plied the waters of the lake for more than a century, members of the CLUI and Simparch launched a boat on Owens Lake in the eastern Sierras of California, in late December 2014, testing the waters for future navigations.
The craft was a 17 foot-long pontoon boat, built by Steve Badgett of Simparch, and powered by an electric motor. The boat is a prototype for a vessel that is being developed for arid and fringe water bodies, with limited shoreline access. Though capable of holding nearly a ton of gear, the boat floats on pontoons that can be carried to the location in packs, and inflated on shore. Simparch is developing a larger version with Texas architect and Land Arts professor Chris Taylor, for protracted expeditions on the north arm of the Great Salt Lake.
This smaller version was dubbed “Bessie Brady II” after the first steamship based on the lake. The original Bessie Brady was built locally in 1872 to haul silver bullion from the smelter at Swansea to the teamster depot at Cartago, on the southwestern shore of Owens Lake.
Swansea, named after the Welsh mining port, was established in 1869, to process silver and lead from the mines at Cerro Gordo, atop the Inyo Mountains, to the east. A long and arduous haul road connected the mines to the smelter near the shore, from which, for the first couple of years, bullion was hauled to the other side of the lake by wagon, and from there on a larger road, 200 miles south, to the port at Los Angeles.
The output of the mine proved significant, and the roads to the other side of the lake were slow, so the superintendent of the Owens Lake Silver-Lead Company, James Brady, who laid out the town of Swansea, commissioned a boat, named it after his daughter, and built a wharf extending into the lake for it to berth.
According to the historian Richard E. Ligenfelter’s 1962 article in Journal of the West, the keel for the boat was laid a few miles north, in the Owens River, where most of it was assembled, then it was floated to Swansea to have its boiler and engines installed. It was 85 feet long, 16 feet wide, and capable of hauling 100 tons.
On its maiden voyage, on June 27, 1872, it hauled 700 bars of silver (weighing 30 tons), to the still unnamed port at the southwest side of the lake, later named Cartago, after Carthage, the ancient port city on the Mediterranean Sea.
The Bessie Brady proved very effective in getting the fruits of the smelter to wagons on the other side of the lake, and in hauling coal from the kilns at the base of Cottonwood Canyon across the lake, to fuel the smelter. So much so, that in just a few months, 181,000 bars of silver had piled up at Cartago, awaiting shipment south by the too few and slow-in-coming wagon trains. Production was scaled back as a result of the bottleneck, and the Bessie Brady was idled for much of the next year. Remi Nadeau, a French Canadian pioneer and oxen team driver based in Los Angeles, developed a company to move the bullion to market more quickly, eventually driving more than 50 teams on the route back and forth from Cartago to Los Angeles.
A second port was established six miles south of Swansea in 1873, at the base of the Yellow Grade Road, a more direct route from the Cerro Gordo mines. This site, later named Keeler, became the main smelter and port for the mines after Swansea was damaged in a flash flood in 1874. With production and transportation thus improved, the Bessie Brady was back at work for another few years. In May 1877 a second, smaller boat, the Mollie Stevens, was launched on the lake by the owner of the Cottonwood Canyon sawmill to move lumber and coal to Keeler. It sank in a storm a few days later, and was recovered by the Bessie Brady and put back into service.
By 1879, the mine’s output was decreasing, and transportation methods were changing, so the Bessie Brady was idled and hauled ashore at Ferguson’s Landing in the northwest corner of the lake, the fifth of the five ports on the lake, where its engine and boiler were removed.
That year Julius Keeler arrived, and built a large stamp mill, in 1880, at the town that now bears his name. He put the Mollie Stevens back to work hauling wood from across the lake, but soon found it to be too small. So he had Bessie Brady towed to Keeler, and was in the process of fixing it up and putting the more powerful engines from Mollie Stevens in it, when a fire broke out on the hull and burned the Bessie Brady to ashes on May 11, 1882.
This, by most accounts, was the end of shipping on Owens Lake. By then bullion from the stamp mill was so concentrated that its volume was reduced, and it was hauled by cart. And the railways were coming, arriving eventually even at Keeler, and what was left of Swansea. There was no longer any need for boats.
In 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct opened, sending the water that once kept the lake filled to Los Angeles, and in a few years the lake dried up. The dust blowing off the exposed lake bed led to lawsuits, which eventually compelled the Department of Water and Power to figure out ways to reduce the dust. After nearly 20 years and $1.2 billion, the answer includes putting part of the lake back. Though water will cover less than a third of the original 100 square miles of lake, and it is divided into dozens of shallow flooding ponds, this is as lake-like as it will be, for the foreseeable future. But wet or dry, Owens Lake will always be a lake. It was a navigable waterway at the time of statehood, and it remains one, publicly accessible, one way or another.
The launching of the boat on Owens Lake is the first project to come out of the new CLUI outpost at the former townsite of Swansea. A grant from the Metabolic Studio of Los Angeles enabled the CLUI to secure the property after its previous owner, Mike Patterson, passed away a few years ago. People who came on the Center’s tour of the region in 2004 may remember Mike as the local briefer who joined us on the bus to talk about Cerro Gordo, Swansea, and Keeler, and life as a downwinder on Owens Lake.
The CLUI is preserving the historic and marginally habitable portions of the remote property, and is developing a programming site in the dunes on the lake side of the property. The focus will be on desiccation, inundation, and other applicable themes. The site also serves as a gateway for examination and exploration of this uniquely terraformed landscape, a byproduct of the urban space 200 miles away. ♦