By “Kookie” Suprin
I was happily nearing the end of my search for the “Ships in the Sand” when all of a sudden I received word from my heat sensitive editor: “Abandon the search!” he said “Head to the high desert. Ken Harrison requested you find the Owens Lake steamboats.” Since Mr. Harrison is a valued reader of RV Journal, I accepted my task!
Off I went, trading the low desert for the high desert, minus 227 feet for almost four thousand feet, from the Salton Sea to Owens Lake. I quickly found that Owens Lake no longer exists; it now flows from the faucets of Los Angeles.
Water districts based in Los Angeles have claimed the water that flowed into Owens Valley as theirs, captured it and via a series of canals deliver it to the huge city. This against the objections of Eastern Sierra residents - by the way this is still a bit of a sore subject to the fine folks that must breath the dust of the Eastern Sierra dry lake.
I found the similarities of the Salton Sea and Owens Lake interesting in so far as Southern California water districts are currently making moves to capture the water that now flows into the Salton Sea and transfer it to San Diego - and wondered if the Salton Sea is destined to be the next Owens Lake.
Nevertheless, water transfers not withstanding, my first stop was Olancha, located on Hwy 395 at the south end of Owens Lake at the “Really Good Beef Jerky” Shop and then the Still Life Café. After sufficiently re-nourishing myself from the long trip, I continued north almost to Lone Pine for refuge at Boulder Creek RV Park situated close to the west shore of Owen’s Dry Lake.
|Boulder Creek RV Park|
My quest began the next day with free fresh baked muffins in the morning. I soon realized that the old gold town of Cerro Gordo, nestled in the mountains east of Owens Lake would play a big part in the story. Cerro Gordo was a silver mining city in the late 1800s, early 1900s. The town shipped its silver “loves” to Los Angeles, the nearest ocean port city. But to get to Los Angeles they first were transported from Cerro Gordo down the hill to Swansea on the east side of Owens Lake, then from the Swansea Landing via steamboat to Cartago at the southern side of the Lake. At Cartago the silver loves were off-loaded and shipped by huge wagons to Los Angeles.
A steamboat named the Bessie Brady was built in 1872 to carry Cerro Gordo silver from Swansea across Owens Lake to Cartago, and on her return she towed barges of charcoal back to Swansea. This charcoal was hauled up the grade to Cerro Gordo for use in the silver smelters. Eventually the small community of Swansea was virtually destroyed by a catastrophic storm that delivered rocks and water down the mountainside.
|It is reported that the ghost of Bessie Brady still roams the dry lake bed of Owens Lake.|
In 1877, a second boat called the “Molly Stevens” made her maiden voyage across Owen’s Lake. Now, from Cottonwood, on the west side of the lake, the Molly Stevens carried charcoal to Keeler, the town that came to replace Swansea. The Molly Stevens chugged about Owens Lake until 1878 when she was moored at Cottonwood Landing, no longer needed as mining activity virtually ceased. In 1879 the Bessie Brady suffered a worse fate, her machinery was removed and she was left beached at Fergusun’s Landing, on the north end of Owens lake, also no longer needed.
|Cottonwood charcoal kilns|
But that’s not the end of the story of the Owens Lake steamers - in 1880 the Molly Stevens was called back into service to deliver lumber to help build the town of Keeler. She was later employed to transport low grade ore from Keeler to the west side of the lake, but the small boat wasn’t very efficient so the Bessie Brady was hauled off the beach in 1882, the Molly Stevens was dismantled and her engine fitted into the Bessie Brady. However, on May 11, 1882 the Bessie Brady burst into flames while tied to her moorings. And that saw the end of the steamboat era at Owens Lake.
While the Bessie Brady and the Molly Stevens are long gone, high desert explorers can still see the ruins at Swansea and visit the small town of Keeler though few services exist there. It’s also reported that the ghost steamer still roams the dry lake bed…and you can hear the calls of her crew: “Where has all the water gone…..?”
|Remains at Swansea|
The road to Cerro Gordo can be accessed just south of Keeler. However, this is a steep dirt road, four-wheel drive vehicles are definitely called for. Several structures still stand in Cerro Gordo, the town is privately owned so visitors should call Judy at 888-GHOST88 for access and accommodation information.
Boulder Creek RV Park,760-876-4243, makes a good home base for RVers touring Owens Dry Lake. Take the loop around the lakebed: from Boulder Creek RV Park drive north just a few miles to Lone Pine. At the 395/136 junction, stop at the visitor center for more information. To find Swansea, head east/south on 136, past the visitor center and look for the ruins on the left several miles from 395, there are no signs, but you will easily see the ruins from the roadway. Continue six miles south on Hwy 136 to visit Keeler and later view the Cerro Gordo Road, stay on 136 until you reach 190, head west back to Hwy 395 and Olancha, turn north to return to Boulder Creek RV Park. While enroute watch for the signs that identifies Cartago, and further north the charcoal kiln sign. At the kilns follow the rough dirt road for a mile to the cottonwood kilns. This makes a nice half-day of exploring the high desert.
As always when traveling the desert remember extreme temperatures and conditions may prevail, thunderstorms are possible, be prepared to ensure you avoid difficulties. For information on exploring public lands in this region, call the BLM at 760-872-4881.
So, my job is done, and I return to my quest of finding buried 1500’s sailing ships by the Salton Sea. However, I shall first go to Los Angeles to get a cool draft of Owens Lake.
We have received several letters from readers who are fascinated with the legendary ³Ships in the Sand.² Reports and articles from as far back as 1939 have been forwarded to us.
One thing for sure, many people believe such a ship exists and no two accounts are exactly alike. Although the theories of how or why such a ship became land locked are all similar.
Some claim it was a Spanish Galleon, or an English pirate ship and even one report claims the ship was equipped with shields along its side. Come on, VikingsShardly!
In any event the stories are entertaining and intriguing so we are retyping them for everyone to enjoy. Click on each individual title.
The Lost Spanish Galleon by L. Burr Belden, Nov 1953 Calico Print
Butcherknife Ike and the Lost Ship by Adelaide Arnold, Nov 1953 Calico Print
Phantom Ship of the Gran Desierto by Harvey Gray, Apr 1974 Desert Magazine
Charley Clusker and the Lost Ship by Harold O. Weight, Mar 1977 Desert Magazine
Lost Ships: Fact or Fiction, editorial, Jan 1939 Desert Magazine
Lost Ship of the Desert by Charles C. Niehus, Jan 1939 Desert Magazine
Lost Ships of the Desert by Bill Boyd, Mar 1966 Desert Magazine
We acknowledge and thank Joseph Szep of Morgan Hill, CA and Robert Hart of Carlsbad, CA for submitting the above.
Those readers who may have more articles to add to our files please send us your material. This project has all of us intrigued.
Bill Todd, EditorDRSB ! Bisbee ! Elvis !!
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