Track 15: Sam Wasson, retired LADWP employee
Keeler is a tiny, desolate community positioned along the eastern shoreline of former Owens Lake. Touring what’s left leaves the traveler with the impression that the town has seen better days; boarded up, once elegant Victorian buildings stand wind-worn among a scattering of more recently built homes and trailers often littered with abandoned vehicles and other rusting detritus. The town serves as a reminder of a booming mineral extraction economy that went bust many years ago—a typical scene found in many parts of the arid Amercian West.
Keeler rose to regional prominence during the 1860s due to its close proximity to Cerro Gorgo, a highly productive silver mine. The town, originally named Hawley, was the site of the Owens Lake Mining and Milling Company whose job was to process and smelt ore delivered via aerial tram from 9,000 feet above within the Inyo Mountains. The Hawley site was chosen after an 1872 earthquake destroyed the existing pier at Swansea just a few miles to the north, renaming it Keeler after the town’s planner, Julius M. Keeler. A new pier was constructed to provide transport of ore and ingots via the steamship “Bessie Brady” across the lake to Cartago effectively shortening shipping from three days by land to only three hours until the barge was destroyed by fire in 1882. Ingots were then shipped directly to Los Angeles. The Carson and Colorado Railway built a narrow gauge rail transport for materials and goods terminating at Keeler in 1883, which connected the area with others throughout the region. During this period, Keeler claimed a resident population of up to 5,000. Most historians agree that Cerro Gordo’s lucrative extraction economy along with associated trade and services resulting from it, in turn, provided the economic catalyst that propelled Los Angeles to regional prominence during the mid-19th century.
By the late 1880s, the price of silver had plummeted—stunting Keeler’s growth altogether. A series of sporadic, short-lived extraction booms for zinc, lead, and limestone followed over the years. Various crude soda mining operations such as the Natural Soda Products Company employed Keeler residents for nearly fifty years. Owners of this soda plant, in operation during the 1930s, sued and won a settlement with LADWP for $154,000 after it was proven that the department had intentionally flooded the plant with excess runoff after an exceptionally wet winter season.
Today, a sign on State Route 138 lists Keeler’s current population at around fifty residents, some of whom work for LADWP’s dust control mitigation program located at various sites within the lakebed. The department’s main facility positioned just south of town.
Keeler has been prominently featured in news media as it regularly receives the brunt of alkali dust storms emanating off the dessicated Owens lakebed—certainly contributing to the town’s further demise. As Mike Prather shares in track 14; at one point during negotiations with the regional air quality board a LADWP official publicly stated, “This dust project is going to cost so much…We can just give everyone in Keeler a million dollars…They can just move. They can just go away.” The official failed to consider that the dust was not just affecting the tiny town of Keeler, but was, in addition, affecting up to 40,000 people throughout the entire region.
POI: Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Program Marker
A historical marker dedicated by LADWP on November 17, 2001 is located on State Route 136 just north of Keeler overlooking Owens Lake. The town of Keeler is 1.5 miles south of the marker.