Track 15: Sam Wasson, retired LADWP employee
Keeler is a desolate, dusty community positioned at the east shore of the Owens Lake. From the looks of town it is apparent that it has seen better days; boarded up, once elegant wind-worn Victorian buildings stand among a scattering of more recently built homes and trailers, littered with abandoned vehicles and other detritus. Keeler is a reminder of a booming extraction economy that went bust long ago, a typical scene found in many desolate arid regions of the Amercian West. It is interesting that Keeler managed to hang on as long as it has.
Keeler rose to regional prominence during the 1860s due to its proximity to the silver mines in production at Cerro Gorgo. The town, originally called Hawley, was the site of the Owens Lake Mining and Milling Company, which processed and smelted ore from the mines delivered via aerial tram from 9,000 feet above within the Inyo Mountains after the 1872 earthquake destroyed the existing pier at Swansea a few miles away. Hawley was renamed Keeler after Julius M. Keeler who had planned and designed the company town. A pier was constructed and provided transport of ore and ingots across the lake to the west shore town of Cartago via the steamship “Bessie Brady” which cut down shipping from three days by land to three hours by barge until it was destroyed in a fire in 1882. Ingots were then shipped directly to Los Angeles. The Carson and Colorado Railway built a narrow gauge railway for transport of materials and goods terminating at Keeler in 1883 that connected the area with others in the region. During this period, Keeler claimed a resident population of up to 5,000 residents. Most historians agree that Cerro Gordo’s extraction economy and the lucrative trade it produced 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, busting Keeler with it. A series of smaller, short-lived extraction booms for zinc, lead, and limestone followed sporadically over the years until mining finally ceased by the 1950s. Various crude soda mining operations including the Natural Soda Products Company (1912-1927) employed Keeler residents for nearly fifty years. Owners of the soda plant in operation during the 1930s sued LADWP and won a settlement of $154,000 after the department had flooded and destroyed the plant positioned within the dry lake with runoff after an exceptionally wet winter season.
Today, the sign on State Route 138 lists a current population of around fifty residents, some of whom work for LADWP’s dust control mitigation program at the lakebed. The main LADWP facility for the project is located just south of town. Keeler has been prominently featured in past news media because historically it has received the brunt of the alkali dust storms emanating off of the dessicated Owens lakebed—which certainly has furthered the town’s demise. As Mike Prather shares in his track; at one point 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 wasn’t just affecting the tiny town of Keeler, but instead was affecting up to 40,000 people throughout the 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.