Strange Geographies: The Little Town That Los Angeles Killed

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Ransom Riggs

There are lots of dry lake beds in California, and to the untrained eye, Owens Dry Lake is just like the rest. But there is one key difference: while most of the state's stark, white alkali flats have been dry for thousands of years, Owens was an enormous, gem-blue lake stretching more than a hundred miles square -- and an important habitat for millions of migratory birds -- as recently as 1917. That's when the City of Los Angeles stole it, diverting the streams that fed Owens Lake into an aqueduct that watered the booming metropolis 200 miles to the south. As the lake slowly dried up, so did the once-thriving town of Keeler, which had been both a mining town and something of a lakeside resort. Nowadays, the "lakeside" town of Keeler is more than a mile from the "shoreline" of Owens Lake -- little more than a collection of marshy mudpits surrounded by an endless expanse of salt flat, the surface of which can reach 150 degrees on hot summer days.

A sarcastic sign near what used to be Keeler's shoreline.

Losing the lake was one thing. But it wasn't the disappearance of the waterfowl, or a place to swim or fish or go boating, that drove people out of Keeler -- it was the dust storms. When the lake finally evaporated some years after its streams had been diverted, it left behind a three-foot layer of fine-grained salt, sulfates and old mining chemicals. The Owens Valley had long been famous for its whipping winds, and all it took to kick up gargantuan clouds of dust was a stiff breeze. The result: frequent, choking dust storms that made it hard to see, hard to breathe -- and for many, hard to justify staying in Keeler. A wider view of "the beach" --

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Brief surges in mining operations kept people in Keeler through the end of the fifties, but all such activity ceased in 1960, and the train tracks which once carried valuable ore out of town were ripped out a year later. The lake didn't dry up all at once -- it took years to evaporate, dying a slow and measurable death. The dust storms started to get bad in the 60s and 70s, and the population began to drop. By the 1980s, Keeler had become like many ghost towns in the making: most of those left behind were elderly or disabled. Many suffered from respiratory problems, and deaths from lung cancer and related disorders weren't uncommon. These days, the Owens Valley ranks as the dustiest place in North America -- second in the world only to the Aral Sea, Kazakhstan's infamous ecological nightmare.

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Owens Lake from the air. The wet bits are lawsuit-mandated pools created by the Los Angeles Water Dept. designed to mitigate the dust storms, a technique that's enjoyed only limited success. Photo by Charles W. Hull.

From a 20-year-old article about Keeler in the Los Angeles Times:

"It was god-awful," recalled Roberta Ushman, who retired in Keeler from Torrance with her husband, Mike. "You couldn't see across the street. We had new windows put in, hoping that would slow it down, but it just comes in." Jeanne Lopez, the former Inyo county clerk, said the dust has eroded the paint from her 1985 Dodge and left her with a prolonged sore throat. "When you're right in it, it's frightening. It blots out the sun, it covers everything," Lopez said. "You just feel if it's coming in your house, if it's in your bed, it must be getting in your lungs, too."

Mike Ushman, a painting contractor, blames the dust for the town's dwindling population. Four Keeler residents have died recently of lung cancer or other pulmonary troubles, he said. His two tenants decided to move away after the Feb. 3 storm, and Riley isn't the only man on oxygen, Ushman said. "There's too many people dying in this town of lung disorders," Ushman said.

On my way to the Owens Valley, I saw this salt-and-dust storm rising over the horizon. I'm probably 20 miles away, and those are the Eastern Sierras behind it. That's a lot of salt.
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There's almost no one left in Keeler now. The population has dwindled to less than fifty, and in the two hours I spent wandering its streets, I didn't see a single person. Still, the town had a sort of eerie, silent beauty. Junked cars and empty shacks, weatherbeaten from years of sun and salt, are being slowly reclaimed by wild grasses.
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A tiny beach resort, long ago stripped of paint and nowhere near the retreated water's edge.
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Inside, grass grows in a vacant swimming pool, which gradually fills with wind-blown dirt.
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I walked for more than a mile, but never found the lake -- only sand dunes.
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This gas station closed more than 30 years ago, eliminating the last reason travelers had to stop in Keeler. As a resident of LA, I couldn't help but feel a little guilty; there is a direct and tragic relationship between the green lawns of my town and the brown decay of Keeler. But those, I guess, are the breaks.
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You can check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

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September 18, 2009 - 2:37am
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