CLOSE
Original image
Ransom Riggs

Strange Geographies: The Little Town That Los Angeles Killed

Original image
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" --

IMG_4112
IMG_4109
IMG_4107

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.

owens
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.
IMG_4072

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.
keeler car
IMG_4192

A tiny beach resort, long ago stripped of paint and nowhere near the retreated water's edge.
IMG_4172

Inside, grass grows in a vacant swimming pool, which gradually fills with wind-blown dirt.
IMG_4140
tire

I walked for more than a mile, but never found the lake -- only sand dunes.
IMG_4208

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.
IMG_4217

You can check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

If you'd like prints of any of these photos, they're available here.

Original image
iStock
10 Legendary (and Probably Made-Up) Islands
Original image
iStock

Often, islands come to represent places of extremes: they serve as utopias, purgatories, or ultimate dream vacation destinations. When it comes to mythological islands, utopias are especially popular. The Greeks had their Fortunate Islands, or Islands of the Blessed, where the luckiest mortals whiled away their time drinking and sporting. The Irish had a similar concept with their Mag Mell, or Plain of Honey, described as an island paradise where deities frolicked and only the most daring mortals occasionally visited. 

But mythology isn't the only engine creating islands that don't actually exist—some of these legendary land masses popped up on maps after miscalculations by early explorers who interpreted icebergs, fog banks, and mirages as real islands. Some of these cartographic “mistakes” may have been intentional—certain islands depicted on medieval maps might have been invented so they could be named after the patrons who funded the explorations. Even explorer Robert E. Peary wasn't immune: Some say he invented "Crocker Land," a supposedly massive island in the Arctic, to secure funding from San Francisco financier George Crocker. Crocker Land didn’t exist, although that didn’t prevent major American organizations (including the American Museum of Natural History) from sponsoring a four-year expedition to find it.

Much like the fictional Crocker Island, here are 10 more imaginary isles, all of which have a place in world history, literature, or mythology—despite not having a place on the map.

1. Isle of Demons 

iStock

Supposedly located off the coast of Newfoundland, this landmass (sometimes depicted as two islands) appeared on 16th century and early 17th century maps, and was named for the mysterious cries and groans mariners reported hearing through the mist.

The island was given a somewhat more solid identity after 1542, when nobleman and adventurer Jean-François Roberval was instructed by the King of France to found settlements along the North Atlantic coast. He brought his niece, Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval, along for the voyage, but she began a passionate affair with one of Roberval's officers. Annoyed, Roberval put his niece (and maybe the officer—accounts differ), as well as her nurse, ashore on an otherwise unspecified "Isle of Demons" in the St. Lawrence River. Marguerite gave birth on the island, but the child died, as did Marguerite’s lover and nurse. However, the plucky Marguerite survived alone for several years, using her firearms against the wild beasts. After being rescued by Basque fishermen and returning to France, she reported that she had been beset "by beasts or other shapes abominably and unutterably hideous, the brood of hell, howling in baffled fury."  

Marguerite’s story appears in several historical accounts, including versions by Franciscan friar André Thevet and the Queen of Navarre. Still, the location of the “Isle of Demons” on which she landed has never been found for certain. Maritime historian and veteran Atlantic sailor Donald Johnson thinks he has identified it as Fichot Island, close to the Strait of Belle Isle at the northern tip of Newfoundland. Johnson notes that Fichot Island lies on Roberval's course, and is home to a breeding colony of gannets—a type of seabird whose guttural cries, heard only while breeding, may have been taken for the sounds of demons.

2. Antillia 


iStock

Also known as the Isle of Seven Cities, Antillia was a 15th century cartographic phenomenon said to lie far west of Spain and Portugal. Stories about its existence are connected to an Iberian legend in which seven Visigothic bishops and their parishioners fled Muslim conquerors in the eighth century, sailing west and eventually discovering an island where they founded seven settlements.  The bishops burned their ships, so they could never return to their former homeland. 

According to some versions of the legend, many people have visited Antillia but no one has ever left; in other versions of the tale, sailors can see the island from a distance, but the land always vanishes once they approach. Spain and Portugal even once squabbled over the island, despite its non-existence, perhaps because its beaches were said to be strewn with precious metals. By the late 15th century, once the North Atlantic was better mapped, references to Antillia disappeared—although it did lend its name to the Spanish Antilles.

3. Atlantis 

iStock

First mentioned by Plato, Atlantis was supposedly a large island that lay "to the west of the Pillars of Hercules" in the Atlantic Ocean. It was said to be a peaceful but powerful kingdom lost beneath the waves after a violent earthquake was released by the gods as punishment for waging war against Athens. There have been many attempts at identifying the island, although it may have been entirely a creation of Plato’s imagination; some archeologists associate it with the Minoan island of Santorini, north of Crete, whose center collapsed after a volcanic eruption and earthquake around 1500 BC. 

4. Aeaea 

In Greek mythology, Aeaea is the floating home of Circe, the goddess of magic. Circe is said to have spent her time on the island, gifted to her by her father, the Sun, waiting for mortal sailors to land so she could seduce them. (Afterwards, the story goes, she would turn them into pigs.) Some classical scholars have identified Aeaea as the Cape Circeium peninsula on the western coast of Italy, which may have been an island in the days of Homer, or may have looked like one because of the marshes surrounding its base.  

5. Hy-Brasil 

Also known as Country o'Breasal, Brazil Rock, Hy na-Beatha (Isle of Life), Tir fo-Thuin (Land Under the Wave), and by many other names, Brasil (Gaelic for "Isle of the Blessed") is one of the many mythical islands of Irish folklore, but one that nevertheless made several appearances on real maps.   

Like the Mediterranean's Atlantis, Brasil was said to be a place of perfect contentment and immortality. It was also the domain of Breasal, the High King of the World, who held court there every seven years. Breasal had the ability to make the island rise or sink as he pleased, and normally only let the island be visible when his court was in full swing.  

According to legend, Brasil lay "where the sun touched the horizon, or immediately on its other side—usually close enough to see but too far to visit." It first appeared on a map made in 1325 by Genoese cartographer Daloroto, who depicted it as a large area to the southwest of Ireland. (Later maps placed it farther west.) Its shape was usually drawn as a near-perfect circle, bifurcated by a river. Numerous explorers searched for the island, and some, including Italian navigator John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), even claimed to have found it. 

Today, scholars think Brasil may have been a reference to Baffin Island, or to now-sunken lands visible only when sea levels were lower during the last Ice Age, or else an optical illusion produced by layers of hot and cold air refracting light rays.  

6. Baralku 

Among the indigenous Australians of the Yolngu culture, Baralku (or Bralgu) is the island of the dead. The island holds a central place in the Yolngu cosmology—it's where the creator-spirit Barnumbirr is said to live before rising into the sky as the planet Venus each morning. Baralku is also the spot where the three siblings who created the landscape of Australia, the Djanggawul, originated. The island supposedly lies to the east of Arnhem Land in Northern Australia, and the Yolngu believe their souls return there after death.

7. Saint Brendan's Isle  

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

This piece of land was said to have been discovered by Irish abbot and traveler Saint Brendan and his followers in 512, and to be located in the North Atlantic, somewhere west of Northern Africa. Brendan became famous after the publication of the Latin Navigation of St Brendan, an 8th/9th century text that described his voyage in search of the wonderful "Land of Promise" in the Atlantic Ocean. The book was a medieval best-seller, and gave the saint his nickname, "Brendan the Navigator." The island was said to be thickly wooded, filled with rich fruit and flowers. Tales of St. Brendan's Isle inspired Christopher Columbus, among others, and had an important influence on medieval cartography. Sightings were reported as late as the 18th century.

8. Avalon 

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

First mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century Historia regum Britanniae, Avalon is the place where the legendary King Arthur's sword is forged, and where he is sent to recover after being wounded in battle. The island was said to be the domain of Arthur's half-sister, sorceress Morgan le Fay, as well as her eight sisters. Starting in the 12th century, Avalon was identified with Glastonbury in Somerset, in connection with Celtic legends about a paradisiacal “island of glass.” Twelfth century monks at Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have discovered Arthur’s bones—although later historians believe their “discovery” was a publicity stunt to raise money for Abbey repairs. 

9. Island of Flame 

In ancient Egyptian mythology, the Island of Flame (also known as the Island of Peace) was the magical birthplace of the gods and part of the kingdom of Osiris. It was said to have emerged out of primeval waters and to lay far to the East, beyond the boundaries of the world of the living. Associated with the rising sun, it was a place of everlasting light.  

10. Thule

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

For the Greeks and Romans, Thule existed at the northernmost limit of their known world. It first appears in a lost work by the Greek explorer Pytheas, who supposedly found it in the 4th century BC. Polybius says that "Pytheas ... has led many people into error by saying that he traversed the whole of Britain on foot … and telling us also about Thule, those regions in which there was no longer any proper land nor sea nor air, but a sort of mixture of all three of the consistency of a jelly-fish in which one can neither walk nor sail, holding everything together, so to speak." Later scholars have interpreted Thule as the Orkneys, Shetlands, Iceland, or possibly Norway, while the Nazis believed Thule was the ancient homeland of the Aryan race.  

Bonus: People Used to Think California was an Island  

Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, many Europeans believed that California was an island. Like other islands on this list, the place was reported as being a kind of paradise. In fact, the name "California" first appears in a romantic novel penned by Spanish author Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo, who described it as an island filled with gold and precious gems, populated by a race of Amazons who rode griffins.  

Original image
Five Years via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
The Town Built On Asbestos (Population: 3)
Original image
Five Years via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Welcome to Wittenoom, Australia, where the weather is beautiful, the scenery is unparalleled, and toxic substances seep from the earth.

Located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, Wittenoom was once one of the top blue asbestos mining locations in the world, causing families to flock to the area for jobs. Also known as crocidolite asbestos, blue asbestos was a valuable commodity used for fire protection in ceiling tiles, insulation, electrical work, battery casings, and more. But it was also an incredibly dangerous one—all types of asbestos can cause fatal illnesses, but because crocidolite fibers are as thin as a strand of hair, they’re easily inhaled and may be responsible for more deaths than any other type of asbestos. In Wittenoom—where workers once held asbestos-shoveling contests, and families thought it safe to let their kids play in the stuff—thousands of former residents have died from asbestos-related causes.

The mining industry in Wittenoom was halted in 1966, not necessarily for health reasons, but for economic ones—the company which owned the mines was $2.5 million in debt. Health concerns weren’t really addressed until the late ‘70s, when the government started taking steps to shut the town down completely. Buildings were demolished, the airport was closed, and residents were urged to leave. By 1992, less than 50 citizens remained, and by 2007, it was down to eight. Today, just three brave souls still call Wittenoom home.

Why would three people stay in a town that’s still riddled with cancer-causing materials, a town with no electricity or water, one that has literally been erased from maps by the government because of the danger it poses? They all have different reasons.

Peter Heyward, a resident for more than two decades, stays for the nature and the “silent stillness” of the surroundings. “The hills, the plains, the openness, the quiet. I love the country," he told Australia's The Age in 2007. Since so many buildings were razed, he now has a perfect view of Hamersley Mountain Range.

Mario Hartmann stays put largely because he was unimpressed with the amount of money the government offered to buy him out—$40,000 plus $10,000 in moving costs: “What can you buy with $40,000? They'll have to offer $400,000, what it takes to buy a house somewhere else.”

This year, Lorraine Thomas, a 30-plus year veteran of Wittenoom, told WA Today she refuses to let the potential presence of asbestos scare her away. "It's only the dust that's dangerous," she said, a threat she believes has dissipated after the mines' closures. An official report begs to differ, calling the risk to tourists (of which there are still up to 40 a day) and residents alike "extreme."

Neither Thomas nor her fellow residents have any illnesses relating to the asbestos that still looms large in the area.

For a closer look at the ghost town's holdouts—filmed when there were still eight people residing there—the short documentary Wittenoom is worth a watch:

Wittenoom from Caro Macdonald on Vimeo.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios