Owen's Valley: Then and Now

"Reading these grand mountain manuscripts displayed through every vicissitude of heat and cold, calm and storm, upheaving volcanoes and down-grinding glaciers, we see that everything in Nature called destruction must be creation -- a change from beauty to beauty -- John Muir

One of the largest, if not the largest, historical earthquakes in California struck the Owen's Valley at approximately 2:10 a.m. (local time) on March 26, 1872. The Inyo Independence, published in the town of Independence, ran numerous detailed stories on the earthquake, including this dramatic initial headline. A reinterpretation of macroseismic effects reveals that the distribution of shaking of the 1872 event was less dramatic than earlier studies suggest, but more dramatic at regional distances than intensities during 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The new study (BSSA, 4/2008) thus suggests that the Owens Valley earthquake was the larger of the two events. Based on a current microseismicity gap as well as accounts of ground fissures, etc, Hough and Hutton conclude that the rupture may have extended as far south as Haiwee meadows (now Haiwee reservoir), the morphology of which suggests a fault-controlled structure.

By 1872 a number of settlements had sprung up along the Owen's Valley. In some towns, including Lone Pine, construction was predominantly brick/adobe. Army buildings at Camp Independence also had thick adobe walls as a defense against bullets and arrows. In other towns, including the town of Independence, wood-frame construction was more common. Most of the wood-frame buildings in Independence survived the 1872 earthquake, but perished when a fire swept through Main Street in 1886. The Edwards House, circa 1868, is a rare survivor of the fire as well as the earthquake. It serves as an example of a well-built frame houses from the era.

Although buildings of wood-frame construction fared relatively well in the earthquake, the back wing of this house collapsed. The type of construction of the wing is not clear, but the wood-frame front house escaped serious damage. Another photo of the business district, apparently in Independence, reveals wood frame buildings that escaped relatively unscathed -- including, apparently, the windows -- while an adjacent masonry structure collapsed. (Photos courtesy of Laws Railroad Museum)

Sixteen earthquake victims were buried in a mass gravesite at Lone Pine. Among the victims was Alice Meysen, daughter of the prominent Meysen family, proprietors of the local general merchandising store. The Meysen family quickly rebuilt a new store out of wood. A flower shop, La Florista, now occupies the site. A surviving remnant of the old adobe structure has been preserved as a protected monument.

The fault scarp created by the 1872 earthquake is still clearly visible at many locations along Owen's Valley. The earthquake was predominantly strike-slip, with a relatively small component of normal motion. This scarp near Lone Pine is thought to have been created by several large earthquakes.

Local color

Account from Fish Springs
"...Not far off, a horse's hoof protruding from the ground, where a crack had opened and then closed, gave reasonable inference as to where the rest of the animal might be found." (Chalfant, 1933)

Account from Owensville (near present-day Laws, ~3 miles NE of Bishop)
"My grandfather, Thomas Clark, residing in Owensville at that time used to tell of his experience in the quake. He had come home very late from Bishop with a washtub full of household supplies which he left sitting in the middle of his cabin floor intending to put them away the next morning. When the quake hit he found himself making desperate efforts to remain on his feet and at the same time reach the door, all the while trying to stay out of the way of the tub which seemed to have the same intentions." (Letter, H.M. Clark.)

Earthquakes don't kill people...
"Only one frame building in the valley was leveled, and that was an unsubstantial and cheap shed. Many, however, were racked, and all plastering was shattered. Adobes were promptly striken from the list of favored building materials; probably there was never a more instantaneous and general change of opinion regarding construction methods." (Chalfant, 1933).

Autumn in Owen's Valley: Pretty as a picture.