The Eastern California Museum in Independence has been the repository for Inyo County and Eastern Sierra history for eight decades. That history, from dinosaur bones to Native American baskets to pioneer saddles to famous Sierra Nevada mountaineers to the famous “Water War” between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley, is on display in the museum building and on the museum grounds.
The Museum Bookstore carries a wide variety of books for a wide variety of readers. Field guides help the curious learn about the Eastern Sierra’s flora and fauna. Numerous histories document local events from a local angle, from the Los Angeles and Owens Valley Water Wars to filming movies in the Alabama Hills outside Lone Pine. Regional titles concerning the arid West and its water are also featured. A section is devoted to Native American topics, with titles about basket weaving and traditional practices, the area’s petroglyphs, and histories of the Great Basin tribes. A selection of travel guides explain how to explore the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains, from how to hike Mt. Whitney to traversing the John Muir and Pacific Crest trails to local rock climbs. Lighthearted looks at camping, including cookbooks, and kids’ books about many aspects of the outdoors are also available. The personal stories and profound implications of the Manzanar War Relocation Camp are detailed in a selection of books about the World War II Japanese American internment experience and its implications and impacts. Mining and railroad history are also popular topics, and are represented by interesting titles about the mining and railroading era. Guides and general histories of Death Valley National Park and its colorful cast of characters are also represented. Framed by Yosemite National Park to the north and Death Valley to the south, the Eastern Sierra generates ample, outstanding books of photography, which are available and a great way to take a sense of the Eastern Sierra home.
The heart of the museum’s collection is one of the largest collections of Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshone basketry in the nation. Ornamental and functional baskets, along with cradle-boards, arrowheads, bows and arrows, and rare examples of Paiute bead-work are included in the extensive collection. The basket collection includes more than 400 baskets and nearly 100 other, related artifacts. The collection is located in the museum’s East Wing, and named the Anna and OK Kelley Gallery of Native American Life. The exhibit allows visitors to look at all sides of the artistic baskets and take plenty of time marveling at the intricate patterns and precise workmanship represented by the baskets and other artifacts.
The Museum is also a repository for more than 27,000 historic photos of the majestic Eastern Sierra, including photos of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states, and Death Valley, the lowest point in the U.S. The photo collection includes candid and professional photos of the hearty souls, from Native Americans to pioneer ranchers and miners, who settled the area. The photo collection also includes a wide array of turn-of-the century scenic photos and shots of fishermen, hunters, campers and others who came to the mountains to recreate and “get away from it all.”
Many of the Museum’s historic photos are on display. For example, and extensive section of photos is devoted to renowned Eastern Sierra climber Norman Clyde. A schoolteacher in Independence during the winter, Clyde was a pioneering rock and mountain climber, with more than 100 first ascents to his credit. With just an 80-pound pack and rope, he explored the Eastern Sierra for weeks on end during the summer. He wrote about his climbs for the early Sierra Club newsletters, and also published a book, “Close Ups of the High Sierra.”
The Museum’s photos, History Files and artifacts help relate the story of the Owens Valley “water wars,” which started in 1905 when the City of Los Angeles set its sights on the water in the Owens River as the answer to the growing city’s need to secure additional water supplies. The astounding construction effort that created the Los Angeles Aqueduct (completed in 1913) is documented through photos and wagons and other equipment used on the project.
The museum features an equipment yard that contains freight wagons from the area’s mining era, farm equipment and construction equipment.
The voice of Mary Austin, a early 20th Century author, also resounds from the museum in the form of her books, which are not only still in print, but still some of the most enjoyable and educational works about man’s impact on the environment. Austin wrote about “The Land of Little Rain,” and other Owens Valley related topics stemming from her stay in Independence. She is often cited as one of the nation’s first ecological, or environmental writers because of the deep concern and link to the land that marks much of her work. Her home, a California State Landmark, is just a block from the museum.
Another popular and vital part of the museum is its permanent exhibit displaying some of the few remaining artifacts from the Manzanar World War II Internment Center, which was “home” to about 10,000 Japanese Americans during the war. The focal point of the exhibit is a replica of a typical barracks “apartment” at Manzanar. All of the camp’s buildings, which covered 36 blocks, were dismantled immediately after the end of the war. Manzanar was located between Independence and Lone Pine, and although the campsite is now a National Park Service Historic Site, the Eastern California Museum has a substantial exhibit of photos and other artifacts from the camp on display.
The Eastern California Museum was founded in 1928 to preserve and display the unique history of Inyo County and the Eastern Sierra, which stretches from Death Valley in the south, the Nevada state line to the east, the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range to the west and Bishop to the north. The sprawling 10,000 square-mile county is bisected by U.S. 395, which runs through the Owens Valley.