The violence was not all man-made in the history of the settling of the Owens Valley, located on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada, on iconic Hwy 395. Nature contributed its part, most spectacularly on March 26, 1872 when what may have been the greatest earthquake experienced by the contiguous United States in historic time shook the area.
It came after midnight around 2:30 am in the morning and found most people in bed in their adobe homes asleep. A recent geologist’s estimate puts the power of the quake as somewhere between 8.2 and 8.6, based on the changes in the earth and the damage done. As with other historic quakes, there had been some precursory shaking of the area, most notably in Lone Pine on March 17th.
Aftershocks continued for several months after slowly subsiding in strength. Several anecdotal stories came from the shake. On the Owens Lake, still full of water at the time, businessmen were building a jetty out into the lake to accommodate the new steamer the Bessie Brady. After the shake, the bottom of the lake had been tilted to the southeast so the end of the jetty was nearly two hundred feet from the edge of the water instead of in the lake. It had to be extended.
A dirt floor in a cabin near George’s Creek suddenly erupted in geysers of water coming through the floor. The Court House in Independence was totally destroyed as was Charles Begole’s barn in Lone Pine. Begole was the founder of Lone Pine.
Near Lone Pine, the epicenter was just north of the nascent town settlement, a 12 mile fissure opened, and the displacement of the valley floor was as much as 25 feet in some areas.
Three points of interest are easy to find for the curious visitor.
First, the actual fault line as it ran south towards the lake can be clearly seen just to the west of the Los Angeles Aqueduct just out side of town. Go out Whitney Portal Road and as soon as you go over the aqueduct, you will see a dirt road that goes north. Turn on the road and drive along it and soon you will actually be on top of the uplifted area. Look north and you can see the torn hill area littered with boulders, much like it appeared on that March morning in 1872 as the sun rose. The best time to see it is late afternoon when the lengthening shadows outline it clearly.
A second point of interest is the adobe wall located right behind La Florista in the alleyway. The wall remains from the original adobe structure that was the first store in Lone Pine, the Meysan Store. The front part of La Florista is the wooden building built by the Meysan family to replace the structure knocked down. Almost all of the adobe buildings that made up Lone Pine at the time were destroyed and the town was rebuilt out of wood. The local residents learned the lesson.
The final stop on the tour is the Earthquake Cemetery just north of town on the west side of Highway 395. A short walk takes you to the mass grave marked not by one but two plaques. The Cemetery is part of the Mt. Whitney Cemetery District.