Owens Valley 1872 Fault Line

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.

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Latitude: 36.6032552 Longitude: -118.0744243 Elevation: 3808 ft
the best travel advice comes from the people who live here
Christopher Langley

Recreational Opportunities

Viewing the power of earth movements in California and resulting disruption of land forms.

Seasons Accessible

Year round, weather permitting.

Pet Friendly Notes

Pets are always welcome in Inyo County, the other side of California.


Great story. I’m saving it and sharing it. I love that stretch of the 395, and always go to the Alabama Hills before heading up to my favorite lakes further up the highway. I now have a new destination point. Thanks!

Carl Landkammer, 1/21/2018

Large faults like this one in the Owens Valley rupture when the fault remains locked yet strained about 25 feet plus or minus over decades of time. At a creep-strain rate of about 2 inches per year, it takes 6 years for a foot of strain to accumulate so it takes about 150 years to reach 25 ft of strain. Since this earthquake struck in 1872, adding 150 years to that date brings the target window to 2022 or about 4 short years from now for another possible quake. There are strain gauges across the fault showing it is locked north of Lone Pine. Now this Sierra fault may not creep at exactly 2 inches per year and the creepage may not be linear year to year. I know that the San Andreas fault northeast of Castaic, CA strains at about a linear 2 inches per year because I have measured it with a microwave beam shot a across the fault from two stationary microwave sites situated across the fault for 30 years through 1998 when I retired. I expect to see four very large world-wide earthquakes to hit this earth between now and 2030 A.D. The first one could possibly hit as soon as mid-July 2019 A.D. The four quakes will happen within a window of 1335 days...More on this some other time.

Harvey Wills, 1/23/2018

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