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Legacies of the Old West

February 09, 1986

In the late 1800s, settlers, and then surveyors, populated the Mammoth area, tagging the hills, lakes and mountains with names that today echo those less civilized times.

Convict Lake. Twenty-nine convicts escaped from prison at Carson City, Nev., on September 17, 1871. Six of them headed south and murdered a mail rider from Aurora. Posses from Aurora and Benton caught up to the convicts near Monte Diablo Creek--now Convict Creek. Robert Morrison (for whom Mount Morrison is named), a Benton merchant and leader of the posse, was killed in the encounter. The convicts escaped, but three of them were captured a few days later. Two of those were lynched en route to the jail at Carson City.

Devils Postpile. "Some miles farther down the river, near the place of crossing of the Mammoth trail, there is a splendid specimen of columnar basalt. In every scenic freak the sheepherder recognizes the handiwork of his Satanic majesty. The formation is therefore known to local fame as the Devil's Woodpile" (Theodore S. Solomons, 1894).

President William Howard Taft proclaimed the Devil Postpile National Monument in 1911. It was changed to Devils Postpile in 1948. (The U.S. Geological Survey does not use periods, apostrophes or diacritical marks in names on topographic maps, lest they be mistaken for map symbols.)

Lee Vining Peak (originally Leevining Peak). "Leroy Vining and a few chosen companions went over the Sierras to the place where the gold had been found (in 1852), and established themselves on what has since been known as Vining's Gulch or Creek" (Lafayette H. Bunnell, 1880). In the early 1860s, Vining built a sawmill on this creek and sold lumber.

Some time later Vining came to a peculiar end: "The crowd of miners and gamblers used to congregate at the Exchange Saloon (in Aurora), where frequent shooting-scrapes would occur. On one of these occasions a gun went off in the crowd and Lee Vining went out the door. Shortly after, someone found him lying on the walk dead. It was found that the pistol had gone off in his pocket, shooting him in the groin, from which he had bled to death" (C. F. Quimby, 1927).

Mammoth Lakes. In June, 1877, four men located mineral deposits at an altitude of 11,000 feet. A mining district was formed, and the Mammoth Mining Co. began work in 1878. All Mammoth names derive from the name of the principal mine.

Mount Ritter. The mountain was named by the Whitney Survey in 1864. "Ritter is the name of the great German geographer, the founder of the science of modern comparative geography" ( J. D. Whitney, Yosemite Guide-Book , 1870). Karl Ritter was professor of history at the University of Berlin when Whitney was a student there during the 1840s.

-- From "Place Names of the Sierra Nevada," copyright 1986 by Peter Browning, published by Wilderness Press, Berkeley.

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