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Trip of the Week

Bishop, in Owens Valley, Remembers Its History

January 18, 1987|MICHELE GRIMM and TOM GRIMM | The Grimms of Laguna Beach are authors of "Away for the Weekend," a travel guide to Southern California.

Winter travelers can treat themselves to the spectacular scenery of the snow-covered High Sierra by driving north along U.S. 395 to Bishop in the Owens Valley.

The town is a popular rest stop for skiers headed to Mammoth Lakes, June Lake, Lake Tahoe and Reno, but Bishop has more than roadside cafes and motel rooms. Especially interesting are Laws Railroad Museum and the Paiute-Shoshone Indian Cultural Center.

Bishop traces its name to a Virginian, Samuel A. Bishop, who arrived in the Owens Valley with a herd of cattle in 1861. He established St. Francis Ranch near the present town, but soon left for San Jose.

Indian Heritage

The arrival of white settlers and cattle prompted bloody wars with the Indian inhabitants of Owens Valley. Their ancestors live on four reservations but preserve their tribal heritage in impressive displays at the cultural center.

Get there from Los Angeles by driving east on Interstates 10 and 15 to join U.S. 395 north through the Mojave Desert and along the eastern Sierra to northern Inyo County.

In the center of Bishop, turn left on West Line Street (California 168) and head west. After a few blocks, look right for See Vee Lane and go just beyond to 2300 W. Line St. and a modern building with graphic designs on its sides.

The cultural center's sign is hard to see; if you pass a bingo sign, you've gone too far. Winter hours are weekdays, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 to 5 p.m. (to 4:30 p.m. Fridays); closed weekends. Phone (619) 873-4478.

Exhibits depict how the Indians of the Owens Valley used plants and animals to provide their food, medicine, clothing and shelter. You'll see excellent examples of basket making by the women, and the weaving that was considered men's work.

Food gathering was a major activity, and a favorite item was pine nuts obtained from pine cones high in the mountains. Much of the Indians' artistic talent is revealed in their intricate baskets and beadwork.

A shop case displays modern Indian jewelry and pottery that visitors may buy. Books about Indians also are for sale at the cultural center. Admission is free.

Pioneer Days

To learn about the lives of pioneers in and around Bishop, head to the former Laws railroad station northeast of town. Return to U.S. 395, go north to join U.S. 6 and pick up Silver Canyon Road that leads to the Laws Railroad Museum.

The 12-acre historic site features narrow-gauge railway memorabilia as well as buildings and artifacts from early days. Rail service for the valley's farmers and miners began in 1883 after track was laid from Owens Lake to near Carson City, Nev.

Over the years the silver and lead mines closed and agriculture and livestock diminished when an aqueduct began siphoning much of the valley's water to Los Angeles. In 1960 Southern Pacific's locomotive No. 9 made its last run to Laws, marking the end of narrow-gauge operations west of the Rockies.

It also was the beginning of an effort to preserve that steam engine and the vintage depot. Since then Laws has become a village of more than a dozen historic structures. Visitors are welcome every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free.

Pick up a "ticket" with a map of the grounds at the reception center. It's in one of the buildings constructed by Paramount Studios when Laws was used as a set for the movie "Nevada Smith."

Frontier Medicine

Next door, antique medical equipment of frontier doctors is on display, and there's a country store with old-time supplies. Next to the carriage building is the tiny post office that served Laws until 1961.

Cross over to the 104-year-old depot with railroading relics on exhibit in the agent's office, waiting room and baggage room. The freight room has a collection of branding irons, harness used on freight teams and a horse-drawn hearse.

Beyond is old locomotive No. 9, and you can climb aboard to ring its brass bell. In the string of cars behind is a combination passenger and baggage car, and a caboose.

Also visit the restored 1883 agent's house (open weekends only in winter). Continue along the track to the hand-operated wooden turntable that was used to reverse the direction of train engines.

Stroll on the other side of the tracks to the mine exhibit, blacksmith shop and wagon barn. On Sundays in winter you can go inside the former Catholic church from Bishop that's the museum's library and arts building. It's filled with books, paintings, photos and all sorts of musical instruments, including playable Victrolas and music boxes. A highlight is vintage family albums and scrapbooks that you can thumb through.

Also visit the Wells Fargo building to see Indian arrowheads and rare rocks and minerals, then look at the sun-colored purple bottles and other antique glassware next door.

Back at the reception center you can buy railroad books and mementos, as well as refreshments. Phone: (619) 873-5950.

Taking Nourishment

For a choice of dining places, return to Bishop where favorites include the Copper Kettle, Firehouse Grill and Whiskey Creek (dinner only).

Be sure to drop in at Schat's Dutch Bakery, which boasts that it's the home of the original sheepherder bread. You'll be tempted by 36 kinds of bread baked on the premises, as well as fresh pastries and pies and homemade candy. Coffee, tea and deli sandwiches also are available; open 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.

For a complete list of eateries as well as lodgings, go to the visitor center of the Bishop Chamber of Commerce, 690 N. Main St. (U.S. 395); open daily. Phone: (619) 873-8405. Call that number for winter road conditions, or CalTrans at (619) 873-6366.

Return to Los Angeles the way you came, or follow U.S. 395 south and branch right on California 14 to join Interstate 5.

Round trip from Los Angeles to Bishop is 560 miles.

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