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SPORTS WEEKEND | THE OUTDOORS / PETE THOMAS

Take a History Lesson Before You Go Fishing

May 28, 1999|PETE THOMAS

This will be the busiest weekend in the Eastern Sierra since opening day of trout season a month ago and, yes, again the lure will be those slippery little rainbows.

But what about the lore?

As you barbecue the fish you pulled out of Deadman Creek, for example, you might want to consider that the peaceful, meandering Mono County waterway once contained the severed head of a prospector who was robbed and murdered by a notorious criminal.

The body was found in a nearby shallow grave. His head was fished from the creek, hence the name. The law never caught up with the crook, a man named Farnsworth.

Convict Lake and Convict Creek, south of Deadman Creek and just down the road from Mammoth Lakes, feature some of the most spectacular scenery in the region, and they're also home to some pretty spectacular trout.

Towering above the two bodies of water is majestic Mt. Morrison and its often snowy, 12,000-foot peak.

The mountain is named after Robert Morrison, a Wells Fargo agent from Benton near the Nevada border. Morrison was a member of a posse trying to round up 29 convicts that had escaped from Nevada's state penitentiary in Carson City in 1871.

The posse caught up to six of the escapees hiding along the banks of what is now Convict Creek. There was a gun battle, Morrison was wounded in the side by a man named Moses Black, who then calmly walked over and finished the job by shooting Morrison in the head.

The convicts escaped this battle, but the law caught up with them again the next day at nearby Pine Creek west of Bishop. Three of them were caught and two of those, including Black, were eventually lynched by vigilantes.

These are only two of 101 moments in Eastern Sierra history researched and published recently by Bishop's Dave Babb in a book of the same name.

It won't help you catch more fish this weekend, but it might give you a better appreciation of the beautiful country in which you're casting your cares away.

Babb, a retired range and wildlife specialist for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, has spent years studying the history of the Eastern Sierra. His book--available for $8 at Bishop book stores or through the printer at (760) 873-3049--is an outgrowth of his popular one-minute "A Moment in Owens Valley History" radio spots.

Moment No. 1 sheds some light on whom the first European visitor to the region was. Many historians credit trail blazer Capt. Joseph R. Walker as the first in 1833, but there is evidence, Babb says, suggesting that Jedediah Smith made his way through in the 1820s.

Part of that evidence, Babb says, was the inscription, "J. Smith 1826," on a rock near Little Lake, "but the rock was unfortunately destroyed by blasting during the construction of the railroad line."

Moment No. 101 touches on the demise of Owens Lake because of water diversions, drought and, ultimately, the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which turned the lake into a dust bowl.

In between are all sorts of interesting and entertaining morsels. A sampling:

* There was a violent earthquake on the morning of March 26, 1872. Babb calls it the third largest earthquake in the history of the West and says it would have registered about 8.3 on today's Richter scale.

Its epicenter was Lone Pine, where two dozen people were killed when their adobe homes collapsed, causing adobe to be "removed from the list of favorable building materials."

"At Georges Creek," Babb writes, "water burst through the dirt floor of a cabin in such volumes as to give the inhabitants only a few seconds to escape.

"At Fish Springs, a crack swallowed an ox leaving only its tail above ground, while next to it another lay dead with no visible mark of injury, and another stood a short distance away alive and no worse for wear."

* There was Father John J. Crowley, an Irishman who arrived in the Owens Valley in 1918. He was tireless, holding Mass in Death Valley one day, Bishop and Mammoth the next. Also a devout promoter of the region's attractions, he once held Mass atop Mt. Whitney and even held a special 3 a.m. Mass for Catholic fishermen.

Crowley was killed in a car accident on March 17, 1940, near Inyokern. Long Valley Reservoir was eventually renamed Crowley Lake in his honor.

* And, yes, there are those trout you'll be trying to catch this weekend. You might get skunked, but your chances are much better than they would have been in the early settlement days.

The streams of the Mono Basin were completely devoid of fish, and the only native fishes in the Owens River drainage were the Owens pupfish, Owens tui chub, speckled dace and Owens River sucker.

The first trout in the Owens drainage were cutthroats that found their way into Mill Creek after a water-diversion project in 1867 from Virginia Creek in the Virginia Creek drainage. Some of these were later planted in Rush and Lee Vining creeks to the south.

The first trout in Owens Valley waters were 24 rainbows transplanted from the Kings River to a private reservoir at Fish Springs in 1872.

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