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Baked, Rattled -- and Now in a Tourist Role

Lone Pine's 'Old Adobe Wall' -- actually, just a chunk of it -- survived the earthquake that leveled the town in 1872. Fenced off in an alley, it's become quite the draw.

October 11, 2005|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

LONE PINE, Calif. — Calamity offers this guarantee: After the earthquake, after the fire, some things will be left standing and some will earn eternity.

Such is the history of a chunk of wall that sits behind the local floral and gift shop in this town of 1,655 in the eastern Sierra foothills.

The "Old Adobe Wall" survived the earthquake that leveled the town in 1872, and since then has won fame as Lone Pine's only example of pre-earthquake adobe architecture.

To the untrained eye, it is more baffling than awe-inspiring, a buff-colored hulk locked behind a chain-link fence. But generations of townsfolk have ensured its preservation, passing down the responsibility as if it were a family heirloom.

The wall is an example of grass-roots preservation, of local people deciding what matters, what to save, what to let fade away.

"I don't think I would dare tear down a historical site," said the aptly named Beverly Vander Wall, a Lone Pine resident who owns the La Florista shop and the Old Adobe Wall behind it. "It's in my way in some ways, but it's also a draw to my business. It's kind of neat to have something so old."

The wall is not near the top of the list of Lone Pine attractions. Backpackers come through here to tackle Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. Filmmakers come for the beauty of the Alabama Hills, a perfect backdrop for scores of classic movies. Humphrey Bogart's "High Sierra" was filmed here, as were "How the West Was Won" and episodes of the TV series "Star Trek."

Last week the town was packed with people attending the 16th annual Lone Pine Film Festival. But the wall too has its visitors and its place -- albeit in an alley, just south of Jake's Saloon.

The Old Adobe Wall is actually a piece of a wall. It is 148 inches long and 80 inches high, made of adobe brick and rubble held together with mortar. The bottom layer consists of 3 feet of heavy stone.

The real-life drama that earned the wall its spot in history took place at 2:30 a.m. on March 26, 1872.

"Since the quake happened ... in the morning, many people were killed when the adobe walls fell on them and trapped them in their homes," said Beth Porter, a museum specialist with the Eastern California Museum in nearby Independence. "Inyo County was a young county.... [The quake] rattled it right down to the ground."

Charles and Madeleine Meysan's general store, which included living quarters for their 10 children, was among the many buildings that collapsed. Their daughter Alice was killed, according to the town history on the Chamber of Commerce website. About 300 people lived in Lone Pine at the time, and 27 died in the quake. They were buried in a mass grave.

The Meysans rebuilt on the site but never tore down the section of wall left standing after the disaster. No other adobe structures would be built again in Lone Pine, Porter said.

"You could say adobe was virtually outlawed as building material," Porter said. "It basically was deemed unsuitable building material. I think that stands in the ordinance today. I don't think you can use adobe."

The quake introduced the era of wood-frame buildings. It also changed the landscape, creating Diaz Lake, just south of Lone Pine, and causing the western side of Owens Lake, now dry, to drop 15 feet, Porter said. And it made Lone Pine a destination for seismologists. Modern estimates put the 1872 quake's magnitude as high as 8.0.

"It's a real hot topic," Porter said. "They come to study the quake activity. It was such a huge event. There have not been many modern earthquakes at that magnitude."

The Meysan family held on to the new building and the wall remnant for decades before finally selling the property to a private buyer.

By the 1930s the city of Los Angeles owned the site. In the 1960s, according to Department of Water and Power records, efforts were made to repair the wall, said Chris Plakos, a Bishop-based DWP spokesman.

In the early 1970s, according to the town history, someone called the Meysans' granddaughter, Elodie Drew, and discussed bulldozing the wall. Drew was horrified, and DWP workers built the enclosure that now protects the wall.

"I guess I sounded pretty mad, because they went and put up a fence around the wall," Drew, now deceased, once told an interviewer.

Vander Wall said she purchased the property at auction in 1978. She too decided the wall would remain.

On June 17, 2000, the wall was officially dedicated by the local chapter of E Clampus Vitus, a California fraternal order with a tongue-in-cheek name (it's not real Latin) and roots that extend to the Gold Rush era. On the sidewalk near the entrance to La Florista, an impressive plaque explains the wall's past.

Since 2002, the state Office of Historic Preservation has listed the property as a "state point of historical interest," the lowest designation on the scale of recognition, well below "historic monument" status. That happens often when local residents nominate a site, a spokesman said.

La Florista operates in the same structure the Meysans built after the earthquake; two rooms have been added. Vander Wall, who bids farewell to her customers with "come more often and bring more money" and "happy trails," is happy to have people visit her shop and the wall.

She proudly pointed out where a stovepipe once passed through the wall and how the heat turned the clay a beautiful chocolate brown.

When visitors look closely, Vander Wall said, they can see the "sticks, little stones, other kinds of rocks, junk stuff" that pioneers used to build the town.

The visitors leave impressed, she said.

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