SW Deserts #01 – Lone Pine, Alabama Hills, Manzanar
Desert Southwest #01 – Lone Pine, Alabama Hills, Manzanar
This is part 1 of a 3,304 mile driving trip we took in early March 2020 to the desert SW of the USA. On this trip we visited Lone Pine , Alabama Hills and Manzanar (all on the eastern side of the Sierra Mountains in California), Joshua Tree National Park in California, Tombstone Arizona, Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, White Sands National Park also in New Mexico and a quick run through Painted Desert–Petrified Forest national park in Arizona.
This installment is for the Lone Pine/Alabama Hills/Manzanar portion of the trip.
Entire Trip map
Racing a Pandemic
We left Palo Alto on this 10 day trip on March 1st, 2020. For those of you who are paying attention and can remember back to March there was something else getting some attention worldwide.
So let me recap the months leading up to our departure. Starting on December 31st and into January there was talk of a new virus in Wuhan China. During January:
On the last day of February the first Coronavirus death in the U.S. was recorded in Washington State. We left on our trip on the next day on March 1st. You’ll notice that other than restricting some international air passengers coming into the US not much was going on here. There was no one suggesting shelter in place, no suggestions that masks should be worn and “social distancing” was what the family did in relation to uncle Fred after last year’s Christmas party. So, even though caution was prudent and we weren’t planning to go to any real cities or take any airplane flights there was no reason not to go on the trip as planned.
Route for this episode
Getting to Lone Pine
After leaving Palo Alto on March 1st, we headed down through the central valley and following our typical route turned left in Bakersfield and climbed up over the Tehachapi’s on CA-58 and then swung North on US-395 up into the Owens valley on the Eastern side of the Sierra’s to Lone Pine.
Most of this days travel was bright and sunny with temps in the mid/upper 70’s along with a modest breeze coming from the north. However, after we turned north on US-395 we spotted some heavy clouds coming up over the Sierra’s and sweeping down the Owens Valley toward us. As we went the clouds got darker and darker and the head winds became stronger and stronger as the outside air temp gauge on the dashboard dropped to the mid 30’s. The mid 30’s? In March in southern California?
And now some light rain was coming down as the clouds closed in completely swallowing the mighty Sierra Mountains. Then a fog bank swept over us limiting visibility and reducing our speed from 70 mph down to under 30 mph as we were now following an 18 wheeler on a two lane road and with the fog no chance (or desire for that matter) to pass. The temp was still dropping and was now hovering at around 33 with that obnoxious little snowflake icon next to it. We had chains with us but I really didn’t relish putting on chains with only 20 or so miles to go so I was quite content to follow along at 30mph in the mud spray of the truck.
We found our motel without much trouble, found a place for dinner and called it a day.
During this days travel:
But, our drive and restaurant lunch in Bakersfield and dinner in Lone Pine was nothing out of the ordinary.
Lone Pine, Alabama Hills, Manzanar route
Lone Pine is a modest little town with a population of just over 2,000 (2010 census). The town is named after a solitary pine tree that once existed at the mouth of what is now called Lone Pine Canyon.
Prior to those pesky “white” people arriving the area was the territory of the Paiute people. The first white invasion occurred when a family built a cabin here in 1861. Over the next couple of years others arrived and a small settlement developed. Lone Pine got its own post office in 1870.
Things in Lone Pine were pretty quiet until March of 1872 when a massive earthquake hit the settlement and killed 26 people, destroyed most of the town and formed Diaz Lake. At the time, the town had 80 buildings made of mud and adobe of which 60 were destroyed and the remaining 20 were heavily damaged. But the town pressed on.
During the remainder of the 1870s, Lone Pine became an important supply town for the many silver mines in the area including one of the largest in the country at the time. In support of mining and smelting, in 1883 the Carson and Colorado Railway line was constructed from Belleville, Nevada, across the White Mountains to Benton, and then down into the Owens Valley, through Lone Pine and ended in Keeler (17 miles SE of Lone Pine). The arrival of the C&C rail line, with its engine "The Slim Princess" along, with a stagecoach station in Keeler gave a major economic boost for the area.
But Lone Pine’s main claim to fame came through the movie making industry. In 1920, a movie production company came to the Alabama Hills just outside of Lone Pine to make the silent film The Round-Up. Other companies soon discovered the scenic location, and in the coming decades, over 400 films, 100 television episodes, and countless commercials have used Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills as a film location. Notable films shot here in the 1920s and 1930s include:
In the coming decades, Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills continued to be used as the setting for mostly Western films, including:
Through the years, non-Western films also used the unique landscape of the area, including
Now I don’t know about you, but even though I wasn’t around in the 1920’s, 1930’s or 1940’s I am old enough to remember several of these older movies and stars from re-runs on TV in the 1950’s and early 1960’s as well as most produced in the 1950’s and beyond. Any of you remember the “Million Dollar Movie” TV show which played a full length feature movie on TV every weekday afternoon in the mid 1950’s? When I was sick at home these movies became a highlight of an otherwise terminally boring day lying in bed with a sore throat, rash or fever.
But the most important movie filmed in and around Lone Pine is said to be director Raoul Walsh's High Sierra (1941), starring Humphrey Bogart as Roy Earle in the role that moved Bogart from respected supporting player to leading man. Cast and crew lodged in Lone Pine, and Walsh shot various scenes in and around Lone Pine. For the film's mountain chase scenes, Walsh took everyone to nearby Mt. Whitney, where pack mules lugged camera equipment up the mountainside. On a slope on the side of Mt. Whitney, a group of twenty men from the studio worked four days to clear a path so that mountain-trained mules, packing cameras and other equipment, could get up to the shooting area. For one scene Bogart had to run three miles up a mountainside over the course of two shooting days. For another scene Walsh ordered all the big boulders removed from the path of Bogart's final fall, but the little ones remained which did not make Bogart happy, and he complained about that plenty. Bogie especially did not want to trek up that mountain over and over for take after take.
Today, there is an interesting Museum of Film History in the town of Lone Pine. This museum contains countless artifacts from the shooting of those old films including cameras, props, costumes and much more. It is definitely worth a stop if you are in the area and are a bit nostalgic for the golden era of film making.
The next day, March 2nd, broke crystal clear with a bright warm sun rising over the Inyo mountains to our east. Across the road from our motel were the Alabama Hills sitting in front of the Sierra Mountains which had received a blanket of snow overnight down to almost our level. What a difference a day makes.
Sierra’s and Alabama Hills from in front of our Motel in Lone Pine
We checked out and headed into the Alabama Hills just outside of town. Even though the film crews used Lone Pine as their base camp, the shooting was mostly done in the Alabama Hills. In fact if you remember pretty much any western coming out of Hollywood you can bet that it was shot either in the Alabama Hills or in Monument Valley Utah with Alabama Hills being a far more popular shooting location. Its popularity stemmed from several factors. It is less than a day’s drive from Hollywood, has very predictable and usually clear weather through most of the year, has an actual town with hotels and restaurants to support the film crew and cast, and it has easy access to a very “western” landscape with the towering Sierra mountains in the background, often times with a mantle of snow. It is really ideal for shooting westerns.
The Alabama Hills is BLM land (not ‘that’ BLM, this one is Bureau of Land Management) and it consists of a low range of hills and rock formations. Though geographically separate from the Sierra Nevada, they are part of the same geological formation.
The rock formations are mostly rounded contours which contrast nicely with the sharp ridges of the Sierra’s to the west including Mount Whitney which is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. The topography itself was quite conducive to movie making as it includes plenty of boulders to hide behind during shoot outs, flat plains for chase scenes, plenty of tallish rock formations forming narrow canyons for stunt men to jump down onto unsuspecting riders passing by or to ambush a stage coach. Many of these familiar western movie areas have flat smooth roadways next to them from which they can use truck mounted cameras to race along with the action.
But putting all the movie stuff aside, although the Alabama Hills is not an overly large area it does have interesting rock formations, including many natural arches all back dropped by the mighty Sierra Mountains.
Typical rock formation with the Sierra’s in the background
Many small arches can be found in the Alabama Hills
Can’t you just see a gang of bad guys galloping through this ravine chased by a posse of good guys?
More typical rock formations
Cute double arch on the ridge
Mobius Arch with Snow Capped Sierras in background
We exited the Alabama hills at its North end, closer to the town of Independence so that we could take a look at the Manzanar Internment Camp.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, President Roosevelt signed an executive order that required people of Japanese ancestry living along the Pacific coast to be placed into one of ten “relocation” camps. One of these camps was Manzanar, 7 miles north of Lone Pine.
More than 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated at Manzanar during World War II from March 1942 to November 1945. These camps were not filled with criminals nor were they were used for prisoners of war or for illegal immigrants or for terrorists or spies. They were used to warehouse law abiding American Citizens who happened to have ancestors who came from Japan. Along with what we did to the Native American cultures, and recently with the immigration camps, these camps are a major black mark on American History.
During WWII we were fighting the Japanese, Germans and Italians as the major enemy powers. But, for whatever reason we only imprisoned descendants of Japan – not Germans and not Italians. And, we didn’t even include those Japanese in Hawaii where the Pearl Harbor attack actually took place and is one of the closest US owned land areas to Japan. But, putting all of that aside, we as a country created these camps, rounded up those citizens and forced them to leave their homes and businesses – most of which were sold for pennies on the dollar as the buyers knew the sellers had no choice and we have to live with that as part of our history. So, keeping places like Manzanar around to tell that story in the hopes that it will not be repeated is a good thing.
But, the Japanese weren’t the first folks here. Long before the internment camp the area was home to Native Americans who lived mostly in villages near several creeks in the area. Ranchers and miners formally established the town of Manzanar in 1910. Manzanar translates to “apple orchard” in Spanish. We don’t know why such a name was given to this place as there were never apples grown anywhere near it. But, it sounds much more attractive than “desolate empty desert” so I guess that is something. But the settlement was abandoned by 1929 after the City of Los Angeles purchased the water rights to virtually the entire Owens Valley.
The Internment camp was created in March 1942 and the last residents of the camp left in November 1945. After the war, the government removed most of the structures and buried the gardens and basements. As time passed, Manzanar was further buried, both in sand and in memory as the desert reclaimed the land. One would look over the landscape and presume nothing was, or had been, there. But, if you took a closer look you might see the stub of a pipe sticking up out of the ground that had been a water faucet where children splashed water on their faces in the heat of the summer. An exposed foundation slab shows a Childs footprint where they walked on the wet cement.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s former detainees became concerned that the memory of the camp and events related to it were fading away so worked to protect Manzanar and to establish it as a National Historic Site. After much work, Manzanar National Historic Site was established by Congress on March 3, 1992, to “provide for protection and interpretation of historical, cultural, and natural resources associated with the relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II.” While Manzanar is best known for its wartime history, this story can’t be told without including layers of larger themes of American history, including displacement of native peoples, the settlement by ranchers and farmers, water wars, and the consequences of prejudice which all meld together as part of the history of the site. This all gives context to the stories of those who were incarcerated there, and as a national historic site it is now recorded and preserved for current and future generations. But the primary focus of the site is the Japanese American incarceration era.
The camp site is situated on 6,200 acres leased from the City of Los Angeles, with the developed portion covering approximately 540 acres. The residential area was about one square mile, and consisted of 36 “blocks” of hastily constructed, 20-foot by 100-foot tarpaper barracks. These barracks provided zero insulation from the over 100 degree summer days nor the freezing cold winter nights.
Recreated barracks building
Each barracks building was split into 20-foot by 25-foot "apartments" for a family. The construction did very little to keep the wind and sand from coming through the wide gaps in the walls – and the wind blows almost constantly and fiercely. Each block had 14 barrack buildings, a recreation hall, mess hall, small ironing building, small laundry building, women’s and men’s bathhouse buildings each of which had a shower area, sink area, and toilet area. It should be noted that the toilets were just lined up in an open room with no partitions or doors. Not having partitions or stalls in the shower and toilet area was one of the hardest things for the Japanese to deal with.
Typical barracks “apartment”
The mess hall in each block was large enough to serve 300 people at a time. Each was assigned a cook from the block who then could recruit other staff members to help out. Of course, some “cooks” were better than others as some had actually been a cook in a restaurant. But, some blocks didn’t happen to have a real cook in their midst so someone with absolutely no experience was just appointed. It soon became well known which blocks had the good food and which didn’t and residents would accidentally find themselves in a mess hall line in a block other than their own. Well, after all, one line looks like another and these camps had plenty of them. You had to wait in line to eat, to go to the bathroom, to take a shower and to do the laundry. About the only thing you didn’t have to wait in line to do was to get into another line.
Mess Hall with seating for 300. Kitchen is seen in the back, beyond the tables
In addition to the residential blocks, the camp had a high-school auditorium, staff housing, chicken and hog farms, churches, a cemetery, a post office, and other necessary amenities that one would expect to find in most small American towns. What one didn’t usually find in most American towns were the eight watchtowers manned by armed Military Police, and a five-strand barbed wire fence around the whole thing.
There’s no place like home in an “Apple Orchard” with armed guards in watchtowers
Although this was a prison in most senses of the word, there were many differences. There were no locked cells (well no locked anything for that matter except the outer gates). The residents had access to mail – both in and out – were permitted to “own” things, could decorate and appoint their living area as they desired, could purchase items through mail order and were free to wander the site at will. As part of this “deal”, each camp was intended to be self-sufficient. So, cooperatives and small businesses sprang up to provide some semblance of normal life. Most blocks had some sort of Co-Op store, a beauty and barber shop, shoemaker, lending library and more – including a camp newspaper (censored of course). Most of these were run out of personal living spaces.
Recreation of men’s latrine/shower house (left) and mess hall (rear)
As one would imagine with so many people living in close quarters illnesses such as measles, chickenpox, whooping cough, and diarrhea swept through large portions of the population. Eventually a hospital was built but before that people were just treated in their barracks which had no heat, no running water and no bathroom facilities. Once the Manzanar Hospital was built though, it included a kitchen, operating rooms, treatment wards, laboratories, and other facilities. All medical treatment in Manzanar was provided at no charge.
Among the enterprises run by the inmates, was the Manzanar Children's Village, an orphanage housing 101 Japanese American orphans. As we know, Japanese families and individuals were rounded up and shipped to these camps, but as it turns out that wasn’t all. In order to deter terrorist attacks and spies passing military secrets to Japan, we also grabbed children out of orphanages. These orphanages were in the Los Angeles area as well as locations in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska and the Japanese children were shipped - under armed guard – to Manzanar. This included infants who just happen to look Japanese. You really have to be careful of those infant terrorists and spies. But the Manzanar orphanage was such a success that other camps sent newborns from unwed mothers to Manzanar from those other camps.
One hundred and forty-six Japanese Americans died at Manzanar. Fifteen were buried there, but only five graves remain as most were reburied elsewhere by their families. The Manzanar cemetery site is marked by a monument that was built by stonemason Ryozo Kado in 1943. There are 3 inscriptions on the monument, written in Japanese. They read, "Soul Consoling Tower", "Erected by the Manzanar Japanese" and "August 1943".
Manzanar Memorial Tower
Strings of Paper Cranes placed around the monument in memory and for good luck
While many left the camp voluntarily when it closed, a significant number refused to leave because they had no place to go after having lost everything when they were forcibly uprooted and removed from their homes. As such, they had to be forcibly removed once again, this time from Manzanar. The last Manzanar internee left the camp at 11:00 a.m. on November 21, 1945. It was the sixth of the 10 camps to close.
Although the Japanese Americans had been brought to the Owens Valley by the United States Government, they had to leave the camp and travel to their next destination on their own. The WRA gave each person $25 ($355 today), a one-way train or bus fare, and boxed meals to those who had less than $600 ($8,521 today).
After the camp was closed, the site eventually returned to its original state. Within a couple of years, all the structures had been removed, with the exception of two sentry posts at the entrance, the cemetery monument, and the former Manzanar High School auditorium, which was purchased by the County of Inyo. The County leased the auditorium to the Independence Veterans of Foreign Wars, who used it as a meeting facility and community theater until 1951. After that, the building was used as a maintenance facility by the Inyo County Road Department.
The Manzanar Historic site was identified by the United States National Park Service as the best-preserved of the ten former camp sites. For you music fans, here is a link to a song about Manzanar sung by Tom Paxton and Anne Hills which is worth a listen - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KOqvmT4YhsA
Today’s COVID19 Update
While we were visiting the Alabama hills and Manzanar:
I hope you enjoyed reading about the Lone Pine area and will come back for my next installment
PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION TO WHAT I'VE WRITTEN
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Or, this whole series at:
These and other Images of this trip are posted in a Gallery on my website.
https://www.danhartfordphoto.com/american-sw-desert-2020-03 (all images)
Check out my travel blogs for other trips under the “Blogs” menu item at www.DanHartfordPhoto.com .
Thanks for reading – Dan
(All images by Dan Hartford. Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way)
Keywords: alabama hills, blog, california desert, dan hartford photo, dantravelblogdesertsw2020, destert sw, lone pine, manzanar, manzanar relocation center, united states
Thanks Dan. What a trip through the Southwest and the Pandemic. So good to see your excellent images in the competitions. Best, Roberta
I loved all of your post, and it is good to remember the early times of Covid-19. I was returning from Tanzania on Feb. 7, and at the Amsterdam Airport, they were starting to ask questions of people who had been to China. But the pandemic seemed far away at the time. Little did I know that it would be my last trip for a loooong time.
About twelve years ago, Tony and I drove up 395 from Kramer Junction (no relation) to Bishop in late April. It was a little warmer, with lots of wildflowers, and we hiked here and there along the way. We did spend a night in Lone Pine, went to the museum and movie theater, and saw a bad but entertaining-in-its-way western starring Randolph Scott. There was still a little snow on the High Sierra, and I have a photo through the same arch you do (below). I did keep expecting to see a stage coach being pursued by bad guys and the posse behind them. Or the Cisco Kid coming around a corner (although that might have been Joshua Tree).
And thanks for the good descriptions of Manzanar. For a long time, I didn’t understand how people let that happen, but after 9/11, I learned how crazy people can be, and the strange notions have only gotten worse, driven by the president.
Anyway, I always enjoy your well-researched reports.
Wonderful, Dan! The photos and the commentary are superb. I am so glad you squeezed this trip into your lives in March. The last trip Patrick and I took was in February, just a quick turn-around to a 90th birthday celebration in North Carolina. We have put a deposit down on a Road Scholar trip to Switzerland for the fall of 2021. Hope springs eternal.
Dan, Great blog--well researched and written. Laurie Naiman and I did a similar trip together in 2012 staying two days in a Lone Pine Motel that Marilyn Monroe supposedly also stayed in along with a lot of other movie stars. I remember the movies shown in 1947 that you mentioned including those starring my childhood hero Roy Rogers (Leonard Sly), Dale Evans, and Trigger--his trusty horse. I also remember as a child seeing Tom Mix, Gabby Hays, and Gene Autry. In the 1940s you were not a real comboy unless you could sing around the campfire to a pretty girl.
I really liked the photos, Manzanar history which made Laurie and me angry that the Supreme Court later validated this atrocity in a ruling. A couple of years ago John Roberts acknowledged this ruling as bad precedent but didn't suggest it be changed.
I really liked your reporting this segment of your trip.
Wonderful images and descriptions. Rt 395 is my favorite photographic area. Especially with fall colors.. I really enjoyed you data about coronavirus and the wise comments of our great president. I am looking forward to rest of the trip
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