Recollections of
Little Lake, California

Just off highway US 395 (previously also US 6) south of the Owens Valley is the site of the small community, sometimes called a "village," of Little Lake, California. I say "site" because it is not there anymore. The buildings were abandoned and then demolished, so that now all that remains is a decaying street. Little Lake, however, is still marked on maps and listed on destination road signs. And there is, in fact, the "Little Lake," the Lake itself, that lies across the highway from the village site.

Approaching Little Lake form the north, we see foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains on the right and the Coso Range on the left. Directly ahead on the left is the volcanic cinder cone of Red Hill. The mountains seem to draw together ahead, and they do. It makes for the Little Lake Gap. In the Gap is Little Lake, which is in the old streambed of the Owens River, which in the Pleistocene flowed out of Owens Lake to the north, came over what are now the Fossil Falls near Red Hill, and ultimately made its way to Lake Manly in Death Valley. Little Lake already existed from springs, but the Los Angeles Aqueduct project in 1913 enhanced the Lake by adding embankments to the south. This picture is from July 2010. I do not have photos in Little Lake itself because I was so shocked and demoralized by what I found, or didn't find, that I did not feel like taking pictures. My reaction was the result of a good bit of history.

In the late 1940's and early '50's my parents liked to drive up to June Lake in the Sierra to go fishing. I do not remember when I was old enough to go along and/or remember it, but I do have one vivid childhood memory of the drive, and it is of Little Lake. There wasn't much in the way of air-conditioning for cars in those days, and the drive up to the Owens Valley can be a hot one. On my July 2010 drive, temperatures were over 100o in the area of Little Lake. In such circumstances, people might stop for a break, for something to drink, and to cool off. Little Lake was just the place for that, with the welcoming stone-built Little Lake Hotel.

I remember walking into the building with my father. It was air-conditioned and cool. There was a bar, with a Hamm's Beer sign on the wall, which had an animated waterfall, to illustrate the Hamm's slogan of "From the Land of Sky Blue Waters" (i.e. St. Paul, Minnesota). It all seemed very magical and enchanting. I suppose my father bought something for us to drink, but I don't remember that part.

In the 1960's I remember traveling up to the Owens Valley several times, the last of all in September 1967, right before I went away to college. I didn't pay much attention to Little Lake on those trips. It was just there, as a landmark on the way.

My next drive in the Valley was in 1971, coming back from a wedding in Fresno by way of Yosemite Park and Tioga Pass. I didn't particularly notice Little Lake on that drive either.

It was some years before I returned to the area. Then my wife and I drove up to Bishop for a couple of days in March/April 1993. Passing through Little Lake, I noticed several things. One was that the road, now a four lane divided highway, bypassed the town. This may have been done earlier (I read that it was around 1966 [or 1958?], which means I really wasn't paying attention in 1967 or 1971), but I don't remember it. Placed between the town and the Lake, it looked like the new highway had pushed into the Lake, and of course interposed a barrier between the Lake and the town. This destroyed part of the appeal of the place. The other thing I noticed, after having lived in Hawaii for three years, was that much of the landscape was volcanic. To the east of Little Lake, above the Lake and helping to constitute the Little Lake Gap, was a massive cliff in what was clearly a formation of deep and multiple lava flows. Now I read that this is the "Coso volcanic field" [Geology Underfood in Death Valley and Owens Valley, Robert P. Sharp and Allen F. Glazner, Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana, 1997, p.178]. Red Hill, north of Little Lake, was clearly a volcanic cinder cone. Elsewhere up the Valley were other cinder cones and lava flows. None of the others, however, was quite as red as Red Hill, which looks much redder to the eye than it seems in the photo above.

It was a curious and startling experience, to see something that had always been there, the volcanics, but never previously having recognized them for what they were. There seems to be a lot like that in life.

I don't remember noticing anything about the town. However, either then or on my next drive up the Valley, when my wife and I drove up to Lake Tahoe for our wedding anniversary in 2000, I did spot the old Hotel, and I was unsettled to see the roof broken and the windows empty, as though the building had been abandoned. Now I learn that there had been a fire in 1989, which destroyed the second story of the building. The first story remained inhabited for a while.

My next drive up the Valley was not until September 2009, and I was in for a shock. As I drove by Little Lake, I didn't see anything. And if I had wanted to check it out, I didn't see how to get there. I didn't return back by Little Lake, since my trip was all the way up through Reno and Susanville, California, to Redding, and then back down to LA through San Francisco. So the mystery of the empty space would have to wait.

It waited until July 2010. I was coming back all the way from New Jersey, by way of Chicago, South Dakoa, Salt Lake City, and US 6 through the empty center of Nevada. US 6 ends at Bishop, and I drove back to down to LA from there. I was determined to see what had happened at Little Lake.

Destination signs announced the off-ramp for Little Lake. So I got off. I immediately noticed how bad the road was. And then, when I got to the center of town, there was nothing. No buildings. No ruins. No foundations. No nothing. There was one large stone on the ground where the Hotel might have been. I couldn't believe it. Stunned and appalled. What happened?

Well, now I learn that the post office closed in 1997. The railroad tracks, which ceased operating in 1982, were torn up in 1997/98. And the remaining buildings were demolished some time before 2001. Little Lake, where the Hotel had been built in 1923, ceased to exist. Unlike other Ghost Towns, like Ryolite, where something of buildings or ruins remains to mark the place, Little Lake has nothing but the decaying street to show it was ever there.

Well, it's my own damn fault. Driving by and not stopping, time and time again, is the very reason why the place withered. I had just seen something of the sort in Nevada, where "Coaldale," marked on the map, had turned out to be a collection of abandoned and gutted buildings. It certainly didn't help that the highway bypassed Little Lake the way it did. And I now did notice that, northbound, the way to get in to the town was to turn across the median. US 395 there is not a limited access highway, and a bit further north from Little Lake the southbound traffic needs to turn across the median to get to the Rest Stop on the east side of the road. It looked a bit dangerous, but at least it was well marked. It was not marked at all at Little Lake, where access was only obvious from the southbound side.

My shock at the disappearance of Little Lake goes with a curious counterpoint. After seeing that Hamm's Beer sign in the Little Lake Hotel so many years ago, and after the conspicuous presence of Hamm's in television commercials at least as late as the 1960's, I had long been under the impression that Hamm's had ceased to exist. As it happens, just days before learning the fate of Little Lake, I was at the pizza place run by my cousins in Hermosa, South Dakota. They were selling Hamm's Beer. In fact, I think that is the first time since becoming an adult that I was able to see, buy, and drink a Hamm's. Although no longer the family owned business of St. Paul, Minnesota, and the pawn of multiple beer business mergers, Hamm's still exists, with its own fan club and enthusiastic devotees. This does not redeem the death of Little Lake, but it is nice to know that not all memories of childhood are about things that die and disappear.

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