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David A. Wright

Swansea to Cerro Gordo 4x4 Trail: Swansea, Burgess, Saline Valley Salt Tramway, Cerro Gordo

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Swansea Grade 4x4 Trail, Inyo Range, Inyo County, California
October 8-9, 2003



The so-called Swansea Grade 4x4 Trail [also often referred to as the Swansea to Cerro Gordo 4x4 Trail] is an off road trail on public lands that allows the explorer to examine closely the rugged and historic southern Inyo Range, in eastern California. The route, which is an approved BLM 4x4 trail, is steeped in beauty and history all throughout its path. The route starts at Swansea, a California historical landmark site, and ends at Cerro Gordo, a semi-ghost town with a long and often wild history. Midway along the route, the summit station of the historic Saline Valley salt tramway, running between Saline Valley and Owens Valley, makes a great place to rest and enjoy lunch.  The route generally poses no problems for experienced off roaders with trail ready 4x4s.  However, due to elevations up to 9,200 feet, snow is a factor during late autumn through mid-spring.  Summertime flashfloods often take a toll on the lowest portion of the route and the alluvium fan that runs down to the state highway.

The route has its origin in the construction of the Saline Valley salt works tramway.  Mules hauled supplies, machinery and building materials to tower sites utilizing this road on the western slopes of the Inyo Range and to reach the summit station.

I’ve taken this trail many times over the years.  Generally, I could make the trip easily in one day.  However, on October 8th and 9th, 2003, railroad historian John McCulloch ( http://www.ttrr.org/ ), and Graham C. and I took two days to complete this trip, camping at the historic salt tramway summit station.  John also brought along his standard poodle, named Shadow.

At the time, I lived in Big Pine, California, in the northern Owens Valley near Bishop.  The entire trip we took totaled only 185 miles round trip from my home and return.  Graham lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, John was from Las Vegas.  It was the first time that either had been over the trail.

My truck was a 2002 Toyota Tacoma extended cab TRD 4x4 pickup, which I had bought new in June, 2002 (I still own and drive daily this truck).  The truck is well equipped, has a V6 engine and 5-speed manual transmission.  It was equipped with the TRD OFF ROAD package, which added more suspension travel, larger wheels and tires, extensive skid plate coverage and included a switchable locker on the rear differential.  At the time, the truck was still shod with its OEM B.F. Rugged Trail T/A tires, which are passenger car rated with single ply sidewalls.  The tires suffered some stone sidewall damage on this trip, but never lost air.  Shortly after this trip, I spooned on a set of B.F. Goodrich All Terrain T/A tires with light truck rating, 10-ply sidewalls and 3-ply sidewalls.

John McCulloch also owned a 2002 Toyota Tacoma TRD OFF ROAD 4x4, his being a double cab model, equipped with an automatic transmission.

Graham at the time owned a 1990 Chevrolet ¾ ton pickup with a low profile, collapsible camper.  It being a large truck, he elected to leave his truck behind at my home and rode with me on the trip.

This video will be in two parts, one part for each day of the trip.  A photo slide show will be included at the end of each video.

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Swansea Grade 4x4 Trail, Inyo Range, Inyo County, California
October 8th, 2003
Swansea to Camp @ Saline Salt Tramway Summit Station.

This video is 33:51 long.


Early on a chilly Wednesday autumn morning, Graham C. and I readied ourselves for our reconnoiter in the southern Inyo Range.  Graham had driven over previous to this trip and had set up his truck and camper behind my back fence, where he often camped when visiting my wife and I.  My property backed up against public land on the far western side of Big Pine, California, at the foot of the majestic Sierra Nevada Range.  At 7:26 AM, Graham and I drove a half mile to the center of the small town to meet John McCulloch, who was staying at one of the three motels.

Normally, the air in the Eastern Sierra region is clear and visibility far reaching.  However, it was not to be so on this trip.  A lightning sparked wildfire in the Sierra Nevada south of Mount Whitney had been burning in rugged and remote territory for nearly three months, and was being allowed to burn itself out on its own, as winter snows would soon be coming to the region.  So, smoke from the fire would prove to muck up the normally grand views as we traveled and camped upon the spine of the Inyo Range, east of the Sierra Nevada.

John followed Graham and I down to Lone Pine, where we would turn east on roads heading to Death Valley National Park, and we would access the start of the Swansea to Cerro Gordo 4x4 Trail.  First, we took the opportunity to top off our gas tanks.

This video begins where we turned off of the highway to begin our ascent of the Inyo Range at the historic site of Swansea, a ghost town that once sat on the shore of Owens Lake, now dry.  That point is about eleven miles southeast of Lone Pine.  There is an occupied house at the start of the trail, where at the time lived the now deceased owner of Cerro Gordo townsite, Mike Patterson, who occupied this home during winter months when Cerro Gordo is often deep in snow, and occasionally at other times of the year.

Swansea as a location got its start in the early days of Owens Valley history as the terminus of the original alignment of the Yellow Grade road down the steep western face of the Inyo Range from Cerro Gordo.

In 1869, the Owens Lake Silver-Lead Company, owned by Col. Sherman Stevens, built a smelter at the location and on the shore of Owens Lake. The company was a direct competitor to the dominant overlords of Cerro Gordo, Victor Beaudry and Mortimer Belshaw, who felt that the entire Cerro Gordo Peak belonged to them. The smelter, using two blast furnaces, was built at a cost of $25,000. Ores from the Santa Maria Mine, owned by the company and one of Cerro Gordo's largest, was smelted exclusively here. In 1870, the company was taken over by James Brady and the town of Swansea laid out around the mill. The company also began to gain interest in other important Cerro Gordo mines, which also escalated the feud between the company and Cerro Gordo's bullion kings.

Swansea and the Owens Lake Silver-Lead Company was always a thorn in the side of Belshaw and Beaudry and they took several drastic actions to remove it. First, the condition of the Yellow Grade road was allowed to deteriorate to the point of impassibility. The owner of the OLS-L Co. eventually appealed to the county to take action, which helped somewhat. Nature then stepped in with an apparent sympathy for Beaudy and Belshaw, when the tremendous earthquake of March 26, 1872 hit southern Owens Valley, which was felt over much of the American West. No one was killed at Swansea, though the town was leveled. The smelter, which was running at the time, burned to the ground when the earthquake knocked over the furnaces. A tidal wave was created when the Owens Lake floor shifted, and it slowly swept back over part of Swansea's ruins. The smelter was rebuilt, but it was the beginning of the end for Swansea.

A wharf was built at Swansea when the steamship the Bessie Brady began freighting wood, supplies and silver-lead bullion between Swansea and Cartago.

However, in 1873, Belshaw and Beaudry decided to realign the Yellow Grade to a point that later became Keeler, and moved their landing there. Swansea was now isolated by both land and water based transportation. This and lawsuits sprung on the OLS-L Co. by them caused such a money drain that by March of 1873 the company was forced to shut down the smelter. Swansea became largely abandoned. Nature again seemed to come to the side of the bullion kings in the form of a powerful cloudburst, which completely wiped out the town and smelter in July of 1873.  Nature buried Swansea again in September, 1997, which is why there appears to be so little left.

During the summer months previous to our trip, I had witnessed several large flashfloods that hit this region, as I traveled this way weekly on my commute to and from my job at the borax refineries down in Trona; staying at a duplex I rented for my four-day work week.  Mike Patterson’s home was heavily impacted a couple times that summer, when it was left deep in new alluvium washed down from the Inyo Range.  A few times, on my way home from Trona, I’d turn up to explore the first miles to see if flooding might have impacted the trail negatively, as I kept Roger and Cecile Vargo briefed on the condition of the route.  At that time, they ran annual permitted tours of the trail.  After heavy rains and flashfloods, I’d see that within days fresh tracks would probe the new layer of alluvium that poured out of the Inyo Range.  Since no recent storms had visited the area, the trail was pretty well reestablished upon the arrival by John, Graham and I.

At just shy of 2.1 miles from the highway, the route makes the first crossing of the historic Saline Valley salt tramway, whose Owens Valley terminus is located less than 5000 feet north of Swansea; the terminus facilities once being located on a spur and set of sidings on the narrow gauge Southern Pacific Railroad that ran through Owens Valley enroute to Keeler until 1960. At the tramway crossing, as well as at two other crossings of the tramway along this route, the impressive wooden towers in various stages of decay and collapse make for some interesting viewing and photography.  Our goal was to camp at the point where the tramway breaks over the knife sharp summit of the Inyo Range and then plunge down into the Saline Valley.

To make for more interesting video watching, along the rougher sections of the route, I would drop Graham off at strategic points with my videocamera to capture John and I as we crawled along.  This necessitated my having to return back to the starting point so he could capture me on videotape.  At some places he would videotape the section from the passenger seat.

By the time we hit the piñon pine belt, Graham noticed something in the brush off to the east of the truck.  Upon investigation, we found that it was the hanger portion of one of the tramway buckets, with its cable grips in place.  There was another hanger nearby, plus tow and riding cable.  In the video, John narrates how a bucket rides a tramway cable.

At the top of the Inyo Range, situated on the southern shoulder of 10,668 foot high New York Butte, is situated the ghosted mining camp of Burgess.  Burgess was founded by Burgess T. Robinson in the spring of 1908.  About 40 miners and prospectors combed the region the remainder of the snow free months that year, then came back the next.  But Burgess as a camp quietly declined, though the southern end of the Inyo Range has always had minor activity by individual prospectors throughout the 20th Century.

At Burgess is a small wooden cabin, several stone cabin walls and numerous prospects and tailings piles.  There are superb views east and west – from the eastern face of Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada; east and northeast across Saline Valley and various mountain ranges across Death Valley and into Nevada.  However, the views the day John, Graham and I visited were murky from the smoke from the Summit fire southwest of our point on the west side of the Sierra Nevada crest.

After photos at Burgess, Graham and I drove about a mile just north of there to explore.  John, meanwhile, wanted to head direct to the tramway summit station to photograph undisturbed.  So we temporarily parted ways.

Graham and I pulled up to the tramway summit station at 5:38 PM.  Though smoky, the lighting was good for photography and videography.

The salt operation that necessitated the need for the tramway removed evaporated salts from the lake area in Saline Valley, transported it via the tramway over the Inyos to Owens Lake, where the salt was transferred over to gondola cars on the narrow gauge Southern Pacific Railroad.  The narrow gauge transported it north to Owenyo, where the standard gauge SP line up from Mojave tied in, then it was transferred again to standard gauge gondola cars and taken south. The tramway operated between 1913 and 1933, though salt mining long predated the tramway and continued to operate after the tramway was abandoned.  At the time of its construction, it was the longest operating tramway in the world.

The summit station once contained one of the large electric motors which operated the five separate sections that made up the tramway and allowed an easy arc over the sharp knife-point of the mountain range.  The tramway does not consist of one length of cable making a circuit of the entire length; but rather is made up of five separate sections; at each section, the moving bucket is automatically removed from one cable and placed upon the next.  A tramway this long would be out of commission a very long time if made from one strand of cable making one circuit snapped.  That, and it would be impossible to pull the cable of more than 26 miles tight enough to operate sufficiently without sagging.  Some sections between towers cross over canyons and gulches that measure over a thousand feet deep.

The Saline Valley salt tramway was and still is an engineering marvel. At the time of its construction, tramways had been in use worldwide for several decades. But few – if any – traversed such a drastic landscape. Consider the elevation changes involved along its route – the tramway begins at about 1020' elevation in Saline Valley, rises near vertically to about 8720' at the summit, then drops down the western face of the Inyos to 3635' at its western terminus in Owens Valley. The length of the tramway is just over 13 miles. It required 39 lofty towers and 123 shorter and supplementary towers to carry the cables and buckets; the latter numbering close to 300, each carrying a capacity of 750 pounds of salt.

There is a cabin standing adjacent to the summit section of the tramway, which housed an operator/maintenance/repair man and his family during the operation years. The cabin had deteriorated to the point where the roof had caved in and the porch gave way, but volunteers had in recent years previous to our trip, replaced the roof and porch.

We set up our camp kitchen in the kitchen area of the station master’s quarters, with what would normally be a nice view downward through the pines to the Owens Valley floor, but the murky conditions caused by the nearby wildfires obliterated the view.  Cooking supper, I set up my battery jumper/power pack with a 12v to 115v inverter and plugged in my battery chargers for my digital camera and video camera to charge their respective batteries. 

In the main living area, we set up some chairs, some chips and salsa, and sat around having our respective meals and conversation.  Much of the conversation centered on life of the residents of this cabin, what they might see at night as far as lighting down at Lone Pine and Olancha.  And what life was like down at those points at the bottom of the valley.  However, the conversation switched to the topic of what animals taste when they eat roadkill.  Such droll things as “what does a coyote taste when he eats a dead skunk?” We alternated our conversation between the living area, kitchen and porch to enjoy the full moonrise and the lights of southern Owens Valley of the small town of Olancha and traffic on US395 across the valley.

About 8:30 PM, John and Graham get about to setting up their respective “camps”, which were inside the cabin.  I set about to setting up my camp in the back of my truck.  John set up a tent, Graham set up a drop cloth and his sleeping bag in another room.  Before long, both came out to bring out their ice chests and other perishables due to “critters” roving about in and under the cabin.  Soon, a chill breeze came in and the drafty cabin proved too much for Graham, so he brought in his tent and erected it to sleep in.  I was comfortable in the back of my truck, so set about to reading a little before turning off the lights for the night.

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Swansea Grade 4x4 Trail, Inyo Range, Inyo County, California
October 9th, 2003
Camp @ Saline Salt Tramway Summit Station to Lone Pine, California.

This video is 27:42 long.


I awoke at 6:51 AM, groggy and stiff after laying awake for much of the night.  But that is often the case when I went on camping trips.  My first night out was one of wakefulness in acclimatization of an air mattress and sleeping bag.  It wasn’t a particularly cold night for me.

Graham met me as I opened the tailgate and rolled out of the back of the truck.  John was already out and photographing things in the morning sun.  My first business of the morning was getting water on boil on my Coleman stove.  The second morning business was using the historic one hole-er that sat near the summit station cabin.  It had a bit of a sideways and backwards tilt on this day, but then, so did I.  The view from the missing doorway of the cabin was clearer than the night before.

My outhouse relaxation came to an abrupt end when three sharp sonic booms shattered the silence.  The United States military was having fun with their toys overhead.  Which they do often in this region of eastern California.

After breakfast, we finally rolled the Tacomas southward from the tramway summit station complex at 11:10 AM.

During the first day, our travels centered on historical evidence left from the Saline Valley salt tramway, plus the ghosted mining camp of Burgess.  From the station southward, we would start seeing more historical evidence of the outreach of wild and wooly Cerro Gordo, several miles southerly.  On Pleasant Mountain is found a sparse forest of Bristlecone pine.  Several large stumps with even and flat cutoff prove that even these grand trees fell to the indiscriminate woodcutter’s saw to feed the fires that heated steam to run mill equipment or heated homes and businesses at what was once early Inyo County’s largest city.  Nearby is Mexican Spring, with a cabin that housed a steam powered pump.  This pump did its job to lift water several hundred feet, then water across the face of the mountain a couple miles then dropped another mile into Cerro Gordo.

Soon, we would drop into what is locally known as “Boiler Canyon” (not named on USGS topo maps), due to the fact that there is an old boiler down in the canyon.  Descent into this canyon is very steep, dropping from 9000' to 7460' in a mile and a half.  Much of that roadway is off camber and in loose shale and other rocks, resulting in what I call a “controlled slide” from about the upper two-thirds of its descent to the bottom of the canyon. To explain a controlled slide: During the descent, I keep my truck in 4-Lo, 1st gear. The engine and wheels turn at a pace that would allow my truck to descend at about 2-4 miles per hour against engine compression and off the brakes, but my truck is sliding downwards at about double that speed and sometimes more. It's not dangerous, as the sides of the roadway has plenty of brush and somewhat of a berm to keep you from going off the road; but the descent might be unnerving for one not used to this type of driving.

Crawling out of Boiler Canyon southward isn’t bad and the terrain more gentle.  Soon, as one reaches the lip of the canyon, the grade of the water pipeline from Mexican Spring is met again.  The road then becomes a shelf road for a ways, then turns east to allow for a grand view of Cerro Gordo.

There is enough history in Cerro Gordo to pack many books – indeed there are many to be found; as well as on the Internet – so I won't go into a detailed look at it. There will be further information below on books that will give you a more detailed look at the rich history to be found here. But a basic rundown is:

· Discovered by Mexican prospectors before 1865.

· Large scale mining and prospecting didn't get underway until about 1866.

· Mortimer Belshaw and Victor Beaudry came to town in 1866 and created a wealthy empire by monopolizing commerce and inventing modifications to aid the efficiency of the smelting process.

· Cerro Gordo energized the entire southern end of Owens Valley, creating transportation and freighting systems on and around Owens Lake.

· Cerro Gordo began to slow down by the late 1870s but did not completely die away.

· In the early 1900s, mining began anew and a cable tramway ran down to a large mill at Keeler.

· In 1911 zinc was discovered, which lead to a new era of renewed mining.

· In 1916 electric power came to town. Old buildings were renovated, new ones built.

· Cerro Gordo finally died out by the Depression years, although never completely ghosted.

· In 1969, the late Jody Stewart first drove to town in her Porsche to see her uncle, a caretaker of Cerro Gordo. Her uncle needed money, she decided to take a look at seeing what she could do to help. Jody, a Big Pine native and whose family roots span back to the earliest days of Caucasian citizenship in Owens Valley, had often heard of Cerro Gordo, but never went up to see for herself what all the fuss was about. That meeting lead to Jody's instant and enduring love for the old town, which she eventually moved to permanently and began a personal commitment to the restoration of Cerro Gordo's primary buildings.

Jody died long before her time in December of 2001 and is buried in Cerro Gordo's old cemetery. Her dream was continued by her husband, Mike Patterson.  However, Mike suddenly died in September, 2009.  Tours of Cerro Gordo can still be arranged by Mike’s family.  The town, however, is astride of a public road, maintained regularly by Inyo County.

John left Graham and I at Cerro Gordo shortly before 3:00 PM.  His plan was to drop down into Saline Valley and camp somewhere down there for the night, then return home the following day.  Graham and I explored around Cerro Gordo for Graham’s benefit.  I had explored the old town many times, however, I always find something new with each visit.  I knew Mike and Jody well and often came for a visit. 

After touring Cerro Gordo, there are two options to coming down off the mountain. If one wishes to quickly return to Owens Valley, they can follow the well maintained but steep Yellow Grade down to Keeler. It is about 7.5 miles between the two points, with stunning views and interesting historical tidbits along the entire distance. It's also quite steep; so even though it's well bladed (and can be navigated by standard sedans) you might wish to leave your vehicle in 4x4 low range to keep your speed under control and your brakes from cooking or fading completely. It is 12.7 miles from Keeler to US395 just south of Lone Pine.

If time is no consideration or you wish to head off eastward for more exploring or camping, then drive uphill at Cerro Gordo's main cluster of buildings to crest over the Inyos, then down an unnamed canyon that drains down into San Lucas Canyon. When the road enters San Lucas Canyon, the road turns south will eventually exit the canyon, cross Joshua tree forested Lee Flat and meet up with the road that runs from CA190 to Saline Valley.

Graham and I did just that – left Cerro Gordo the long way around, via San Lucas Canyon.  Returning to Owens Valley, we quickly toured historic Keeler (for Graham’s benefit) then head to Lone Pine for dinner before returning back to my home in Big Pine.


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An addendum to this thread. Graham Cooper, whom I’ve referred to as “Graham C.” in written form, and whose last name I edited out in the videos (he had no online, or published public presence, thus I wished to protect his privacy) has passed away last week, November 22, 2017, after battling cancer for much of the year. He was 73 years old.

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