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Prospectors & Pioneers of the Mono Basin
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Prospectors & Pioneers
Euro-American settlers arrive in the Mono Basin

"After descending into the plains and marching a short distance in search of Indians, they discovered, about fifteen miles from the base of the hills, a large lake ... which they named Lake Mono, after the tribe of Indians that inhabit that section. This lake does not appear to have any outlet, and it is of very brackish taste... Sea gulls, geese, and ducks abound in its waters... There is very little good land to attract the settler."
—Description of Lt. Moore's expedition in the Stockton Journal, August 24, 1852



Photo of Mono Lake by Inge WeidmannIn 1852, Unites States Army Lt. Tredwell Moore and members of his detachment became the first European Americans to arrive in the Mono Basin. The army was in pursuit of Chief Teneiya's Yosemite Miwok after a group of Miwok attacked and killed three prospectors on the headwaters of the Merced River. The pursuit led Moore and his party to Mono Pass for their first glimpse of Mono Lake. A few Miwok were captured and executed in the Yosemite high country, but it was thought the others escaped over Mono Pass to join the Kutzadika'a people at Mono Lake, with whom they often traded. Though Chief Teneiya was not captured, Moore did find some promising ore samples in the region. Moore's findings encouraged a few hearty individuals to investigate the mining prospects of the region more thoroughly. Moore named certain geographical features in the Mono Basin that have since been replaced by other names. On an early map based on Moore's sketches, Paoha Island was first named "Grand Island," and Rush Creek was first named "Crosby's Creek" after one of Moore's officers.


The Lundy mines supported 4,000 people at their peak.Shortly after news of Moore's observations (and ore samples) spread throughout the mining community, the first prospectors descended into the Mono Basin. Leroy Vining and a few others began to prospect in his namesake canyon in the fall of 1852. They did not find much ore, if any, but the hills to the north of Mono Lake later proved to be a rich source. Prospectors discovered rich veins of silver about 15 miles northeast of Mono Lake in the fall of 1860 and soon afterward formed the town of Aurora. The town became the county seat of the new Mono County (even though Aurora later turned out to be in Nevada instead of California), and by late 1863 the population exceeded 5,000 people including one man by the name of Samuel Clemens. Aurora's boom was short-lived, however, and by 1865 the mines had closed. Twelve years later in 1877 the entire population of Mono County was less than 1,000 miners and settlers. That same year however, the Standard Company in Bodie extracted significant profits from a rich vein of ore. The profits created a stir, and within the year the rush was on. By the end of 1878, the population of Bodie would reach 5,000.


Though he failed to find gold, Leroy Vining did find a fortune in timber. Not long after arriving in the area he established a mill and made a business of selling lumber to local mining towns. His business continued until his unfortunate, accidental death in the mining town of Aurora. One day after delivering lumber to Aurora, Vining died from a gunshot wound to the groin. How he acquired the fatal wound is not exactly clear. One story relates how Vining was fond of carrying a small Deringer pistol in his front pocket. After making a delivery in Aurora, while drinking his profits in the saloon at the Exchange Hotel, the gun somehow went off in his pocket. The gunshot sent nervous customers out into the street, including Vining himself, who was later found dead a short distance down the road, having bled to death from his wound. The town of Lee Vining was named in his honor after it was realized the name "Lakeview" was already in use by another post office in California.


After lingering for nearly 17 years as a tiny, insignificant mining camp, Bodie finally boomed. Like its once-booming predecessor Aurora, Bodie needed milled wood for construction, square beams for mineshafts, fuel for stamp mills, and cordwood for heating. With little or no wood in the vicinity, the cost of bringing wood to the barren Bodie Hills was high. Wealthy men in the Bodie mining community formed the Bodie Railway and Lumber Company in 1881. Like other railroads in the West, the Bodie Railway and Lumber Co. hired inexpensive Chinese labor, much to the outrage of locally unemployed miners. By 1882 a 32 mile-long railroad was in service between Bodie and Mono Mills, running along the east shore of Mono Lake. The new narrow-gauge railroad was built specifically to bring wood to Bodie. Mono Mills harvested the big Jeffrey pines growing to the north and east of the Mono Craters, and the railroad brought the wood to market. Though the metal rails have long since been sold as scrap, you can still see the old railroad grade not far from the remote eastern shores of Mono Lake.


Not everyone who came to the Mono Basin came to get rich and exploit natural resources. Many immigrants and ex-miners homesteaded around Mono Lake in the hopes of making a living off the land. The DeChambeaus were French Canadian and moved to the Mono Basin in 1880 after living in Bodie for two years (the remains of their ranch are still standing). Anna & Charles Currie came from Photo of tufa in snow by Inge WeidmannMinnesota in 1885. Long before the McPhersons settled Paoha Island and started a goat ranch, a Frenchman by the name of Caesar Thiervierge settled the island and kept chickens, rabbits, and grew some alfalfa. Early Mono Basin ranchers often had plentiful food and stock, and were able and willing to supply food to the local mining towns of Bodie and Lundy. Mining finally gave out in the Mono Basin and the Great Depression of the 1930s made successful ranching and farming in the Mono Basin difficult. With the intention of extending the aqueduct north into the Mono Basin, the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power made tempting offers for land and water rights that few could refuse. Today, the City of Los Angeles is the largest landholder in the Mono Basin after the federal government.


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