Category Archives: History

Where are the Cottonwoods of Cottonwood Canyon?

Cottonwood Canyon
Mono Lake from the mouth of Cottonwood Canyon

According to GeoNames, there are at least 19 places in California named “Cottonwood Canyon”, at least 18 more in Nevada, and perhaps 280 in all, nation-wide. This does not include all the places named “Cottonwood Creek,” “Cottonwood Wash,” “Cottonwood Spring,” etc. One of these Cottonwood Canyons is in the Bodie Hills, just south of Bodie. Many visitors to Bodie come or go via the Cottonwood Canyon Road, which meets State Route 167 just north of Mono Lake. This is one of the oldest and historically most used routes into Bodie.

Presumably all places named Cottonwood Canyon have now, or had at some time in the past, a species of cottonwood (Populus) growing in or near them.  But where, now, are the cottonwoods of this Cottonwood Canyon, here in the Bodie Hills? On a casual drive through, you will see pinyon pines and Utah junipers on the hillsides and occasional willow thickets along the creek. There appear to be 3 different cottonwoods (white, Lombardy, and Fremont) growing at Flying M Ranch, where the creek from Cottonwood Canyon crosses Dobie Meadows Road, but these are probably all planted, and these are below the mouth of Cottonwood Canyon.

Flying M Ranch
Cottonwoods at the Flying M Ranch site on Dobie Meadows Road

There are no cottonwoods in Cottonwood Canyon, that I can find. If they’re all gone, what happened to them? My guess is they succumbed to the axe and saw even before 1890, because wood of any kind was scarce near Bodie and in high demand for building, heating, and shoring up the mines. And again, this was right along a main road into Bodie. Perhaps, also, the water in this canyon wasn’t enough in historic times to support very many cottonwoods.

Cottonwood Canyon
Cottonwood Canyon . . . with no cottonwoods

Which cottonwood might have been here? Maybe black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa)? It’s common in canyons along the eastern Sierra Nevada, including the Sierran streams that enter Mono Lake. It’s on lower Bodie Creek and at Fletcher on the east side of the Bodie Hills. It was  collected on September 7, 1932 by L. E. Hoffman, at “Mono Lake Region – road to Bodie” (see the specimen record). This was more recently mapped at a location along Coyote Springs Road (in Bridgeport Canyon), but I think “road to Bodie” in 1932 could more likely refer to the road in Cottonwood Canyon.

Black Cottonwood
Black cottonwoods (in October) on Lee Vining Creek

Or maybe Fremont cottonwood (Populus fremontii)? This tree is scarce in the Mono Basin, but it’s found in some east-side valleys watered by rivers north and south of here. There are some along the East Walker River north of Bridgeport.

Fremont Cottonwood
Fremont Cottonwood near the East Walker River

The trees in Cottonwood Canyon would not have been aspens (Populus tremuloides), because aspens are never called “cottonwoods” and aspens in the southern Bodie Hills grow at higher elevations. It’s unlikely they would have been the European cottonwoods that were planted by early settlers at settlements in the Mono Basin and Bridgeport Valley—white cottonwood (Populus alba) and Lombardy poplar (Populus nigra ‘Italica’). There are no settlements or ranches in Cottonwood Canyon, other than Flying M Ranch, which is along this drainage but well south of the canyon itself.

I’ll cast my vote for black cottonwood. The elevation and habitat in Cottonwood Canyon are similar to where black cottonwoods grow today elsewhere in the Mono Basin and on lower Bodie Creek. During times when the climate averaged just a little cooler and wetter than now, black cottonwoods may well have grown here. Closer examination in the field might offer a bit of old wood as evidence.

Part of the 1909 USGS Bridgeport, CA-NV 1:125,000 quadrangle

Copyright © Tim Messick 2015. All rights reserved.

Green Creek in 1894

It’s always interesting to compare  a photograph taken a century or more ago with the same view today. Aside from the built features, like roads and buildings, it’s interesting to look at changes in vegetation and ask why that may have changed. Here’s an example from Green Creek, 13 miles west of Bodie:

Green Creek Power House in 1894

Above: The Green Creek Power Plant, source of electric power for the Standard Mill in Bodie, as shown in an 1894 article by Thomas Leggett. This was probably taken in late spring (notice the patches of snow and the leafless deciduous trees along the creek). Notice too, the scarcity of pine trees near the power house. Below: Green Creek from the same location, in March 2015. Water for the turbines came via ditch and penstock from Dynamo Pond, behind the pines near the left edge of both pictures.

Site of the Green Creek Power House in 2015

The power house is gone, but its foundations remain, near the center of that stand of aspens that haven’t leafed out yet. Clearly, far more aspens and conifers (both Jeffrey and lodgepole pines) are present today than in 1894. I presume more were present also before the mining era, when many trees throughout the region were cut down for building materials, mine shaft shorings, and fire wood. Were the pines felled to build the power house? Apparently not. Piatt (2011) says workers “erected a powerhouse with materials from the recently abandoned Bulwer-Standard mill.”

Power Plant foundations
Remains of the Green Creek Power Plant.
Dynamo Pond
Dynamo Pond today.
Dynamo Pond historic marker
Historic marker near Dynamo Pond.

Leggett, Thomas H. 1894. Electric Power Transmission Plants and the Use of Electricity in Mining Operations, pp. 413–455 in Twelfth Report of the State Mineralogist (Second Biennial,) Two Years Ending September 15, 1894. California State Mining Bureau, J. J. Crawford, State Mineralogist. (link to Google Books)
Piatt, Michael H. 2011. Developments in Electricity and Bodie’s Long Distance Transmission Line.

Copyright © Tim Messick 2015. All rights reserved.

How Straight was the Green Creek Power Line?

One of the popular myths about Bodie—because it makes a great story—is that the Green Creek power line, built in 1892 to run equipment in the Standard Mill, was an absolutely straight line. The reason, supposedly, was that its builders were concerned the electricity might jump off the wires and get lost if the line was not straight. Fun story, but it doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. Yet the facts, if scrutinized, are still interesting.

The Map

A map of the power line appears in an article titled “Electric Power Transmission Plants and the Use of Electricity in Mining Operations,” by “Thomas Haight Leggett, of Bodie, Mono County, California.” This article was published on pages 413—455 of the Twelfth Report of the State Mineralogist (Second Biennial,) Two Years Ending September 15, 1894, by the California State Mining Bureau, J. J. Crawford, State Mineralogist. [Google Books link]

The map is not very detailed—it shows the power line, selected pole numbers, section lines, roads, creeks, a few summits, and a telephone line to Bodie.

Green Creek Power Line map

The power line itself appears to have been mapped with some precision with respect to section boundaries. If you overlay the 1894 map on the 1909 US Geological Survey topographic map and register the two along the section boundaries (see below), the alignment and selected topographic features appear consistent with the 1909 topography. But the roads and creeks on the 1894 map are at best rough approximations of where topographic maps show them. The makers of the 1894 map were surveying the power line, not the roads or creeks, and had no aerial photographs for context.

1909 topo map with Green Creek Power Line

Was it straight? That depends on how you look at it. In plan view (map view), it was very nearly straight. This makes good sense, regardless of any concerns about losing power at bends or corners, because the straightest line is the shortest line, which is also probably the least expensive line to build and the quickest line to finish. According to the 1894 map, there were two or three slight bends where the line ran through the shallow canyon of lower Clearwater Creek. There were two more slight bends as it crossed a ridge and steep slopes north of Murphy Spring. Although not shown on the map, or maybe not visible at the scale of this map, I expect there was another bend or two as the line approached Bodie. If not, the line would have run directly through the IOOF Hall and Dechambeau Hotel—not likely, I think.

In profile view, the power line was much less straight. It crossed about a dozen substantial gullies or creeks, with about as many sizable hills and ridges in between. Some had steep slopes exceeding 40 percent. If you trace the approximate alignment from the 1894 map onto Google Earth, you can view its profile (below). The horizontal scale is greatly compressed, which accentuates the slopes and angles, but it’s hardly a straight line.

Green Creek Power Line profile

So were the builders of the Green Creek Power Line really concerned about losing  their electricity at bends in the wire? Electricity began lighting cities in the 1880s, but the distance of those electric transmissions was short. In the early 1890s, longer-distance transmission of power was new, and at first experimental. Leggett quotes a Mr. Chas. F. Scott from a letter, “The transmission of 100 horse-power a distance of 109 miles, from Frankfort to Lauffen, Germany, in 1891, showed conclusively that from an engineering standpoint, at least, the transmission of power over long distances by electricity was perfectly practicable…. Since then, however, plants have been installed both in Europe and in the United States, and are to-day successfully transmitting electricity for lighting and power purposes over distances ranging from 1 to 30 miles.”

When electricity came to Bodie in November 1892, long-distance transmission had been proven, but experience was limited. The project at Bodie had its skeptics and Leggett, who built the Green Creek Power Line, was of course a strong proponent. There was great excitement and relief when the first electricity arrived and set the motors spinning, but I doubt the engineers were too concerned that it wouldn’t work.

The Poles

Lodgepole pines

Lodgepole pines. a.k.a, formerly, “tamarack”

Leggett further describes the Green Creek Power Line as follows:

“The length of the line is 67,760 ft., or 12.46 miles. The poles are of round tamarack timber, 21 ft. long, 6 in. in diameter at the top, set 4 ft. in the ground; poles 25 ft. long being used through the town, and along the line wherever there is danger of deep snowdrifts. They are placed 100 ft. apart, and fitted each with a 4 by 6 in. cross-arm, boxed into the pole, and held by one bolt and one lag-screw.

“The line crosses extremely rough country, not 500 yds. of which is level beyond the town limits. Most of the ground is very rocky, over 500 lbs. of dynamite being used in blasting the pole-holes.”

“Tamarack” has been used over the years to refer to a few different kinds of trees. Among plant people, “tamarack,” or “tamarack larch,” now usually refers to Larix laricina, a deciduous conifer native from the northeastern United States across much of Canada to Alaska. The nearest native stand is over 800 miles from Bodie. In the past, the tree we now commonly call lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) was sometimes called “tamarack pine,” or just “tamarack.” Lodgepole pine has a growth form well suited to electrical poles, and is abundant on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, not far from Bodie.

© Tim Messick 2015. All rights reserved.