Many years ago, I drove past Keeler, CA without even knowing it. The town is about 15 miles from Lone Pine, CA on State Route 136, on the way to Death Valley. Since then, I’ve been up US 395 several times, and never managed to stop in Keeler. Finally, in October, 2019, while heading up 395 to catch fall colors, I finally managed to make the detour. As of 2010, the town of Keeler was about 1.3 square miles and claimed 66 residents.
Of course, I wish I had read a bit about the town’s fascinating history beforehand. Like many ghost towns in the west, Keeler was created by mining. Ore was brought from the Cerro Gordo Mines in the mountains to the East and loaded onto docks in the neighboring town of Swansea, about six miles to the north of Keeler. In 1872, according to some reports, the Lone Pine earthquake uprooted the Swansea shoreline, and freight handling moved to Keeler, which at that time was known as Hawley. Other reports say that shipping continued at Swansea after the Lone Pine earthquake, and that Keeler was established as a rival to Swansea. Apparently, Mortimer Belshaw, a mine owner in Cerro Gordo, bought the steamship Bessie Bradie and built a wharf in Keeler in 1873. By doing so, Belshaw could bypass Swansea, load his ore in Keeler, and ship it across Owens Lake to Cartago, a town just north of Olancha where US 395 and state route 190 meet today. The Bessie Bradie could cross Owens Lake in three hours, versus the days it would take wagons to go around the lake to Cartago.
Meanwhile, Julius Keeler arrived in 1879. With the area thriving because of the Cerro Gordo mines, Keeler built an ore mill that opened in 1881 and set up the town site. In 1882, work on the Bessie Bradie was completed, but the ship burned in a fire shortly thereafter. While this ended shipping plans, Keeler was thriving, and the Carson and Colorado Railroad established a line in 1883.
The town thrived until silver prices started to fall toward the end of the century. Although the town struggled, the early 1900s brought another wave of mining growth, and a tram was built to bring ore from Cerro Gordo to Keeler. Although I haven’t made the trek to Cerro Gordo, you can still see vestiges of the tram.
Keeler’s fortunes began to fade in the 1920s. Beginning in 1913, water from the Owen’s Valley was re-routed to the Los Angeles Aqueduct, causing Owens Lake to disappear by 1926. Not long after, mining activities ceased. After many years of struggle, train service stopped in 1960 and the tracks were removed in 1961. Meanwhile, the dry lake led to another problem – severe dust storms created by the fierce winds in the Owens Valley. For residents, it was hard to see and even to breathe when the dust storms came. With commerce fading and deteriorating living conditions, there was little reason for residents to stay.
When I visited in late 2019, I was pleased to see many old buildings still standing, even though many buidlings were quite worn down. The most famous landmark is this surfboard sign, and sadly, the words have already faded. It used to say, “Keeler Beach… Camps for Rent”. Believe it or not, the flat land further behind the sign used to be Owens Lake. The sign also used to have the sarcastic words, “This beautiful setting provided by L.A. Water Dept.” written into the front of the board. On the wooden board below the surfboard were the words “Have Fun! Please wear your haz mat suits at all times!”
Apparently, there used to be two campers. One has disappeared and you can see the collapsed remains of the other.
Next to the sign for Keeler Beach is the former Olympic-sized swimming pool.
This is the old train depot.
And here’s the Keeler Market.
The town still has a mill, it seems too modern to be the original mill.
The old church still stands.
Other old, unidentified buildings remain.
One thing that’s fun about these towns is that the residents often decorate their houses, lawns and yards with various oddities. Here are some pics of various residences.