Manzanar

Independence

SUSPENDED IN HISTORY

ELEVATION: 3,989 feet

On the Other Side of the Sierra: Roads End, Kings Canyon

WHAT TO DO IN INDEPENDENCE

Some Favorites From Our Expeditions

  • Connector.

    Check out dentures made with melted toothbrushes and coyote teeth and cases for the early Sierra Club summit registers at the Eastern California Museum, then pay your respects to a climbing legend at the excellent Norman Clyde exhibit.

  • Connector.

    Take a STEEP mountain drive that goes almost straight up and head to Onion Valley Road for an Owens Valley vista. Decide on the way down if you want to give the hitchhikers who’ve likely spent several days on the Pacific Crest and John Muir trails a lift back to civilization.

LA as Landlord

Since it began purchasing Eastern Sierra land in the early 1900s for the aqueduct, the city of Los Angeles has become the largest landowner in the Owens Valley (which includes Independence, Lone Pine, Big Pine and Bishop). Its holdings include ranch and farmlands but also more developed areas, including several buildings in Independence.

Because the LA Department of Water & Power ultimately wanted the associated water rights versus the land, little has been done with the structures it now owns. They’ve not been replaced with new businesses or other things that change the character of a town over time, leaving Independence largely untouched from further development.

There is a historic feel, dominated by its grand courthouse, but also perhaps a sense of arrested development because while Los Angeles holdings here haven’t been replaced, there isn’t substantial effort to maintain them.

Sierra Insights & Oddities: The Eastern California Museum

Independence is home to the Eastern California Museum, which offers an extensive depiction of the Eastern Sierra’s history. Its exhibits include information on:

  • The Paiute Indians who lived in the Owens Valley (and a large collection of Native American basketry)
  • The Ancient Bristlecone Pines (the oldest living things on earth)
  • Mining on the Sierra’s East Side
  • The Water Wars and construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct (including pictures of the now-dry Owens Lake and other parts of the valley before its construction)
  • Manzanar
  • Important East Side personalities like mountaineer Norman Clyde and writer Mary Austin
  • Relics from life when early settlers came westward to build lives around the Sierra
  • Surprising rarities, including bones from ancient animals like mastodons and mammoths and a set of coyote dentures — human dentures made with coyote teeth and melted-down tooth brush handles

Admission is free. (Donations are accepted.)

Manzanar: Prisoners in a Beautiful Land

Just south of Independence lies Manzanar, the internment camp where more than 11,000 Japanese-Americans were forcibly detained after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor launched US involvement in World War II in 1941. A presidential order soon authorized that anyone who might threaten the war effort could be relocated from their homes. As a result, some 120,000 US residents of Japanese ancestry (many citizens) were sent to 10 war relocation centers that were built in remote areas of Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.

Surrounded by orchards and mountains, Manzanar’s setting was beautiful, but it was a prison nonetheless — a military-style camp surrounded by barbed wire and eight guard towers. Military police patrolled, and residents were crowded into barracks with very little privacy. Some would spend as long as three-and-half years at Manzanar before the war ended in 1945 and the facility closed.

It was designated as a state historical landmark in 1972 and a national historic site in 1992. An interpretive center was established in 2004, and it tells the stories of those who were held here with a variety of exhibits and programs.

Charles Manson Was Here

After the murders that brought worldwide notoriety to him and his followers, Charles Manson holed up at Death Valley’s Barker Ranch. (It eventually became part of Death Valley National Park and is open to the public, though there have long been suspicions that other Manson family victims may be buried there. A fire destroyed much of it in 2009.)

Manson and others in his “family” were arrested at Barker Ranch on suspicion of unrelated vandalism and auto theft and incarcerated in Independence, which is the area’s county seat. At the same time, Manson follower Susan Atkins was in jail in Los Angeles on other unrelated charges. While there, she confessed the group’s role in the killings, and Independence law enforcement came to realize that they had a much more serious criminal on their hands.

Manson would spend several weeks there before being transferred to Los Angeles to stand trial for the murders. Swarms of media came to Independence to cover the story as it unfolded.

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