The Desert Padre

William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy) and Fr. Crowley place the gourd in the vault for safekeeping

The Wedding of the Waters May 12, 2010 by David St. John  In 1937, the Owens Valley – located on the “back side” of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains – was still baking in the sun, its once-verdant farms now wasteland as a result of the Los Angeles water grab from a few years before. The waters of the Owens River had been diverted 250 south to a very greedy and thirsty Southern California. Now, the people of this area stretching roughly from the city of Bishop in the north to Lone Pine in the South, were looking for ways to bring some prosperity back to the area. Leading the charge, was a bold, gregarious, Irish-Catholic priest known as The Desert Padre. Father John J. Crowley had determined that tourism was the answer to their problems, and had found ways to put Owens Valley and Inyo County on the map – encouraging people to come for some of the greatest fishing, hunting, skiing and hiking in the country. One of his boldest publicity stunts was to climb Mt. Whitney in 1934, becoming the first priest to celebrate Mass at the summit (Has it ever been done since?). Now, three years later, the completion of paved highway linking Mt. Whitney and Death Valley provided Fr. Crowley with the opportunity of a lifetime – to create an event that would publicize and promote this region not only in California, but from coast to coast. As Fr. Crowley put it: “Many factors contributed to the possibility of a road dedication without precedent. For instance, not every road joins the top and bottom of a nation. The new link did just that, enabling the motorist to drive in safety from Bad Water in Death Valley, 279.6 feet below the level of the sea, to Whitney Portal, 8,300 feet in elevation, at the actual base of the tallest peak, Mount Whitney, 14,496 feet.” The three-day event Fr. Crowley organized was called “The Wedding of the Waters”, in which a gourd was filled with water from Lake Tulainyo, the highest lake on the continent at 12,865 feet, and was carried by various means all the way to the opposite end of the new road, where the water was poured into Bad Water Sink, the lowest water in the Western Hemisphere at 279.6 feet below sea level. Imagine organizing an event such as this involving various and sundry modes of transportation and hundreds of people, including the Governor of California and the President of the United States!


Day 1 – Friday,October 29, 1937 Jerry Emm, a Washoe Indian runner from Nevada was chosen to begin the saga. He was given the honor of dipping the gourd into the icy waters of Lake Tulainyo and running the first leg of the journey along rockslides, forests, and meadows as he descended a mile in altitude to Whitney Portal, the terminus of the paved road. He passed the gourd to Russell Spainhower, who, dressed as a Pony Express rider, mounted his horse and galloped down the canyon. Five miles later, he handed the gourd to Ted Cook, another rider, who continued on horseback down the road. Seven miles east, the gourd was given to Bert Johnson, the son of the man who first climbed Mt. Whitney. Astride his horse, Mr. Johnson carried the gourd through the Streets of Lone Pine delivering it to actor William Boyd (known best as Hopalong Cassidy) who deposited the gourd in a vault for safekeeping until the next morning. A fiesta was held that evening honoring Governor Frank Merriam and other state and national officials. A small amount of water from the gourd was saved for the Governor to ceremoniously sip during the dinner.


Day 2 – Saturday, October 30, 1937 First thing in the morning, the Governor stood on the steps of the bank and handed the water-filled gourd to Sam Ball, a 51-year veteran of prospecting in the local desert. Mr. Ball tied the gourd onto the back of his burro and walked south to the church where a covered wagon was waiting for the next leg of the journey. Aboard the wagon was Josephine Breen a descendant of (surviving) members of the ill-fated Donner Party. Pulled by two oxen, the wagon travelled two miles where it met up with a genuine twenty-mule team hitched to an original borax wagon driven by Johnny O’Keefe, a pioneer mule-skinner. A mile later, the gourd was delivered to Ollie Dearborn, who placed it aboard his Mt. Whitney-Death Valley stagecoach and took it eight miles from Lone Pine, to the point where the new highway crossed the railroad tracks. Receiving the gourd, Engineer Jim Henry placed it in his cab in the locomotive and carried it to the railroad station in Keeler, where the gourd remained for the night.


Day 3 – Sunday, October 31, 1937 Fr. Crowley celebrated Mass on the church lawn back in Lone Pine. Then he and others went to Keeler where Jim Henry’s train was sitting at the station. The gourd was carried across the platform and presented to Louie Meyer, a three-time winner at the Indianapolis 500, who placed it in a brand new 1938 Lincoln Zephyr (corporate sponsorship was alive and well even back then) and roared away to the summit of the Argus Range, twenty five miles away. At this spot waited Governor Merriam and a host of officials, near a temporary telegraph office set up by Western Union. Right on time, the wires clicked and with great celebration they received the official signal sent by President Franklin Roosevelt, in Hyde Park, commemorating the opening of the highway. The Lincoln Zephyr, followed by a motorcade of hundreds of cars, travelled down the steep road into Panamint Valley where an airplane waited to take the gourd on the final leg of its journey. Captain Carey, a veteran pilot from World War I, took the water-filled gourd and flew off towards Telescope Peak flying over the Peak and down into Death Valley, landing on a field in Furnace Creek. Here he waited for the motorcade to catch up. Once they arrived, he took off again and flew low over Bad Water and emptied the gourd of water into Bad Water Sink. The crystal clear water from America’s highest lake had been joined with the water of America’s lowest lake. But more importantly, Fr. Crowley’s Wedding of the Waters was a gigantic success. Hundreds of people took part celebrating this beautiful region, and America’s people from coast to coast had been exposed to an area that, perhaps, they had been totally unfamiliar with prior to this event.