Keeler is the largest town on the shores of the now dry Owens Lake. Keeler was settled in the 1880s and was a port for steam ships that crossed Owens Lake. Keeler also had mills that processed ore from mines in the hills above. The ruins of the Cerro Gordo smelter (photo below) are just across highway 136 from Keeler a few hundred feet up Cerro Gordo street. Keeler prospered or declined in the decades after it's settlement depending on the level of mining activity in the area. Keeler also served as a commercial center for the nearby communities of Swansea, Dolomite and for area farms that were irrigated with water from Owens River. Swansea and Dolomite have since vanished entirely since all of the water in the Owens river was acquired by the Los Angles Department of Water and Power. This effectively ended farming in the Owens Valley. Mining activity slowed and then ended completely in the 1950s.
In 1913 the Los Angles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) started diverting water from the Owens River into the newly built Los Angles Aqueduct. The Owens River was the only source of water for the 100 square mile Owens Lake. By 1926 Owens Lake was essentially dry. Keeler, which had once been a lake side community was now at the edge of a hundred square mile salt flat.
A few companies built plants to process the salts from the dry Owens Lake bed into industrial chemicals. Keeler had a soda plant and other plants were built in Cartago and Bartlett on the opposite side of the lake bed. These plants provided some employment for the shrinking towns around the lake but they had all closed by the 1970s. Once the lake dried, the lake bed was exposed to the ferocious Owens Valley winds for the first time in many thousands of years. The winds that blow up and down or across the Owens Valley are extreme. The narrow valley is sandwiched between the tallest mountain range in the contiguous U.S. and the almost as tall Inyo and White mountains. The mountains and valley frequently create exceptionally strong winds that blow across the dry lake bed which generate huge dust storms. Keeler is unfortunately often hit directly by these dust storms. Residents of Keeler claim that these dust storms strip paint off of cars, make it impossible to see in the daytime, infiltrate homes no matter how tightly sealed and are the cause of many respiratory illnesses. The dust has driven the remaining population of the town down to 66. LADWP has been sued multiple times over the dust issue and is being forced to take steps to mitigate the problem. The dust mitigation efforts base of operations is just south of Keeler on 136. It's possible to drive out onto the Owens lake bed at the operations center on Sulfate Road. You must have permission from LADWP though or you can go out on a weekend when no one is working.
When the winds are calm or blowing from the right direction, Keeler is very interesting to visit. It's in a spectacularly scenic location. There are no open stores or services in Keeler. Lone Pine which has groceries, gas and lodging is 15 miles North of Keeler. Just West of Lone Pine are the spectacular Alabama Hills. There is a gas station in Olancha about 15 miles South of Keeler. Darwin is a really interesting old mining town off of highway 190 between Keeler and Death Valley. There are accessible ruins of an old soda plant in Cartago on the opposite side of Ownes Lake. The Owens Lake and Valley area is an incredibly interesting part of the world.
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