In 1917, Cartago became the company town for the California Alkali Company, which refined soda ash and other saline minerals from the brines and salt deposits of Owens Lake.
The Owens Valley is a closed drainage system, with none of the water in the valley flowing to the ocean. The valley floor lies at approximately 3,600 feet elevation and is surrounded by the Sierra Nevada to the west, the Inyo Mountains to the east, and the Coso Range to the south. Elevations in these mountains reach over 14,000 feet. Most of the precipitation falls as snow in the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada. Runoff from snow melt and rainfall enters the valley in the numerous streams flowing from the surrounding mountains. Under natural conditions, mountain streams in the Owens Valley are tributary to the Owens River, which is the main drainage channel in the valley. The Owens River flows into Owens Lake, a large, mainly dry lakebed with no natural outflow except evaporation. Since there is no outflow from Owens Lake, the trace amounts of dissolved salts and minerals contained in the fresh water inflow to the lake were concentrated to the point where the lake had a naturally high dissolved salt content.
Commercial production of soda ash from Owens Lake began in 1887. One of the first to realize that Owens Lake contained soda in recoverable amounts was Oscar Loew, a member of Lieutenant George M. Wheeler’s Surveys West of the lOOth Meridian. In 1876, Loew estimated that the water of Owens Lake contained enough dissolved sodium carbonate to supply the United States for nearly 100 years at the contemporary rate of consumption. – Source
In 1917 soda ash was in short supply and commanded a high price. The Great Western Electrochemical Company, which later became a part of the Dow Chemical Company, participated in forming the California Alkali Company, which built a carbonation plant on the western shore of Owens Lake. It used solar evaporating ponds for concentrating the lake water and carbonating towers for producing sodium bicarbonate. The town of Cartago soon became the company town for the California Alkali Company. Previous names for the town included Carthage, Daniersburg, and Lakeville. The town was laid out on a grid, and residences were built to house the employees and managers. These buildings were either modestly Craftsman or represented the transitional style between Queen Anne cottages and Craftsman bungalows. – Source
According to a CA Division of Mines report from 1959, in the two decades that followed World War I, the soda ash producers on Owens Lake operated at a disadvantage. For one thing, it was a time of oversupply and low prices during which the West End Chemical Company and the American Potash & Chemical Corporation on Searles Lakebegan to produce soda ash on a large scale. In addition, the Owens Lake producers had difficulty in removing the organic matter and silica that originated as soluble compounds in the brine. At times, much of their product was exported. The greatest obstacle of all was the change in the lake itself that followed the completion of the Los Angeles aqueduct and the diversion of Owens River in 1917.
Deprived of its principal supply of water, Owens Lake began to dry up and by 1920 the lake water became too concentrated for the recovery of trona by solar evaporation. – Source
The California Alkali Company’s plant at Cartago was shut down in 1921 and remained idle until it was acquired by the Inyo Chemical Company in May 1924. The new company obtained brine from wells sunk in the crystal body and installed a pipeline 8 miles long through which the brine was pumped to Cartago. – Source
The plant continued to use the bicarbonate process, even though it was less well adapted to the strong and variable brine then available, than to the more diluted brine for which it had been designed for. The bicarbonate that formed in the carbonating towers had poor filtering properties, and there was a tendency for borax to precipitate with it. The plant operated, however, until January 1932, when it was closed and never reopened. – Source
California Alkali Company’s plant was the third on the lake. From 1900 to the 1930’s soda products from Owens Lake led the county’s mineral production in terms of value, and thus Owens Lake was a major center of the United States soda industry.
Today, all that remains of the operation is some concrete foundations, substructures of the old factory, the lakebed evaporating ponds, the grade for the railroad spur and a rather large dump of waste lime.
The ruins of the old soda ash processing plant can be viewed on the west side of Owens Lake, approximately 3 miles northwest of Olancha. The ruins sit on the southwest side of the Cartago Wildlife Area, a 218-acre freshwater wetland that include springs that provide habitat for waterfowl, wading birds and shorebirds including western snowy plovers, white-faced ibis and rails. Owens Lake has been designated a Nationally Significant Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society and American Bird Conservancy, and 144 bird species have been documented on the wildlife area.