Established in 1909 as a stop for travelers making their way between Los Angeles and the Eastern Sierra, this roadside settlement once included a store, auto repair shop, gas station, post office and an iconic rock-faced hotel. A highway realignment, railroad closure and fire eventually destroyed most of the town but the ghost of Little Lake lives on for those willing to take the time to uncover its secrets.
Little Lake is located along Highway 395 in Inyo County, California. According to one historical account, a lone horseman hid from a party of Paiutes at Little Lake in 1865, and the general store there evolved into stops for stagecoaches and later for trains crossing the valley floor.
If you’ve ever driven to the western entrance of Death Valley, Mammoth Lakes or any of the other regions within the Eastern Sierra, you’ve most likely passed by the body of water Little Lake was named after. Formally known as Little Owens Lake, this seasonal marsh was dammed in 1905 as a part of the Los Angeles Aqueduct system. While building the aqueduct, the Southern Pacific Railroad built the “Jawbone Branch” from Mojave to Lone Pine, which was completed in 1911. All this activity soon beckoned entrepreneurs to build services across the highway, near the southern end of the lake.
Little Lake lies within the old stream bed of the Owens River, which in the Pleistocene flowed out of Owens Lake to the north, came over what are now the Fossil Falls near Red Hill, and ultimately made its way to Lake Manly in Death Valley.
Access to Fossil Falls is located only 4.3 miles north of Little Lake and is great side trip to take if you’re ever in the area.
You can still access what’s left of the town by turning onto Little Lake Rd off of Highway 395.
The small town was in its prime in the 1940s & 1950s. The Little Lake Café and Hotelwere open 24 hours a day to feed & bed motorists as they made their way through the southern stretch of Owens Valley. As automotive technology improved, travelers no longer needed to stop as often for rest and supplies. By the 1970s, motorists could easily travel between LA and Lake Tahoe without the constant need of stopping to fill their tanks or having to add water to cool their radiators. These technological advancements would eventually make small settlements like Little Lake increasingly obsolete. In the early 1960s, US 395 was improved and realigned cutting the town off from the main highway, which led to the demise of most of the businesses. Around 1981, Southern Pacific’s “Jawbone Branch” was finally abandoned. The Little Lake Hotel was built in 1923 by automobile road racer Bill Bramlette. He built it out of reinforced concrete, noting that an earlier hotel on the remote site was destroyed in a fire. Local legend has it that the building materials were mostly appropriated from the construction of the nearby LA Aqueduct. In 1989, a fire destroyed the concrete structure, forcing the Little Lake Hotel to shut down for good.
The final blow to the town came in 1997, after the United States Postal Service decided to close the Post Office that had been part of the community for the past 88 years. Like most people driving along Highway 395, I had always noticed the green abandoned building but had no idea what purpose it once served or its importance to the surrounding area.
There was a push to preserve the building but its present condition was reported to be in such bad shape that it wouldn’t be structurally sound enough to make the move if an organization was willing to take it.
As I was researching the history of Little Lake, I came across an article that said there was a possible pioneer cemetery located near the townsite.
…and up onto a concrete pad that looked like it could’ve once been a well, a basement or something that may have been possibly related to the railroad.
Looking down into the opening on top of the concrete pad.
I searched a large portion of the hill but was unable to find any evidence that a cemetery was ever located here.
I did come across several concrete forms that looked like they could of been used as a headstone for a gravesite but upon closer inspection were most likely placed there by a creative person who just liked to stack things.
As I continued my search, something blue within the dead brush caught my eye.
Letterboxing is an outdoor hobby that combines elements of orienteering, art, and puzzle solving. Letterboxers hide small, weatherproof boxes in publicly accessible places and distribute clues to finding the box in printed catalogs, on one of several web sites, or by word of mouth.
Individual letterboxes contain a notebook and a rubber stamp, preferably hand carved or custom made. Finders make an imprint of the letterbox’s stamp in their personal notebook, and leave an impression of their personal signature stamp on the letterbox’s “visitors’ book” or “logbook” — as proof of having found the box and letting other letterboxers know who has visited.
The growing popularity of the somewhat similar activity of geocaching has increased interest in letterboxing as well.
Clues to American letterboxes are commonly published on several different websites, however I was unable to find any references to the one I had found. It was a pretty cool discovery to find and even though the dates listed in the logbook and the condition I found it in probably meant that this particular letterbox was no longer in play, I decided to carefully stuff the logbook further back into the rusty old can (to help better protect it from the elements) and placed it in the same exact location where I found it. You’re welcome Letterboxers:) If you’re interested in seeing what Little Lake looked like before becoming a ghost town, Owens Valley History and Rock Creek Lake both have incredible collections of vintage photos for you to look at and are a great resource for learning more about the towns, pioneering families, and individual people who made Owens Valley what it is today.