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Tales of The Desert Padre: Fr. John J. Crowley

12/6/2004 - 6:00 AM PST

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despaired and abandoned their farms and homes. With frightening speed, the Valley had turned from a thriving community into a sun-baked wasteland. The people that remained were embittered. Moved by the grief and poverty he encountered, Fr. Crowley made it his mission to try and save Owens Valley. It was a daunting undertaking.

Studying water-flow charts and the scandalous history of land acquisition by Los Angeles, Fr. Crowley became convinced that, had the Long Valley Dam been constructed in the correct location, there would have been enough water for both the city and the valley. He also realized that the only way to reverse the disaster was to unite the valley people. So, he made it his business to get to know every man, woman and child living in the Owens Valley, whether they were his parishioners or not.

As writer Irving Stone pointed out in a famous Saturday Evening Post article, "(Fr. Crowley) worked constantly for religious tolerance. Protestants forgave him for being a Catholic, and the Catholics forgave him for having so many Protestant friends. Somewhere along the line, the padre became The Padre, an understanding father to whom the frightened, the weary and the confused could come for comfort and help."

The desert padre began spending 16 hours a day in his battered jalopy, driving from town-to-town in an effort to unite the valley residents to regroup and rescue the community. Tourism, Fr. Crowley believed, was the answer. The region offered hunting, fishing, skiing and some of the most spectacular scenic views in the nation.

His parish was now mostly Inyo County. Each Sunday he would celebrate Mass in the county's two major towns, at 7:30 a.m. in Lone Pine, and then, at 10 a.m., in Bishop, a grueling drive of 60 rocky miles. His duties also included ministering to the tiny mining community of Keeler and the missions in Death Valley as well as serving as chaplain to the young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was during this period that he wrote over 200 columns entitled, Sage and Tumbleweed, under the nom de plume, "Inyokel," a play on words both geographic and humorous. His stories appeared first in the diocesan paper in Fresno, and later, in the secular press, as their popularity grew. In this column, Fr. Crowley addressed an amazing variety of topics but always with humor and humanity. The pieces remain remarkably fresh and timely today.

During this time, the country between Lone Pine and Whitney Portal, the trail ascent of Mount Whitney, became a favorite location for Hollywood filmmaking. This area, known as the Alabama Hills, is familiar to filmgoers as the shooting location for Gunga Din, King of the Kyber Rifles and the Hopalong Cassidy pictures. Fr. Crowley developed friendships with some of the most famous stars of the era. Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. were his dinner companions during the filming of Gunga Din, but his very best friend was Mexican character actor Leo Carrillo, who shared with Fr. Crowley a great love of children.

As part of his ongoing efforts to publicize the Eastern Sierra as an ideal tourist location, Fr. Crowley organized an extravaganza in October 1937. The three-day celebration entitled, "The Wedding of the Waters," commemorated the completion of a paved road from Death Valley to Whitney Portal, linking the lowest spot in the country to the highest-in the then 48-state nation. In a clever publicity move, Fr. Crowley filled a desert gourd with water from the highest lake in the country. The gourd was carried first by a Native American, then transported, on horseback, by one of the first men to climb Mount Whitney. Next it was taken in a stagecoach, driven by the descendant of an original stagecoach hand who was accompanied by the governor of California. The gourd was passed along to a covered-wagon driver who was a descendant of the ill-fated Donner Party, and then handed over to the engineer of a narrow-gauge railroad. After a short run on the rails, the gourd was passed to the driver of a new 1938 Lincoln Zephyr. At the end of this ride, President Roosevelt pressed a telegraph key that sent word of the celebration to the rest of the country. The Zephyr driver passed the gourd to a World War I combat pilot who flew to Death Valley where the gourd was emptied into Bad Water Sink, the lowest body of water in America. "The Wedding of the Waters" was featured in papers across the nation, bringing the publicity Fr. Crowley had sought. Recently, the Public Broadcasting Company's Los Angeles affiliate sponsored a reenactment of the ceremony. The widow of Hopalong Cassidy was present for the activities.

Fr. Crowley was indefatigable in his efforts to attract tourists to the Owens Valley. Each year on opening day of trout season-which he managed to have declared a county holiday-he blessed fishing equipment. In another publicity effort, on Sept. 14, 1934, he climbed Mount Whitney and became the first priest to celebrate Mass on the summit. Pictures of the Mass appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

The priest's flair for publicity paid off. Tourists began to flock to the valley, and the once-hostile residents began to welcome them. Using constant media pressure, Fr. Crowley finally secured a hearing with commissioners of Los Angeles regarding the plight of the Owens Valley. At one point, Fr. Crowley actually locked chief water engineer H.C. Van Norman in a meeting room until the exasperated engineer conceded to requests to build a new dam that would restore water to the impoverished desert.

While returning from a publicity trip to San Francisco in Sept. 1940, Fr. Crowley struck a steer that had wandered onto the highway. His car was forced into the path of an oncoming truck, and he was killed instantly.

When the new Long Valley Dam was completed, the reservoir it created was named Crowley Lake in honor of the desert priest. It remains a popular fishing spot today, attracting thousands of people each year for trout season. It is interesting to note that 60 years after his tragic accident, Fr. Crowley remains a legendary figure, recognized as the visionary leader who saw the potential for the region, and as a man of faith who dedicated his life to helping its inhabitants.

__________________

William Webster '48 is professor emeritus at California State University-Bakersfield.

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1 - 1 of 1 Comments

  1. Arthur Jaseau
    4 years ago

    Mr. Websters narrative is SPOT ON!. I would also urge everyone to read Joan Books' very informative book about this great and truly holy man, 'The Desert Padre'.
    The day he died we were told that Father Crowley was killed while en route to serve Mass at our Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Death Valley. I was a CCC young man who served as one of his altar-boys and had done so since first meeting him in 1938 when he conducted Mass for us at our CCC camp in Mammoth Lakes. He had also held Mass for us when our camp moved to Lone Pine and then at our last camp in Death Valley. In our camps he always included chats after Mass and almost all of our 200 fellows, Catholic or not, attended because he spoke on many topics of importance to young men and he would answer any question forthright, always with his marvelous Irish brogue and wit. He got us entry to the many of the areas movie sets and I became so intrigued with the filming and cameras that later I studied filming and am still a filmmaker as well as a retired Forest Ranger. Many motion picture luminaries visited our several camps and entertained us because of his urging and their respect for this marvelous man.
    Along with many CCC boys from two other camps, several of us from Death Valley attended his funeral in Lone Pine. And later at our camp we conducted a memorial for Father Crowley and as camp bugler (after a couple of attempts to get my emotions in check) I played Taps. I often think of Father Crowley and his influence on me and visit his memorial when I return to the area several times a year. I make a pilgrimage to Lake Crowley and also to the end of Whitney Portal road where he had conducted our Mass in one of God's most magnificent settings.
    In 1934 Father Crowley, with seminarian Harry Clinch, made the very challenging and dangerous ascent to the top of Mount Whitney, elevation 14,506 ft. ABOVE sea level to conduct Mass. He also served Mass in Death Valley, elevation 282 feet, BELOW sea level. Everything this giant of a man and Priest accomplished was larger than life and it is fitting that he was the only Priest to have conducted Mass in the Highest and Lowest landmarks in the USA.

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