Tales of The Desert Padre: Fr. John J. Crowley
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.
http://www.catholic.org CA, US
Catholic Online - Publisher, 661 869-1000
California, Priest, Crowley, Desert, Owens Valley
Rate This Article
Leave a Comment
More Featured Today
- Monaco & The Vatican: Monaco's Grace Kelly Exhibit to Rome--A Review of Monegasque-Holy See Diplomatic History
- My Dad
- A Royal Betrayal: Catholic Monaco Liberalizes Abortion
- John Paul II as an Apostle of Mercy
- Embrace every moment as sacred time
- A Recession Antidote
- The Why of Jesus' Death: A Pauline Perspective
- Father Lombardi's Address on Catholic Media
- Pope's Words to Pontifical Latin American College
- Prelate: Genetics Needs a Conscience