Mono Basin History Overview
Mono Lake, an inland sea that is at least 760,000 years old dominates the landscape east of the Sierra Nevada crest between Yosemite National Park and the Nevada border. The lake's strange water chemistry, twice as salty as the ocean and as alkaline as dish detergent, produces limestone tufa towers where freshwater springs emerge from the lake bottom. Mono Lake teems with life and is one of the world's most biologically productive lake ecosystems. Algae is food for brine shrimp, and alkali flies which, in turn, feed millions of migratory and nesting birds. Volcanoes form three sides of the Basin and also the islands within the lake. The wall of the Sierra Nevada defines the western boundary of the Mono Basin with peaks over 13,000 feet.
The Kutzedikaa, or Mono Lake Paiute Indians, moved up to the mountain meadows west of Mono Lake each summer and often crossed over to Yosemite. They survived challenging winters on the east side of the high-altitude lake basin. Some of the finest baskets in North America were crafted by local Indian women.
Miner Leroy Vining and his brother, Richard, came to the Mono Basin in 1853. They established a sawmill at the mouth of a canyon beside the creek that would become known as "Vining Creek" and Leroy's name would ultimately be given to the town, Lee Vining, that was established nearby. Gold was first mined along the northern edge of the Mono Lake Basin at Mono Diggings (just east of Conway Summit), but mining also developed in Lundy Canyon (the Homer Mining District), at Bennettville in the Tioga Canyon. and west of Lee Vining on the hills overlooking the lake (Log Cabin Mine). The greatest mining success in the region occurred just north of the Mono Basin, at Bodie, which had its peak (nearly 10,000 residents) between 1879 and 1881.
Settlers established ranches and farms to serve those mining towns, especially Bodie, with food and fiber products. Agricultural family names included Conway, DeChambeau, Farrington, Mattly, Nay, Sylvester, Thompson, and the McPhersons (who had a ranch on Paoha Island in the middle of Mono Lake). They raised livestock and grew vegetable crops, battling the Basin's challenging short growing season. The Old Schoolhouse that houses the history museum is one of several one-room schools operated early in the 20th century.
The pinyon-juniper forests and Jeffry and lodgepole pines on surrounding hills furnished firewood and lumber for the mines and towns. Mono Mills, south of the lake, processed much of that timber, which reached Bodie via steam vessels that crossed the lake then transferred their loads onto wagons. After 1882, the Bodie-to-Benton railroad followed the east shore of Mono Lake from Mono Mills to the mining town.
The base of the Sierra has always served as a north-south travel corridor and the nearby passes funneled travelers over the mountains. The town of Lee Vining was founded in 1926 by Chris Mattly, and grocery stores, gas stations, garages, motels, restaurants, and bars have served travelers as well as residents ever since. An annual community celebration was begun by the Mono Inn, on the west shore of Mono Lake north of Lee Vining, where Mark Twain Days celebration drew hundreds of people in the 1920s and 1930s to watch speedboat races, bathing beauty contests, baseball games and other events. (Mark Twain wrote about his 1862 visit to Mono Lake in his book Roughing It.) The Mono Inn operated boat tours on Mono Lake in the first half of the 20th Century.
West Portal was one of four construction camps where laborers employed by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power worked from 1934 to 1941 on a system to tap four of Mono Lake's tributary streams. Those construction years were like a wild west boom era for Lee Vining and June Lake. Things quieted down in the following decades, but the impacts of diversions on Mono Lake gradually became apparent.
The Mono Lake Committee was established in 1978 to save the lake's ecosystem from the effects of increasing salinity. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's water licenses were amended by the state in 1994 to reduce diversions and restore both the lake and the dried-up creeks. That environmental victory brought national and international recognition to the region.