The Catholic priest who became an unlikely Western hero

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By Len Wilcox
WESTERN VIEWS

When we think of Western heroes, there’s a slew of them to consider.  Men like Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, Juan Bautista de Anza, or Crazy Horse — all were larger than life and stand tall in the history of our land. There’s one more to add to that list. He’s an unlikely candidate, a Catholic priest who never went to war or fought anyone, but had a big impact on his world.

John Crowley came to eastern California’s Owens Valley in the early 1900s. It was a booming farm area then, but there was a “cancer” silently growing. He tended the flock from Bishop to Mojave those days, and did well – so well that he was transferred to St. John’s in Fresno. But after half a dozen years he went back to the Owens Valley, and much to his surprise, the “cancer” had struck.


Most of the farmers had moved away and the rich farmland had returned to dust. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had quietly bought up water rights and the irrigation companies, then built a great canal all the way to Los Angeles.

The farmers in the Owens Valley had lost their water. It all went to L.A. The once rich fields became deserts with sage and tumbleweeds growing in place of apple trees and oats.

While the remaining farmers fought in the courts, and some fought with dynamite, Father Crowley looked for solutions. He found two. First, the area was a natural haven for outdoorsmen. He encouraged his people to develop tourism to their communities, to showcase the incredible scenery and become a center for outdoor sports.

Crowley Lake attracts outdoor recreation enthusiasts for fun and for a chance to catch a big trout! Historic photo circa 1971. (Click to enlarge.)

Eventually, his idea took hold and tourism became the major employer in the area.

But his other idea was just as important. He knew enough about hydrology to see that a dam in the right place would provide enough water to help keep the distant cities happy and would provide a share for the local communities. It took many meetings with the very people that had destroyed the area — the engineers and politicians of Los Angeles — but eventually, they saw his point.

Another dam was built in the Long Valley, and the lake that filled behind it provided water for the locals while keeping the spigots turned on in the cities to the south. That Lake was named for the “Desert Padre,” and Crowley Lake is still one of the most popular sport fishing lakes in the country.

Father Crowley was a very different kind of Western hero, for sure, but a hero nonetheless.

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Gene Bjerke

The movie “Chinatown” (1974 with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunnaway) was about the city of Los Angeles stealing all the water from Owens Valley. A good film, I recommend it.

Impavid

Enjoyed the story. Tks.

Billy Bob Thorton

Great story. Love the back history on how places (i.e. lake) got their names.