He gave his life to a barren desert valley
that had been stripped of life by the Los Angeles irrigation
system. In doing so, Fr. John Crowley '15
became a legend.
By William E. Webster '48
state Route 14 in the California high desert country, a stark
memorial-a white, rust-stained cross made of plain metal
pipe bearing the inscription, "Father John J.
Crowley"-rises from the arid, mesquite-covered plain some 23 miles north of Red
Rock Canyon State Park. This simple memorial marks the location where Fr. Crowley
died in 1940, killed while driving his ancient Ford along this lonely stretch
of highway. A graduate of Holy Cross, his story is
the stuff of legend.
My family had passed that simple memorial many times
on our way to camping and fishing locales in the Eastern Sierra Nevada country.
Further north, we had driven
by Crowley Lake, which, I later learned, had been named for
Catholic priest who served in the desert area in the 1920s and '30s, Fr. Crowley
has been cited in the book, Water and Power, by William L. Kahrl,
as one of the most influential advocates of tourism in an area desperately
economic development during the Depression years. The reference piqued my
curiosity; later, while browsing in a bookstore in the Owens Valley, I discovered
entitled, Desert Padre, by Joan Brooks and learned that Fr. Crowley
was a graduate of Holy Cross. This discovery inspired me to learn more about
To appreciate the role Fr. Crowley would play
in Owens Valley, one needs to understand the geography and
history of this area situated between the Sierra Nevada Mountains
to the west and the stark White and Inyo mountains to the
east. Starting in the 1870s, early settlers trapped the Owens
River to irrigate fields and orchards in the remote valley
and created, for a short time, one of the most productive
agricultural areas in California. That would change, however,
when the gigantic irrigation projects diverted the water
from the valley along 223 miles to Los Angeles, resulting
that city's phenomenal growth and the corresponding decline of the Owens Valley
farms. (The incident is the subject of the movie Chinatown.) Before long,
the verdant valley was returned to desert conditions where the vegetation consisted
largely of greasewood and sagebrush. It was in this harsh environment that Fr.
Crowley would live during his years of service to the area. With the demise of
agriculture as an economic base, Fr. Crowley turned to tourism as a potential
means of helping the valley residents survive. And it is to these efforts that
he would devote the
final six years of his life.
John J. Crowley was born on Dec. 8, 1891, in County
Kerry, Ireland. His family emigrated to Worcester in 1903. Crowley entered Holy
Cross in 1911 and became
an active participant in college life, contributing stories, essays and poems
to The Purple and serving as the journal's editor in chief during his
senior year. This literary flair would stay with him throughout his life as he
wrote for various local and diocesan publications during
his 22 years in California.
After graduating from Holy Cross, he entered the seminary in Baltimore, Md.,
with a reference from Rev. Joseph N. Dinand, S.J. Ordained in 1918 in Fall River,
Mass., he left shortly after for Los Angeles, borrowing 50 dollars from his bishop
to purchase his train ticket to the coast. He served briefly in two parishes
before he volunteered, in 1919, to serve in a parish located in the desert region
of four different counties-Mono, Inyo, Kern and San Bernadino. His initial parish
covered 30,000 square miles, an area equal in size to all of Ireland. His northernmost
church was in Bishop, 200 miles from its southern counterpart in Barstow. And
in those years, this remote area had few paved roads. Driving between his scattered
parish meant bouncing over gravel and sand. The parish contained both the lowest
spot in the United States, Death Valley, and the highest, Mount Whitney. In his
first 16 months, Fr. Crowley put over 50,000 miles on his Model T Ford. Adapting
quickly to his new environment, he kept a sleeping bag in his car for emergencies
and donned the uniform that would be his trademark: riding boots, khaki riding
pants and a khaki shirt under which he wore his clerical collar.
serving in this desert parish for five years, he became pastor of St. John's
Cathedral, Fresno, in 1924. During this time, Fr. Crowley was instrumental in
starting St. Columba's High School there; as part of a major diocesan fund-raiser,
he arranged for Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to appear in an exhibition baseball
Ten years later, Fr. Crowley returned to Eastern Sierra
County and the Owens
Valley. He was disheartened by what he found.
the water supply diverted to Los Angeles, many of the region's residents had
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.