Ghosts, sagebrush and the history of Lee Vining
U.S. 395 going through Lee Vining circa 1925. (Photo: Mono County)
By David Carle
This year marks the 90th anniversary of Lee Vining’s inception, and the 9th annual Ghosts of the Sagebrush Tour, which will take place Saturday, Sept. 29. Visit the oldest buildings in Lee Vining on a walking tour and hear talks at four venues by old-timers familiar with the town’s history.
In 1922, the Eastern Sierra town of Lee Vining was envisioned after Chris Mattly bought land then known as “Poverty Flat.” By 1926, Mattly had subdivided town lots that became Lee Vining, named for prospector Lee Roy (or Leroy) Vining, who had established a sawmill in 1857, along the nearby creek. The town, along with Lee Vining Creek and Lee Vining Canyon, serves as the eastern gateway to Yosemite National Park via Tioga Pass on Highway 120.
The tour begins at 10 a.m. at the Old Schoolhouse Museum and will end by 4 p.m. This annual fundraiser for the Mono Basin Historical Society kicks off with a catered dinner on Friday night, Sept. 28, at the Lee Vining Community Center, which will be highlighted by a living history visit from Mr. Lee Roy Vining, himself (as portrayed by a character actor). Historic buildings that will be visited during the walking tour include the Old Schoolhouse Museum, Mono Market, El Mono Motel, the Mono Lake Committee Information Center (Hess Hall), the Mattly residence, the community’s two churches, Lakeview Lodge, and Nicely’s and Bodie Mike’s restaurants (where a complimentary lunch will be provided).
The Ghosts of the Sagebrush is the Mono Basin Historical Society’s biggest annual fundraiser, exploring the “ghosts” of people and events that are part of the history in the Mono Basin. Prior years have explored the ranching history in the north and south portions of the basin, the Mono Mills site and Bodie to Benton Railroad, Log Cabin Mine, the construction of the Los Angeles DWP diversions and tunnel beneath the Mono Craters, and other historical topics. This year the focus is on the history of the town of Lee Vining.
The event includes a walking tour of several blocks in town, stopping at four locations to sit and hear from old timers’ recollections of what we’ve seen during each section of the tour (we begin at the Old Schoolhouse Museum, make a sit-down stop at the Lee Vining Community Church, a lunch stop at Bodie Mike’s BBQ, and a final stop at Lakeview Lodge). If weather interferes with outdoor meeting and walking, we will gather indoors (community center and/or church).
The townsite that attracted Mattly, 65 years after Lee Vining established his sawmill, was called Poverty Flats because farmers struggled there to grow crops in the poor soil and harsh climate (at almost 7,000 feet). Mattly’s first choice for a new town name was “Lakeview,” but the Postal Service objected because that name was already in use, so the town became Leevining. Business signs in town used “Leevining” until 1957 when the Postal Service, again, was involved in altering the name to the more accurate two words. Since its inception, whether as Leevining or Lee Vining, the town at the edge of Mono Lake and the canyon that leads to Tioga Pass and Yosemite, has been a haven for travelers and home to a small community of hardy souls (the current population is about 400).
Lee Vining and his brother, Thomas, had both been Texas Rangers and were Mexican War veterans. As that war was ending in 1848, news came of the gold discovery in California and the Vining brothers headed that direction in 1850. In March 1851, they were in Sonora, where as fate would have it both became part of a group of 12 men indicted for murder. The shooting incident became known as the “Holden Garden Riot,” a mining site uprising during which was one man was killed and several were wounded.
Most of the accused fled the area, including the Vining brothers. In May 1851, signs of gold in the area prompted Lee Vining’s return to Mono Lake. Prior to that, he’d built a racetrack and was the proprietor of a saloon in Mariposa, before at last heading to the Mono Basin in 1857. Vining sold his mill in the Mono Basin in 1861 and then mined at Mono Diggings, north of the Mono Lake Basin. He died in April 1863, after a pocket pistol accidentally discharged and severed an artery in his groin.
Tickets for the Friday dinner, catered by chef Matt Toomey, are $25, and for the Saturday tour (which includes lunch), tickets are also $25. For information and to purchase tickets, visit the Mono Basin Historical Society’s webpage at www.monobasinhs.org, or come by the Old Schoolhouse Museum in Hess Community Park, call 760.647.6461 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Mono Basin Historical Society, a non-profit organization, operates the Old Schoolhouse Museum and world famous Upside-Down House, preserving and interpreting the cultural history of the Mono Lake Basin.