As I’ve noted in previous posts, I’ve spent the past few weeks in southern California, taking a break from work and attending the 38th Society of Ethnobiology meeting at the University of California campus at Santa Barbara on the coast north of Los Angeles. I like the south-west of the US and had no problem with the prospect of spending a few weeks driving around the backroads and thought that this years I’d explore the eastern Sierra Nevada country around the Owens Valley north-east of Los Angeles prior to meeting.

I’ve always had a keen eye for a good roadside memorial so when my way back from Bishop in the north of the valley I came across this tribute to Father J. J. Crowley along Route 14 near to Red Rock Canyon I pulled in to take a few shots.

At the time I was unaware of the background to his life and passing but a simple online search reveals the remarkable role that Father Crowley played in the lives of people of this most difficult country. Father Crowley was born in County Kerry, Ireland in 1891 and his family migrated to America in the first years of the new century.

The following is from a tribute at Catholic Online:

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 in 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.

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.

After ten years away he returned to find a very different situation.

With 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.

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.

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.