The Inyo was the land of the Paiute for thousands of years. They say Inyo means dwelling place of great spirits. The modern county that bears the Inyo name is home to Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower forty eight states and Death Valley, the lowest point.
In the early morning hours, just past 2:30 A.M., Antonia Montoya slept in the arms of her paramour. Something like distant thunder awoke them both. The sound roared closer, muffling Antonia's screams. The bed beneath swayed this way and that until it tossed them out. Antonia clasped hands and rambled through prayer upon prayer. Her lover scrambled passed and bounded through the door of the adobe house moments before it crumbled into a brick burial chamber over Antonia.
The place: Lone Pine, California, in the eastern shadow of Mt. Whitney. The date: March 26, 1872. The quake that killed Antonia Montoya also killed 25-30 other Lone Pine residents, then a community of some 250 to 300 souls. Approximately 80% of the small town's residences were destroyed by the quake estimated to have measured somewhere between 7.4 and 8.0 on the Richter scale (though there were no official recording devices at the time).
More than 230 miles to the northwest, at the other end of what is now known as the John Muir Trail, John Muir himself was working as the winter caretaker of Black's Hotel, below Sentinel Rock in Yosemite Valley. This is how Muir described what happened after being shaken from his slumbers, “Though I had never before enjoyed a storm of this sort, the strange, wild thrilling motion and rumbling could not be mistaken, and I ran out of my cabin both glad and frightened, shouting, 'A noble earthquake!' feeling sure I was going to learn something. The shocks were so violent and varied, and succeeded one another so closely, one had to balance in walking as if on the deck of a ship among the waves, and it seemed impossible the high cliffs should escape being shattered. In particular, I feared that the sheer-fronted Sentinel Rock, which rises to a height of three thousand feet, would be shaken down, and I took shelter back of a big Pine, hoping I might be protected from outbounding boulders, should any come so far. I was now convinced that an earthquake had been the maker of the taluses and positive proof soon came. It was a calm moonlight night, and no sound was heard for the first minute or two save a low muffled underground rumbling and a slight rustling of the agitated trees, as if, in wrestling with the mountains, Nature were holding her breath. Then, suddenly, out of the strange silence and strange motion there came a tremendous roar. The Eagle Rock, a short distance up the valley, had given way, and I saw it falling in thousands of the great boulders I had been studying so long, pouring to the valley floor in a free curve luminous from friction, making a terribly sublime and beautiful spectacle--an arc of fire fifteen hundred feet span, as true in form and as steady as a rainbow, in the midst of the stupendous roaring rock-storm. The sound was inconceivably deep and broad and earnest, as if the whole earth, like a living creature, had at last found a voice and were calling to her sister planets. It seemed to me that if all the thunder I ever heard were condensed into one roar it would not equal this rock roar at the birth of a mountain talus. Think, then, of the roar that arose to heaven when all the thousands of ancient canon taluses throughout the length and breadth of the range were simultaneously given birth.
“The main storm was soon over, and, eager to see the newborn talus, I ran up the valley in the moonlight … A cloud of dust particles, the smallest of the boulders, floated out across the whole breadth of the valley and formed a ceiling that lasted until after sunrise; and the air was loaded with the odor of crushed Douglas Spruces, from a grove that had been mowed down and mashed like weeds. Sauntering about to see what other changes had been made, I found the Indians in the middle of the valley, terribly frightened, of course, fearing the angry spirits of the rocks were trying to kill them. The few whites wintering in the valley were assembled in front of the old Hutchings Hotel comparing notes and meditating flight to steadier ground, seemingly as sorely frightened as the Indians. It is always interesting to see people in dead earnest, from whatever cause, and earthquakes make everybody earnest.”
After the sun came up that day the underground rumbling continued followed by a series of aftershocks large enough to swish the branches of nearby pines like a mighty wind. A rather devout store keeper handed Muir the keys to his business and departed by horse or human hoof for the lowlands of the San Joaquin Valley, not to be seen in Yosemite for another month or more.
In Yosemite Valley aftershocks were felt for two months. Muir kept a bucket of water on his table to better study the movements. His observations included , “The blunt thunder-tones in the depths of the mountains were usually followed by sudden jarring, horizontal thrusts from the northward, often succeeded by twisting, upjolting movements. Judging by its effects, this Yosemite, or Inyo earthquake, as it is sometimes called, was gentle as compared with the one that gave rise to the grand talus system of the range and did so much for the canon scenery. Nature, usually so deliberate in her operations, then created, as we have seen, a new set of features, simply by giving the mountains a shake - changing not only the high peaks and cliffs, but the streams. As soon as these rock avalanches fell every stream began to sing new songs; for in many places thousands of boulders were hurled into their channels, roughening and half damming them, compelling the waters to surge and roar in rapids where before they were gliding smoothly. Some of the streams were completely dammed, drift-wood, leaves, etc., filling the interstices between the boulders, thus giving rise to lakes and level reaches; and these, again, after being gradually filled in, to smooth meadows, through which the streams now silently meander; while at the same time some of the taluses took the places of old meadows and groves.”
Muir was spot on. The Inyo quake created eighty acre Diaz Lake a couple of miles south of Lone Pine, the result of a block of land being thrust downward by the seismic event. The German word graben, meaning ditch or trench, is often applied to such depressed valleys or suddenly formed lakes.
The 1872 quake centered at Lone Pine was felt from Oregon to Mexico. Not only were lakes, like Diaz, created, but the Sierra Nevada jumped fifteen to twenty feet upward and about thirty-five to forty feet horizontally in a matter of seconds.
The dramatic uplift of the Sierra in 1872 was a mere drop in the swaying waters of John Muir's bucket compared to its earlier history. The oldest rocks in the Sierra are estimated to have formed 500 million years ago, under the ocean.
When the super-continent Pangaea broke apart about 185 million years ago, the North American plate smashed into two sub-oceanic island arc plates. The incredible amount of pressure and heat created by this collision helped raise the Sierra. About five million years ago a tremendously large block of dense rock broke away from the underside of the western Sierra. It sank into the earth's mantle, causing granite to buoy upward on the eastern side of the range. Similar to the sinking of Diaz Lake, five million years back the uplifting of the long eastern escarpment of the Sierra formed large graben like Owens Valley and much of the Great Basin itself.
While the granitic Sierra rose it pushed metamorphic fragments on its back downward, creating the western foothills. Most of the metamorphic rock of the ancient Sierra left stranded on the top of the range has eroded to dust, but today dark chunks of red or black metamorphic rock remain here and there atop the Sierra Nevada, roof pendant reminders of the volatile nature of the state we live in.
If one wants to imagine what those uplifts from eons of years ago felt and looked like, go back to John Muir's description of a stupendous roaring rock storm with fifteen hundred feet of fire arcing into a rainbow, then multiply exponentially by thousands if not millions.