I would like to offer some backstories and history of the American Hotel, the town of Cerro Gordo, and the execution of our wedding. I would also like to honor Arnold Wapelhorst who was a significant figure in the history of the town and Owens Valley.

Finding Cerro Gordo

In the spring of 1996, Carolyn and I are camped in a Joshua forest on Lee Flats. This is high desert country nestled between the Nelson Range and the Inyo Mountains of Eastern California. We are engaged in day trips kicking around in my 1959 FJ-25 Toyota Landcruiser. My TLC is affectionately known at “the Crusher.” I had lived in the nearby Saline Valley under the gaze of the Inyo Mountains for many years and knew of, but had never visited the ghost town of Cerro Gordo. There is a lesser traveled back way up the Inyo’s from Lee Flats that essentially puts you in through the back door to Cerro Gordo. We had decided to spend the day visiting the town on our way to the ridge-line of the Inyo’s and visit some high points including the upper station of the Saline Valley Salt Tram.

Cerro Gordo, Saline Valley, Inyo Mountains
the Crusher on the Inyo crest above Saline Valley; 1996

Arriving in “town” I notice what appears to be a store that appears to be open! It is in fact a little gift shop, and there is another car parked nearby. A gentleman approaches who asks us, “Am I expecting you?”

“Well,” says I, “I have been your neighbor for many years and I thought I would drop in and say hello! I live in Saline Valley, and I am known locally as ‘Major Tom’.”

“Well heck, I have heard of you. Welcome to Cerro Gordo, the ‘forever fixer upper’.” This is Mike Patterson who is owner of Cerro Gordo and neighboring Swansea. A cordial conversation ensues and we are pleased to meet his business partner and better half, Jody. We get directions to the roads we need to take to get us to New York Butte, and we are invited to join them upon our return at the main house for tea and cookies.

A brief history of Cerro Gordo

Los Angeles owes much of its “success” to Owens Valley. Before LADWP, Mulholland, Lippincott, Pinchot, Roosevelt, et.al. plundered the population and land of water, Inyo county was the land of mining booms and busts. One of the greatest of these districts was Cerro Gordo … Spanish for “Fat Hill.” Silver was the star and mined faster than Nadeau’s freight company could haul it south. Bullion was hauled off “the Hill” to Swansea and Keeler, where it waited to be freighted or floated across the Owens Lake (which still had water in the later part of the 19th century). So much silver bullion piled up in Cartego waiting to be shipped that shelters were constructed from the bars. Los Angeles became a major port city in large measure as a result of shipping silver from Cerro Gordo north to the mint in San Francisco.

Planning a wedding at the American Hotel

Early June 1996, I turned to my girlfriend and said, “We don’t have much planned for this summer yet.”

“We could go camping,” she offered.

“Or we could get married,” I replied. (Okay, maybe a rather unromantic proposal but we had decided somewhere along the way we would get married sometime along the way and we were already living together, being the last part of the modern 20th century.) This suggestion took her by surprise, in a good way, and we both agreed it would be a fun thing to do. And let’s do it on the 4th of July so we can have a big party every year (and easy to remember!)

I knew I wanted our friend Richard to perform the ceremony (he being an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church, having ponied up his $5) and suggested to Carolyn that we look at having the ceremony at the Silver Dollar Saloon in Red Mountain. This had been a favorite haunt of Richard back when it was still open for business, and we wanted to do something a little different than a standard wedding in Ridgecrest, which would probably be pushing 110 degrees in July. Carolyn drove up to Red Mountain (or what is left of the town), inspected was was left of the Silver Dollar Saloon through its windows, returned home with a resounding “NO!”

And then I thought … Cerro Gordo! 8,000+ feet in the Inyo Mountains will avoid the Mojave heat of July. An historic ghost town would be the perfect venue for a bohemian bash. Most of the guests would be friends from Saline Valley, and they all knew of the historic town but few if any had ever visited the site. The remainder of our guests would be fellow students from the geology department at CSUB, and what budding rock star wouldn’t love an old mine?

I called the mountain and spoke to Jody, who said a wedding would be most welcome. Is there a church? No, some firemen from Reno had managed to burn it down the year before, but there is the American Hotel. The American Hotel enjoyed the claim to fame as being the oldest standing hotel east of the Sierra. We would also be the first people to be married there since Lt. Wapelhorst of the cavalry married Lulu Lewis in 1875.

Is there an organ or piano in the American Hotel? No, but there is a father/son bagpipe team out of Bishop who enjoy providing their dulcet overtures for weddings. Is July 4th an option? No, but the following weekend would be fine. Turns out we can rent the American Hotel, and the Bellshaw House and the Bunkhouse as well, which are outfitted for guests. Camping allowed for the rest? Sure, but no fires or fireworks. No problem! Cost: $300 got us the town for the weekend. Probably the last great deal anyone got. We are very happy to make it a done deal.

We set the date for July 13. Invitations went out and people signed on. Most people take a year or more to agonize over, and plan for a wedding. We set the date for six weeks out. Very little time to agonize. Planning is simple. Let’s have a potluck and costume party. In honor of history, everyone is invited to come in period dress. A local costume shop is able to outfit myself and my Best Man in cavalry gear to honor the memory of the American Hotel’s previous wedding.

Along the way, Carolyn and I made a return trip to Cerro Gordo (our second ever) to review and preview the accommodations and digs. Upon arriving and reviewing the American Hotel, we both thought “What have we done?” For all appearances the American Hotel did not look as if it had seen much use since the last wedding. Old wallpaper peeled away from weathered plaster. The walls were separating from the floor, which rested uneasily on grade. (No building codes back in the heyday). The “kitchen” had an ungraded dirt floor, and the old wood stove stood on its end in the corner. What have we done? Too late to change the plans, so let’s break out the lipstick and dress up this pit bull.

And so we made it work. Flags and patriotic buntings greeted guests on the front deck. Red white and blue balloons with helium to cover the ceiling. White sheets to cover the walls (thank heavens for wainscot). Flowers from the wholesale district in LA, and vines from the back of fences along alleyways in Venice and Santa Monica (Carolyn always recognizes a good deal when she finds one). Arriving a day ahead of the ceremony, all family hands on deck to give the old gal a make over. 100 feet of heavy extension chord brings electricity down from Mike and Jody’s house up the hill. My daughter had collected rocks and painted them silver, so we can salt the town and give the children something of an historic style scavenger hunt. (Many years later I was still finding silver nuggets we had spread around the town, yet unclaimed.)

American Hotel, Cerro Gordo
The American Hotel

The weekend festivities unrolled seemingly seamlessly. A bit (a lot) of work up front preparing. A very participatory event in the unfolding with friends volunteering to morph the hotel from church to banquet hall to dance pavilion where good times were had into the wee hours. All who remained were required to remain on the mountain, for no inebriated soul dared descend. Climbing the tortuous dirt road to 8000 feet is one thing. Descending is quite another. (My green Dodge Ram got named “Mr. Toad” upon completion of the weekend, on the way down.)

After the party, most left for homes near and far, and the set-up battalion became the knock-down crew. I then saw the error of our ways. Most newlyweds have the good sense to leave at the end of the party for far reaches of exotic terrain for the joys of a honeymoon. Living and learning, and with luck there will not be a “next time.”

Arnold Wapelhorst

We came to understand through a lot of hearsay and a bit of research that we were the first souls to be married at the American Hotel since 1875, when Lt. Arnold Wapelhorst married Lulu Lewis, purportedly the daughter of the owner of the hotel. My wife felt she must have dearly loved the man to have exchanged a perfectly good name like Lewis for Wapelhorst. According to what we knew at the time, the marriage was short lived, and Wapelhorst was killed in an engagement with Indians near the town of Darwin a brief while later.

Much of this information turned out to be erroneous, and I would like to honor the memory of the man with some revisions based upon recent research.

Arnold Wapelhorst was no longer in the cavalry when he was married. He likely cam into the country with the Second Cavalry California Volunteers who established Fort Independence in 1865, but had since mustered out. He was a bit of a bon vivant of some reputation around Independence and Cerro Gordo. His wedding to Lulu was on August 25, 1875 and was the first wedding in Cerro Gordo. Though I do not know for sure, I am willing to continue to believe it was the last wedding performed at the American Hotel prior to ours. Lulu’s mother was the owner of the Hotel as far as I can determine from the research, and her father was a soldier at Fort Independence, so the event was well attended by Company D of the 12th Infantry. It appears that in time Mother Lewis became the nurse at the Fort hospital.

Arnold and Lulu moved to Darwin where they took up running the Darwin Hotel. Arnold died in April of 1877, not in a cavalry action, but likely from a tuberculosis outbreak that ravaged the county. Lulu was left with a child and continued to run the hotel in Darwin. Arnold was buried in the cemetery at Fort Independence. Usually reserved for active soldiers, the base commander allowed for the burial of civilians there with the understanding that the surviving family members would see to the upkeep of plots.

When Fort Independence was officially decommissioned in July of 1877. The graves of soldiers were eventually exhumed and relocated to the Presidio in San Francisco. Civilians buried there were left behind. We set out to find the cemetery and see if we could locate Arnold. Some internet research gave us a photo of his grave still located in Independence.

Arnold Wapelhorst
Photo taken in 2009; https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/19340538/arnold-wapelhorst

We inquired at the Eastern California Museum in Independence as to where the cemetery might be located. Originally on the grounds of Fort Indpendence, the cemetery is now located on the local Indian Reservation on private property. (The fort was established in 1862 to protect settlers from the local Paiutes. The Paiutes ended up moving next to the fort for protection from the settlers. When the fort was decommissioned, the land eventually became a reservation. Ironic history.) We were told a Civil War reinactor would stop in once a year around July 4 and tend to the cemetary.

When we located the cemetery it appeared that he had not visited in many years. The cemetery was gated and completely surrounded by homes. A local young man appeared in one of the yards and we asked if there was a way to access the cemetery so we could pay respects to a relative. He graciously brought us through his property and gave us access. We found Arnold’s grave, long since tended and barely missed by a fallen cottonwood. I felt like we had found an old friend and I was grateful to honor a gentleman who died so long ago, but is not forgotten.

Arnold Wapelhorst
Photos taken in 2019
Arnold Wapelhorst

A plug for history

I would heartily recommend a book called “The Boys in the Sky-Blue Pants” by Dorothy Clora Cragen as an excellent account of the history of the Owens Valley through the story of Fort Independence. Every classic John Ford western might well have been inspired by the events that took place in the Owens Valley in the late 1800’s. When I started reading this book, I could not put it down (it is quite a bit drier than a Louis L’Amour novel, but admittedly I am a history buff). It has led us to many adventures in the Owens Valley and Independence tracking down evidence of the colorful history of this area.

The book is out of print, but the Eastern California Museum has recently come into possession of a great quantity of these books and they are very reasonably priced. Follow the link, give them a call, and tell them Major Tom sent you!

Eastern California Museum, Owens Valley history

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