Posted by: Brad Nixon | September 17, 2018

In the Museum of the Lost World

When we travel, many of us visit museums. Paris? See the Louvre. Florence? Uffizi. Berlin? Maybe the Pergamonmuseum.

Were there no museums, only the wealthy or powerful would ever see the grandest works of art, the mightiest inventions of the past or have the means to see artifacts of lost civilizations or the animals and plants that occupied the planet 200 million years ago.

There’s another tier of the museum world, so extensive and multifaceted that no human will ever list them all: small museums dedicated to local history, crafts, food, technologies, machinery, cultures, occupations and the natural world.

Almost everywhere there are people, there’s a museum commemorating a local artist’s birthplace, an event from history or a distinctive local trade or food.

Do you stop? Sometimes? Rarely? Never?

Put me in the “rarely” category. Recently The Counselor and I traveled 300 miles north of Los Angeles into the Owens Valley. In just a few hours we passed the Museum of Western Film History, the Southern Inyo Museum (both in Lone Pine), the Eastern California Museum (Independence), the Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Museum and the American Mule Museum (both in Bishop), to name a few.

No doubt they all contain things of interest and reflect well upon their communities and the staff, volunteers and patrons who support them. There’s simply not time to see everything.

The One We Saw

We visited one museum that intrigued us: the Laws Railroad Museum, four miles north of Bishop, California.

Laws RR Brad Nixon 1541 680

I’ll cover the “railroad” part of the museum in a later post. Our visit provoked some questions to consider.

A Railroad Town in the Gold Boom

Laws, California sprung up in about 1880. Gold mining was booming in the Eastern Sierra, and the Carson and Colorado Railroad opened a narrow gauge line to serve the area. The creation of the railroad depot attracted settlers and new businesses. They built houses, a hotel, pool hall, blacksmith shop, boarding houses, a post office, barber shop and warehouses. Farming took hold in the river valley, too.

If you know the history of California, you know that the gold gave out early in the 20th century. Then something more dire occurred. The City of Los Angeles acquired huge tracts of the Owens Valley and began routing the essential Owens River into aqueducts to feed the growing metropolis to the south. In the words of two historians,

Water development policies adopted by the City of Los Angeles after 1924 led ultimately to the destruction of irrigated agriculture, and the virtual depopulation of the Owens Valley.
Laws view Brad Nixon 1579 680

The trains ran to Laws until 1960, although by then there was no town left, just the depot, a few other buildings and the rail yard.

Laws RR Brad Nixon 1548 680

Laws RR Brad Nixon 4011 680


In the mid-1960s, local volunteers started preserving the area’s crumbling past. They collected not only a locomotive engine and rolling stock, but entire buildings: a school, a church, houses, mining works, and moved them to the site. They assembled a simulated village on 11 acres.

Laws RR Brad Nixon 1609 680

Simply preserving the architecture and way of life from an earlier era is impressive. But the museum is more: All of the buildings are PACKED WITH STUFF. One house contains a large collection of old glass bottles, cans and an entire room of whiskey decanters.

Laws bottles Brad Nixon 1515 680

It’s obviously not a complete collection, because there was not one, single, solitary Elvis decanter. I assume the original owners hung onto those.

All the buildings — doctor’s and dentist’s offices, printing shop, post office, blacksmith shop, school, machine shop and other buildings are chock-full of items related to those occupations.

Laws PO Brad Nixon pano 680

Even the grounds themselves are full of farming and mining equipment.

Laws RR Brad Nixon 1543 680

My rural background reaches back far enough that I can identify more rusty old mowers, reapers, planters, threshers, balers, tractors and other implements than you would ever want to see on any given day. But what’s this big wooden wheel for?

Laws RR Brad Nixon 1555 680

Walk into a large building nearby and see a complete gold stamping mill, with a similar wooden wheel driven by a belt.

Laws mill Brad Nixon 4016 680

Many of the items have good explanations and details. Nearly everything is interesting to look at until your brain overloads, stops processing any more input and it’s time to leave. Apparently everyone in the northern Owens Valley with a collection has sent it to Laws.

That includes antique musical instruments…

Laws music Brad Nixon 4064 680

… An 1880s Pennyfarthing Bicycle:

Laws bicycle Brad Nixon 4068 680

The Piece de Resistance

If you persist, scanning through the ten thousand artifacts for long enough, you’ll find it in a collection of old telephones. There in remote Laws is the telephone specially made in a custom color in 1948 for the singer/actress Jeanette MacDonald’s Beverly Hills home.

Laws phone Brad Nixon 4070 680

Did she actually use that golden voice to talk to Nelson Eddy on that very instrument?

The Louvre may want it. The Hollywood Heritage Museum must pine for it. I assume they’ve made offers and been turned down. You’ll have to venture up Route 395 to Laws to see it.

How did it get there? I have no clue.

What are we to make of these hundreds of local museums, maintained and curated with passion and to the best of their staff’s resources? Is this merely stuff, or do the millions of items they hold preserve something worthwhile? There are living people who remember using some of the items in the Laws museum. Memory will disappear within a generation or two. Will this and other local institutions become the museums of homeless things, preserving a lost world about which few people care? Or are they as important a part of our human heritage as Etruscan tomb art or the Wright Flyer?

And shouldn’t the Louvre, really, acquire that telephone?

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Additional blog posts about the Laws Railroad Museum

 An article about the museum’s exhibit of an iconic symbol ofmining days, the 20 Mule Team borax wagons, at this link.

The railroad portion: 1909 steam locomotive, antique rolling stock, 1883 depot building, railyard with original water tower, etc.

My appreciation goes to the volunteers of the Laws Railroad Museum.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Header photograph © M. Vincent 2018, used by kind permission. Quotation from Judy Triem and Mitch Stone (July 7, 1997). “National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination: Inyo County Courthouse”


  1. That Railroad Museum looked fascinating and crammed with stuff. Like you, I think I would have passed on the Mule Museum although it doubtless will hold interest for some people. From early childhood, my parents introduced me to museums and my interest has continued. I believe they should be preserved for generations to come but I have to agree that nowadays there seems to be a museum for almost everything. It was heartbreaking to read about the devastating fire at Brazil’s National Museum in Rio where irreplaceable treasures were destroyed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought about you as I wrote this, because I consistently admire your tireless curiosity in seeking out, viewing and reporting on museums of every stripe. I also thought of the tragic loss in Brazil, and what an enormous blow that is to the nation — one that spans numerous cultures. I also give my parents credit for getting us out there to see new things, and I’m happy to have a partner with the same abiding curiosity. Thanks for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. No, Le Musée du Louvre wouldn’t take it: their collection stops in the 1850s (they’re pretty rigid about that timeframe), and it wouldn’t qualify as a sculpture or as grand art. 🎨

    BUT, Le Musée des Arts et Metiers in Paris might be interested. Why don’t you give them a “call?” Just to see if it’s still functional. 👍😃

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tres mignonne.


      • If you put some gold arabesques on your phone, maybe you could sneak it into the Louvre’s Napoleon Suite where you can find a tiny handfull of 19th century objets d’art. Other than that space in the Louvre, most of their sculptures are REALLY old, like 1,000 years minimum.


      • I still think they’re missing out. Some other museum is going to nab that phone and attendance will PLUMMET.


      • On the other hand, it’s helpful to have the perspective of someone who’s actually seen vast portions of the museum. Merci.


  3. I think I’d have stopped at the Mule Museum. I’ve been to many museums in many countries, but I’ve never heard of one about mules before. I suppose a museum website would be hoping for too much. 🐎


    • Look for mule-related information in an upcoming post. From an adjunct operation in cooperation with the Mule Museum. We aim to please. So far as I can tell, the Mule Museum per se is not yet in full operation, and their website is rudimentary, nascent, or I’d have provided a link.


  4. Interesting Post. We have a local pioneering village not too far from where I live, I paid it a visit last year. I got some excellent shots of the old farm houses, churches, masonic lodge, canals, and mills.


    • In fact, did you do some artwork from some of those shots? I seem to remember a blog post like that. Pardon me if I’m mistaken. And I owe your blog a visit.


      • I posted the pictures to my blog last fall. But I have since deleted them. I also did some artwork from them but no paintings yet.


  5. Let’s see. Houston has a funeral museum and an art car museum, which I haven’t visited. It also has the Orange Show, dedicated to all things orange-related, which I have visited, and love. Then there’s the Danish Heritage Museum in Danevang, Texas (visited), at least three barbed wire museums strung across the Panhandle (they didn’t catch my interest) and the Babe Didrikson Zaharias Museum in Beaumont (my mother made me stop).

    Even when I’m off my home turf, there’s no way to stop at them all. My favorites are the ‘museums’ that are an outgrowth of an individual’s obsession. The Keystone Gallery near Monument Rocks in western Kansas was a winner.

    There’s a tiny museum dedicated to Iowa coal-mining and local life in the little town where my parents grew up. With no one to pass family items on to, I’ve decided to donate a few things to them, like my mother’s hand-crocheted baptismal gown and the fife that my gr-gr-grandfather carried in the Civil War. That little museum has an interesting arrangement with the Iowa State Historical Society. If for any reason the museum can’t keep going — funding problems, for example — the Historical Society will take over their entire holdings.


    • My parents (your parents’ age, too) may have stopped at Babe’s museum on an RV trip across Texas — they’d at least have taken note. Those are all great examples. Think of how many museums to the international heritage of American settlers are spread across the country! That’ll end when we put a stop to all this immigration, by cracky. And how many mining museums must there be? It’s worth having those local ones, though, because mining differed in countless ways according to who was doing it and when, in what geology, on and on.
      Maybe all history — like all politics — is local.
      And nice know you have your forebear’s fife! Thanks for weighing in.

      Liked by 1 person

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