MAMMOTH LAKES — It is probably safe to assume that Moses Black and Leander Morton did not appreciate the beauty of nearby Convict Lake.
But then, they were busy dodging bullets and, later, having their necks stretched.
The two outlaws were part of a gang of 29 who overpowered guards and escaped from Nevada State Penitentiary on Sept. 17, 1871, and part of a group of six chased by a determined posse into the foothills of the Sierra south of here.
After a dramatic shootout with the posse tracking them to what is now Convict Creek, Black, Morton and J. Bedford Roberts escaped south toward Bishop. Three others had split from the group shortly before the shootout.
The law caught up with Black, Morton and Roberts on Sept. 27. According to George Williams III’s “The Murders at Convict Lake,” Black and Morton were “lynched, tried and hung” by vigilantes who wrestled them from the posse. The convicts had killed Billy Poor, a young mail carrier, during their escape. Black also had killed posse member Robert Morrison during the shootout. Roberts, believed to have played only a minor role in the killings, was turned over to the posse and returned to prison.
Such is the history behind the naming of the lake. But what’s in a name?
Convict Lake could still bear its former moniker, Diablo Lake, and it wouldn’t change the fact that it is one heavenly reservoir, surrounded by aspens and pines and steep granite peaks, and brimming with clear, cold water teeming with trout. It is the home of Horgon, a giant German brown that heretofore has eluded a persistent posse armed not with six-shooters and Henry repeating rifles, but with rods and reels and every lure and bait known to man.
A glacier slicing through the region thousands of years ago carved what is now Convict Lake, tucked in the mountains at 7,583 feet at the end of Convict Lake Road only two miles from U.S. 395 between Bishop and Mammoth Lakes. The lake, or tarn, is one of the deepest in the Eastern Sierra at 140 feet. The water is so clear you can follow the rays of the sun to depths of 30 feet or more.
On cloudy days, the surface of the lake acts as a mirror, reflecting not only the billowy clouds but the steep mountains that rise sharply to heights of 10,000 feet or more. The 12,268-foot Mt. Morrison, the highest visible peak, towers over the lake on the south shore and Mt. Laurel, at 11,813 feet, reaches up dramatically from the northeast.
“This is God’s country,” said Canoga Park’s Rod Lenox, 38, a Convict Lake regular who knows an appropriate cliche when he sees one. “The first time we came up, we went to Crowley (Lake, a few miles down U.S. 395) and froze our butts off. We found this lake by mistake, looking at the map. Ever since then we’ve been coming up here.”
Mt. Morrison was named after Robert Morrison, Black’s victim during the shootout. Morrison, a 34-year-old Wells Fargo agent and posse member, reportedly had Black in his sights during the shootout. His gun failed, however, and Black, “a large and heavy man with dark hair and beard,” walked up and “coolly pointed his gun at the back of Morrison’s head and fired . . . killing him instantly,” according to Williams.
The posse, one of its members killed and two wounded, fled the scene. A new posse formed in Bishop, caught up with the three close to Round Valley near Bishop and for Black and Morton it was soon to be curtains.
That was all more than 100 years ago, but some wonder if the region isn’t haunted by ghosts of those who met such violent ends here, especially when the wind whistles in fast and cold through the mountains and canyons.
“The wind that blows here almost has life of its own,” said Adrienne DeSurra, who with her husband, David, operates Convict Lake Resort. “It has a sound to it . . . like a spirit or something.”
The haunting wind and lore of the Wild West add to the mystique of Convict Lake, but they are not what bring thousands here each year. When the snow begins to melt and the ice thaws on the lake, usually in mid-April, the campground, with 88 sites at the foot of Mt. Morrison along Convict Creek, begins to fill.
And on the last Saturday of April, which marks the beginning of the fishing season, the only things that can be found dangling at the end of a rope at Convict Lake are trout on a stringer.
This year’s season-opener on April 30 was so successful that David DeSurra barely had time to catch his breath, as anglers young and old hauled stringers of fish into the general store to have them weighed and photographed.
There were no monsters, but plenty of three- and four-pounders, and a few pushing five. Even 8-year-old Zach Haines of Ventura, on his first Eastern Sierra opener, had no trouble filling a stringer. He did, however, have a little trouble dragging his trout and those of his father, Randy, into the store.
Confronted by a reporter, Haines became red-faced and mum, until he was asked who had caught the two larger rainbows on the string, the tails of which were dragging on the ground.
Convict Lake might be one of the more picturesque and accessible lakes in the Sierra Nevada, but it has a violent past. It used to called Monte Diablo Lake until a series of killings in the late 1800s.
On Sept. 17, 1871, 29 prisoners escaped from the Nevada State Prison in Carson City. The prisoners split into two groups, one of which was led by convicted murderer Charlie Jones.
Jones previously had lived in Mono and Inyo counties and led his group south toward the Mammoth area. The group robbed several people along the way, and Jones had hoped to cross the Sierra Nevada and end up on the range’s western slope, where they would be safe from pursuit.
He was worried a Carson City posse was trailing them, which was true, but it had given up within two days and turned back. Near Bridgeport, a solitary man on a horse was catching up to them. Thinking he was part of the posse that had planned an ambush, Jones captured the man and killed him with the help of Leandor Morton.
The slain man, Billy Poor, actually was a Pony Express rider who was delivering mail for the first time. Killing a Mono County resident didn’t go over well with the local community, so the convicts then were being pursued by local vigilante groups.
By Sept. 22, a new posse of 10 men, led by Sheriff George Hightower, Indian deputy Mono Jim and local merchant Robert Morrison, had caught up to the convicts near Monte Diablo Creek.Jones got up early and headed to Bishop on the morning of Sept. 23. Two other convicts had told the others that they were looking for food, but they really were trying to break off from the group. The four remaining convicts were approached by the new posse, resulting in Mono Jim and Robert Morrison getting gunned down.
By Nov. 1, 18 of the 29 original prisoners had been captured. Jones and the two others who went searching for food avoided the shootout but eventually met their fates.
Based on this historical event, Monte Diablo Creek was renamed Convict Creek, and Monte Diablo Lake was renamed Convict Lake. The highest peak in the area was named Mount Morrison for the slain Robert Morrison, and its smaller satellite peak was named for Mono Jim.
These days, Convict Lake is a fishing hotbed, stocked with rainbow and brown trout. The 2008 fishing season ends Nov. 15. The Convict Lake Resort has 27 cabins for rent, a fish cleaning station and manages an 88-site campground nearby.
For more information, visit http://www.convictlake.com.