Mammoth Lakes’ Beginnings: The Historic Knight Water Wheel

Jul 14, 2021

Like many western mountain towns, the first Europeans to settle in the Mammoth Lakes area were drawn by wealth locked deep within the expansive landscape. Gold was discovered in the vicinity of Old Mammoth in 1877 and thousands of men rapidly flocked to the region in the hopes of striking it rich. Today, evidence of these industrious pioneers remains throughout Old Mammoth and no object is able to tell the story of Mammoth’s early history better than the historic Knight water wheel.

The photogenic Knight water wheel, located along Old Mammoth Road, is a preserved remnant of Mammoth Lakes’ industrial beginnings. Now positioned in the quaking aspen adjacent to the paved bike path, this cast iron water wheel has a row of spoon-shaped buckets (Pelton-style) and was a technological marvel in its time. This innovative turbine design allowed late 19th-century industry to generate more power with less water. Previous water wheel designs were inefficient, cumbersome, and required sources providing high volumes of water.

The History of Mammoth’s Knight Water Wheel

Due to the design’s practicality, Mammoth’s Knight water wheel has a very unique history. The wheel was originally manufactured by the Knight Foundry, located in Sutter Creek, California, in the mid-1870’s and was hauled from the Mojave area to the Mammoth Lakes Basin by mule and oxen team.

The water wheel was in operation by 1878, when General George S. Dodge consolidated several mining claims into the Mammoth Mining Company and constructed a large 20 stamp mill. The massive mill, located in the former mining camp of Mill City, required a significant source of energy to process the gold and silver ore extracted from the depths of Red Mountain.

In order to power the mill, the Knight wheel was fed by water sourced at Twin Lakes and carried by almost two miles of covered ditch skirting Panorama Dome. This engineering marvel saw little use, as the Mammoth Mining Co. went bankrupt in 1880 and was later sold at Sheriff’s auction. Remnants of the 20 stamp mill structure stood until 1929 when it was completely destroyed by fire.

A second boom of mining activity occurred in the Old Mammoth area throughout the late 1890’s and in 1898, Bishop physician, Dr. Guy Doyle had the water wheel shipped uphill from Mill City to Old Mammoth. The wheel was immediately put to use driving a new 10 stamp mill with water channeled in wooden sluices from near the outlet of Lake Mary. This investment did not pay off as the mining district quickly went bust and the mill closed shortly after construction.

In 1902, the heavy wheel was transported by timber sled and mule team from Old Mammoth to its present location near Mammoth Creek. This site is the location of the former Wildasinn Hotel and Mammoth Camp Lodge and the water wheel was utilized to generate electricity for the blossoming mountain resort throughout the 1920’s. One of the hotel’s original log cabins remains today nestled in the trees behind the water wheel.

Exploring the Past in Old Mammoth

Aside from the Knight water wheel, evidence of Mammoth’s turn of the century industrial complex is present at Mill City, near the top of Old Mammoth Road. A short hiking trail beginning at the old stone pump house leads to the former Mammoth Mining Co. mill site. Other than old building foundations, the only remaining remnant of the massive mill is the twenty-foot diameter cast iron flywheel and its stone and masonry base.

Topographically above the mill site and paralleling the Panorama Dome hiking trail, the entire course of the hand-dug ditch used to carry water from Twin Lakes is well preserved. The small wooden bridge near the southeast end of the Panorama Dome trail spans the original mill feeder channel used to supply gravity charged water to the Knight wheel.

These historic remains can be appreciated throughout the year by foot or by snowshoe and for a trail map and information on the conditions around Old Mammoth, contact the local U.S. Forest Service office at the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center. For additional information, the public library in Mammoth Lakes has a great collection of historical references describing past life in Old Mammoth.

Jason Abplanalp

Jason Abplanalp first discovered the Eastern Sierra lifestyle six years ago and after brief tenures in Colorado and Idaho, Jason returned to the mountain town he truly loves, Mammoth Lakes, CA. As an avid skier, mountain biker, hiker, and fisherman, Jason believes there is no better place for his family to call home. Jason has…

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