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Popular Center for Historians : Ghost Town Church Reborn as End-of-the-Line Library

Times Staff Writer

Pat Coles is a ghost town librarian.

The library was once the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, red-shingled, with a stately steeple. It was moved here from Bishop in 1972 to the 11 1/2 acres of what’s left of Laws.

Historians, writers and researchers come here from throughout the West to use the resources of this most unusual library, which includes rare books and an extensive collection on California history.

Laws once was a flourishing Owens Valley farming, cattle and mining center and a rail head for the 307-mile Carson & Colorado Railway. More than 400 people lived here at its peak. But the town began a decline and finally died the day the last narrow-gauge train puffed into town on April 29, 1968.

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Home for Last Train

Southern Pacific Railroad deeded the last train, Engine No. 9, called the “Slim Princess,” and a string of passenger coaches, boxcars and a caboose to the people of Inyo County on the day of the final run. The train still stands where it stopped.

The ghost town, just east of Bishop, has been the Laws Railroad Museum and Historical Site ever since, operated by the Bishop Museum and Historical Society.

What’s left of Laws is its 1883 depot with potbellied stove, Western Union and Wells Fargo Express offices, post office, general store, doctor’s office, half a dozen buildings, the 1883 station agent’s house, water tower, wooden round table operated by hand and the old train.

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And the library--across the tracks from Engine No. 9.

Coles, 67, has been Laws’ librarian since the church was moved here 14 years ago.

“This was the old confessional,” Coles noted as she removed an 1889 copy of Dante’s “Inferno” from a bookshelf in a niche near a stained-glass window depicting the Virgin Mary. “I ought to know,” said the widow. “I was a member of the church.”

What brings patrons to the ghost town library from great distances is the superb collection of rare books, especially on California, as well as Gold Rush letters and diaries and Civil War and Spanish-American War scrapbooks.

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Rare Californiana

The libraries of P. A. Chelfant and his son W. D. Chelfant, pioneer Owens Valley printers and publishers, are in the old church. So is the Owens Valley collection of photographs, books and publications from cattleman Gus Cashbaugh, who died last year at 102, and a prized 1,100-volume collection of rare Californiana donated by Robert L. Craib.

Craib, 82, and his late wife, Isabel, of South Pasadena, happened upon the ghost town library in 1972 when Craib came to Laws to record information about the old Catholic church.

For years Craib had been on an odyssey, trying to visit every church of every denomination in the state and collecting historical data about each church visited.

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“My wife and I fell in love with this church that became the Laws ghost town library. I gave my collection . . . to the library as a memorial to my wife . . . after she died in 1978,” Craib explained.

“It is the most appropriate place for the collection that I can think of.”


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