Chapter 6: The Wheeler Survey

For the next 23 years, after the 49ers had passed through Ash Meadows and met their disaster in Death Valley, the Amargosa Valley was forgotten and left to the natives. And they continued along in their secret paradise as they had always continued for at least a millennia prior.

George Wheeler, 1842-1905

But then along came two men, named George Wheeler and Charles King. George Wheeler was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, stationed in California. From1869 to 1871, he headed expeditions into Nevada, performing reconnaissance work. And his work must have impressed someone, because in 1872 he was appointed to head what became known as the Wheeler Survey.

The Wheeler Survey was a government plan to map the portion of the United States west of the 100th meridian. The mapping was to be topographical, at a scale of 8 miles to the inch. And along with this, Wheeler was tasked to discover the numbers, habits, and disposition of Indians, select sites for future military installations, note mineral resources, climate, geology, vegetation, water sources, and agricultural potential.

This survey, along with the surveys of Hayden, Powell, and Clarence King, helped open up the American West. In the wake of these surveys, mining, agriculture, and other industries were able to expand into the heretofore mysterious byways and alcoves of the West’s interior lands. And many Native Americans who had remained mostly undisturbed since the invasion of Europeans, found themselves pushed aside, and onto reservations.

Wheeler worked at his survey until 1879, when an act of Congress terminated his work, and that of Hayden, Powell, and Clarence King, which was also ongoing at the time. This act of Congress created the United States Geological Survey, which consolidated all the data from the different surveys.

But George Wheeler’s legacy lives on in the West. Wheeler Peak, in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park, was named after him. And so was Wheeler Peak, in New Mexico, which is the state’s highest point.

In 1871, shortly before Wheeler began his survey, he met and hired a man named Charles King. King had migrated to California in 1850, nursing a bad case of gold fever. He apparently didn’t find any gold, though, so he had to settle for odd jobs. He worked as a miner, merchant, lumberman, and sheriff, among other things.

Then in 1871, George Wheeler hired him to help out with the survey he was about to begin. This survey took King through the Ash Meadows area, and he was very impressed with all the springs, and vast acres of virgin grassland. He realized this would be a prime spot for ranching and farming.

He spread the word, and the secret of Ash Meadows got out. People seeking to make a living off the land, investigated this area, and between 1872 and 1879 several ranches and farms sprang up in the Amargosa Valley. Such agricultural endeavors require water, and this put the first major strains on the wetlands of Ash Meadows.

In the 1880s, lucrative minerals were being discovered in Death Valley and the surrounding area, and the mines that began pockmarking the landscape put additional strain on Ash Meadows. The mines had to transport their ore, and they needed supplies transported to them. Freight was moved along routes that stopped at every water hole, including Ash Meadows. And so merchants and other entrepreneurs established businesses at these water holes.

The Native Americans who had lived at Ash Meadows for at least a thousand years, soon found themselves crowded out by this new civilization. No longer could they live their old lifestyle. They either had to move onto a distant reservation, or go to work at a nearby mine, ranch, or farm. Some left and some stayed. But to this day, many of the descendants of those who stayed still reside in the area.

In 1890, a town named Lathrop Wells sprang up at a crossroads, about 15 miles north of Ash Meadows. Its name was later changed to Amargosa Valley, and it sits today at the junction of US Highway 95 and State Highway 373. There’s not much in Amargosa Valley; mainly just a gas station, restaurant, and the Cherry Patch II brothel, with a casino down the road at the California border. The population today is several hundred, and likely it’s never been much higher than that.

During the early 1900s, as the automobile began replacing the horse, the demand for oil and gasoline skyrocketed. Oil was discovered in Southern California, and with that came a need for clay. That’s because clay was used for filtering oil.

A huge deposit of clay was discovered in the Amargosa Valley, and a clay boom began. The first clay claim was staked in 1916. Within a year, six square miles of this desert valley was being dug up for the filtering substance. And by the late 1920s, 30,000 pounds of clay per year were being extracted from the desert floor, and shipped off to Southern California.

The clay boom lasted until 1940, when the last quarry was shut down. But the clay miners returned in the 1970s, with the founding of Industrial Mineral Ventures (IMV Nevada) in 1972. Since that time, the IMV has been mining and processing specialty clays on 10,000 acres of an approximate 46,000 acres of clay deposits.

This is the latest installation of my series, The Amazing Amargosa. Come on back in a few days for the next installation, entitled, Chapter 7, Part 1: The Gunslinger . Click here to read the previous installation. Click here, to start at the beginning.

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