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Tippy Gnu

I chase unicorns, which are symbols for unique ideas and experiences, and sometimes I post about them. Heck, I'm retired, so what else is there to do? I also write books, which can be read or downloaded for free, on my blog site.

Death Valley, Part 6: Digging Death Valley

This is Part 6 of a multi-part series about Death Valley. For the previous installation, CLICK THIS LINK. For the next installation (when available), CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!

Digging Death Valley

A prospector with his jackass.

There were a lot of jackasses back in the Old West days. And often they were led by the rope of a prospector, as he picked away at various ores he’d find here and there. Occasionally one of these old miners would get lucky and find a mother lode. He’d file a claim, dig a mine, and soon a boom town would spring up around him.

But that didn’t happen very often in Death Valley. The climate is so dry, there wasn’t much water or fuel lying around. You need to have lots of that to operate a successful mine. And Death Valley was so remote, transporting ore to distant mills proved too daunting and too expensive for most potential mines.

But a few lucky prospectors managed to stumble upon some lucrative deposits of gold and silver, that were large enough to justify a mining operation.

In 1905, the boom town of Rhyolite, Nevada sprang out of the dust, when gold was discovered about 15 miles northeast of Death Valley. At its peak, in 1908, up to 5,000 people labored and perspired here. But by 1911 the mine played out and shut down. And by 1920, Rhyolite had become a ghost town with a population near zero.

This train depot was built in 1908, in Rhyolite. That same year the town began its decline. The railroad turned a profit in 1908, but lost money thereafter, until it shut down in 1919.

In 1906, gold was discovered about 10 miles west of Death Valley, at an elevation of 5,689 feet. This gave birth to the boom town of Skidoo, California. The operators of the Skidoo mine were very innovative. They managed to run a pipeline from Telescope Peak, which was 10 miles away to the south, down to their mine. It was a phenomenal engineering feat. This pipe enabled them to establish the only milling plant in the area that ran almost completely by water power. It was a 15-stamp mill that produced over 75,000 ounces of gold, until the mine closed in 1917.

The Keane Wonder Mine flourished in the Valley of Death itself, from 1903 to 1912. Located at the base of the Funeral Mountains, about 13 miles east of Stovepipe Wells, this mine could process a whopping 70 tons of raw gold ore per day at its peak. It began playing out in 1912, and attempts to keep it operating were finally abandoned in 1942.

But gold was not the most profitable ore to be mined at Death Valley. No, that distinction went to a mineral that had been lying all over the valley floor for thousands of years. The ancient Lake Manly once filled Death Valley, 100 miles long and 600 feet deep. This lake had no outlet, so it became very salty. It began drying up, and as it dried, the evaporating water left heavy deposits of salt compounds. Including a type of salt compound called borax.

From Dante’s View you can see the vast salt deposits left behind by the ancient Lake Manly.

In 1881, an entrepreneur named William T. Coleman visited Death Valley, and realized it possessed a bonanza of borax. He established the Harmony Borax Works, and put 40 men to work, extracting and processing this mineral. From 1883 to 1888, this plant produced three tons of borax per day, when in full operation.

The Harmony Borax Works.

Unfortunately, Death Valley would get so hot during the summer, that the water used for processing the borax would not cool enough to allow it to crystallize. And so they would have to suspend operations until the weather cooled down enough for the water to get below 120 F.

The processed ore was hauled 165 miles to the railhead in Mojave, California. They used “twenty-mule teams” that pulled up to 36 tons, including 1,200 gallons of drinking water. These teams actually consisted of 18 mules and 2 horses each. The teams averaged 2 mph, and required about 30 days to complete a round trip (11 miles per day).

A 20-Mule Team. The two horses were placed closest to the wagon, and were called “wheel horses.”

Coleman overextended himself financially, and found himself in a cash-flow pickle. So in 1888, he sold the Harmony Borax Works to the Pacifc Coast Borax Company, owned by Francis Marion Smith. Smith shut the plant down, preferring to haul the raw borax to a location outside Death Valley, for processing.

At that time, borax wasn’t well known to the general public. But Smith was a genius at marketing. He heavily hyped this mineral as an effective household cleaner. He promoted the “20-Mule-Team Borax” brand, and convinced housewives all across America to add borax to their cleaning supplies.

A 1923 ad for borax, in The Ladies’ Home Journal.

Borax mining picked up in Death Valley in the 20th century, with open pit and strip mines pockmarking the land. After Death Valley became a national park in 1994, pressure was placed by environmentalists to close down all the mining. They won. In 2005, the last mine to operate in Death Valley shut down. This was an underground borax operation near Dante’s View, called the Billie Mine.


Death Valley, Part 5: The Hell of Death Valley

This is Part 5 of a multi-part series about Death Valley. For the previous installation, CLICK THIS LINK. For the next installation, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!

The Hell of Death Valley

In the previous installation, the Death Valley ’49ers were searching for Walker Pass, which offered a shortcut to the Central Valley and the goldfields of California. But their map was sketchy. And they couldn’t find a Rand McNally. So after leaving the oasis of Ash Meadows, they weren’t sure which way to turn.

About seven miles south of Ash Meadows, at present-day Death Valley Junction, they made the fateful decision to turn west. NNNNNNGH! Wrong move! The better move would have been to continue south to present-day Baker, then angle west to present-day Barstow, then turn north toward present-day Ridgecrest, where the Walker Pass opens up. Or, they could have continued west from Barstow, and headed over the Tehachapi or Tejon Pass, and on into the Central Valley.

Which any fool could have figured out with an 1849 edition of Rand McNally. And it’s likely that Jefferson Hunt possessed such an edition, because he successfully led the wagons that stayed with him, to the California goldfields. And without incident.

But the route chosen by the impatient ones who’d broken from Hunt, instead took them along the base of the Funeral Mountains, straight into Hell. The hell of Death Valley.

The Funeral Mountains. A rather ominous name for the Death Valley ’49ers.

On Christmas Eve, 1849 they found themselves at Furnace Creek, staring at a wall. This was the wall of the Panamint mountains, that effectively blocked any further travel west. They would not have a merry Christmas. By this point their wagons were in rickety shape, and their oxen were nearly dead from exhaustion. What to do? Which way to go? were the questions their dried-out tongues were slurring.

The wall of the Panamint mountains, blocking the west side of Death Valley.

These contumacious folks loved to argue, and had a hard time agreeing on anything. The Wade family had been lagging behind. When they caught up with this party of debaters, they made their own decision. They turned south, driving past the salt flats of Badwater Basin, and escaping Death Valley through Wingate Pass.

Ashford Mill Ruins, which processed gold ore from the Golden Treasure Mine in 1914. The Wade family escaped Death Valley, by passing through this southern part of the valley.

The Bennett-Arcanes imagined they spied a pass leading through the Panamints, at Warm Springs Canyon. This was a little to the south, so they drove their wagons that way.

Meanwhile, the Jayhawkers gambled on a northerly route. They imagined they saw a pass over the Panamints near present-day Stovepipe Wells. And they were right, because this is the location of Towne Pass. However, Towne Pass was heavily covered with an obstacle course of boulders, which their wagons could not negotiate.

Starving, and in desperation, the Jayhawkers decided to slaughter their oxen and burn their wagons to cure the meat. This took place at present-day Stovepipe Wells, in a spot that is now referred to as “Burned Wagons Camp.” The Jayhawkers then slung the beef jerky over their backs and hiked out of Death Valley over Towne Pass. They had a long march ahead of them.

Stovepipe Wells And the Panamint Range lie beyond these sand dunes. These days the only wagons that burn at Stovepipe Wells are the occasional motor homes that overheat trying to make it over Towne Pass.

They footslogged over Towne Pass. After crossing the Panamints, two men named Mr. Fish and Mr. Isham, collapsed and died. The survivors trudged on, across the Panamint Valley. Then they navigated another pass and stumbled down into Searles Valley. After the next pass, they dropped into Indian Wells Valley, near present-day Ridgecrest. Here, for the first time, they beheld the Sierra Nevada mountains.

They turned south to skirt these high mountains, following along a trail where Highway 14 would later be constructed. Ignorant of this terra incognita, they staggered right past Walker Pass, which was the very pass they had been seeking when they entered Death Valley. Had they recognized this pass, it would have soon led them to the Kern River, with abundant supplies of water.

But instead they continued south, across the dry, desolate Mojave Desert, where very few water holes were to be found. Fortunately, a cold winter storm had just passed through, which left just enough puddles of water and patches of ice on the ground to keep them alive.

William Manly, for whom Manly Beacon, at Zabriskie Point is named, as well as the ancient Lake Manly.

Finally, they found a pass over the Sierra Pelona Mountains, near present-day Palmdale. They followed the Santa Clara River into the Santa Clarita Valley. There, some Californio vaqueros from nearby Rancho San Fernando happened upon them, and they were rescued. This was in early-February 1850, about six weeks after they’d parted ways with the Bennett-Arcanes.

And as for the Bennett-Arcanes, they were frustrated in their attempt to cross the Panamints at Warm Springs Canyon. So they set up camp on the valley floor. In early-January, they dispatched William Manly and John Rogers, along with two weeks of supplies and $30, to find civilization and purchase provisions for them.

But before Manly and Rogers could return, they sent out three other men, perhaps for insurance. Their mission was the same: to scout an escape route from the valley and to locate provisions. But one of these men, a Captain Culverwell, couldn’t keep up with his two traveling companions. He turned back, but died of thirst just a few miles short of the camp. He is the only one of these ’49ers to have perished within Death Valley itself.

While they were waiting for the return of the men they’d dispatched, one family, the Briers, made the daring decision to abandon the party. They ventured out upon a heroic and desperate scramble over the Panamint Mountains to the west, and successfully escaped the ravages of Death Valley.

Manly and Rogers hiked 250 miles to Mission San Fernando, where they purchased food, three horses, and a one-eyed mule. But the journey back to their starving friends was very rough, and the three horses died along the way. They finally made it back to camp four weeks after they had left.

The other two men also made it back, bringing food supplies. And with only a one-eyed mule and meager food provisions, the remaining members of the Bennett-Arcane party managed to footslog their way to civilization.

As they made their way out of this hellhole that had trapped them for half the winter, one of the survivors turned around and proclaimed, “Goodbye, Death Valley.” And this is how Death Valley got its name.


Death Valley, Part 4: The Death Valley ’49ers

This is Part 4 of a multi-part series about Death Valley. For the previous installation, CLICK THIS LINK. For the next installation, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!

The Death Valley ’49ers

In the winter of 1846-1847, the Donner Party was trapped in heavy snowfall in California’s Sierra Nevada. They spent the winter starving to death, and eating each other whenever they could. Only 48 out of the original 87 made it out alive.

It made news all over the country, and after this travelers developed a healthy respect for the dangers of the Sierra Nevada. But that didn’t stop pioneers from heading west. Because soon after, gold was discovered in California, and gold fever had a way of overcoming common sense.

The pioneers who painted their wagons and drove west to the California goldfields were called ’49ers. But one particular group of pioneers were given a special distinction. Their sobriquet was the Death Valley ’49ers.

In October of 1849, Salt Lake City, Utah was abustle with ’49ers and their wagons. They stopped here because they feared traveling further west during the winter months. The Donner Party news was fresh in their heads, and many decided to overwinter in Salt Lake City, before continuing their journey in the spring.

But some were anxious to get to all those gold nuggets that reportedly were lying all over the riverbeds of California, just waiting for someone to pick up. They heard of a way south, where they could skirt the southern edge of the Sierra Nevada by following the Old Spanish Trail.

Jefferson Hunt had traveled part of the Old Spanish Trail, and he agreed to guide a party of 107 wagons along this trail. It would be risky. After all, no wagon train had ever attempted this route before. But there was gold a’waitin’, by God, so the risk seemed worth the reward.

Wagon travel went well at first. But when they reached an area near present-day Parowan, Utah, Hunt decided to try a shortcut across the Escalante Desert. This move was nearly disastrous. They couldn’t find water, and Hunt nearly died of thirst, scouting around for a spring. They had to turn back for the Sevier River, and lost about a week’s time as a result.

After this, the ’49ers lost confidence in Hunt, and their itch to reach the goldfields in a hurry got them plotting their own routes west. They split up into two groups. Later, some of them rejoined Hunt, but then others split off on their own, in a fissiparous scramble to reach California.

Groom Lake. Photo by Sentinel-2 satellite, European Space Agency.

One small group decided to head north, to skirt the precipitous Beaver Dam Wash along the Nevada/Utah border. Once they got beyond the canyon walls of this mighty wash, they pushed westward into the no-man’s land of the Nevada desert.

They had trouble finding water, until somehow managing to locate Crystal Spring, in the Pahranagat Valley. Next, they made it to Groom Lake, which is now part of Area 51. Groom Lake is normally dry, but recent rains had left some water behind. Here they were able to get some rest, slake down some water, and watch flying saucers course through the sky.

They got into an argument as to which way to travel from this point. One group, that called themselves the Jayhawkers, wanted to plow ahead, due west. But the other group, the Bennett-Arcanes, wanted to turn south toward snowcapped Mt. Charleston, in hopes of finding water. So they split up, with the Jayhawkers and their 20 wagons, and the Bennett-Arcanes, with their 7 wagons, going their separate ways.

It turns out, either way spelled almost certain death from thirst. But luckily for both parties, a snowstorm hit, and they were able to stay alive by eating snow. Both parties reunited at Ash Meadows, which is the largest oasis in the Mojave Desert, where they were able to drink their fill.

Point of Rocks spring at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.

But they didn’t remain long at this lush paradise of water and grazing land, because they were anxious to reach California’s gold. Their first goal was to find Walker Pass, which was a shortcut from the Owens Valley to the massive Central Valley of California. From there, they estimated they could quickly reach the goldfields.

But their map was very confusing. For one thing, it showed an east to west mountain range that didn’t actually exist. They were flummoxed, and couldn’t find any stores that sold Rand McNallys. What would they do? We’ll find out, in the next installation.


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