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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.