Category: History

Johnny Lang and the Lost Horse Mine

Johnny Lang was a rascal of a man. He’d probably rather lie to make two bits than tell the truth for four. He was born in Missouri in 1853, and as an adult he wandered West with his family. He and his dad were cattlemen, and by the 1890s they were driving ungulates from Mexico to Los Angeles, beating the cost of freight train shipping, and pocketing the difference to make a fair living.

But who gives a damn about a fair living when you’re Johnny Lang?

There are various tales about how Lang discovered gold, all of them a little sketchy and suspicious. Here’s one version:

By 1893, the Langs had set up headquarters in Indio, California. One day, one of their horses wandered off into the Little San Bernardino Mountains, in the area now known as Joshua Tree National Park. Johnny volunteered to track it down.

While he was on a hillside trailing the fugacious equine, he looked down and noticed a chunk of ore that was so jam-packed with gold that even an untrained eye like his cowboy eye couldn’t help but tell that this was something special.

It so happened though, that there were some real prospectors on this hillside, and their eyes were trained, and they were finding all kinds of somethings special also. But they weren’t as quick and clever as the cattleman. Johnny knew that time was wasting, and he high-tailed it out of there and headed lickety-split for the county seat of Riverside, where he staked a claim on the hillside, before the prospectors had the slightest notion of what he was up to.

Johnny filed the claim on January 3, 1893, in his name, the name of his father George Lang, and of two other fellows in his cattle outfit. And this is how the Lost Horse Mining Company, named after the Lang’s missing horse, was established.

The Lost Horse Mine is perched on a hillside about 3 miles northeast of Keys View, in Joshua Tree National Park.

The Lost Horse was a prosperous mine, producing up to 25 ounces of gold per ton during the first year. Johnny took on the job of transporting the gold-mercury amalgam to Los Angeles, for sale. And that’s how trouble began.

Johnny’s three partners noticed that some of the gold was going missing during the transport, and accused Johnny of skimming. He denied it of course, but they’d had enough. In 1895, they sold off their shares in the mine to two brothers named Jep and Thomas Ryan.

Johnny held onto his quarter-interest, but now he had new partners to deal with. And they were the suspicious type. A year later, in 1896, they began to notice that something was amiss, and began voicing their concerns to each other. I imagine this is how the conversation may have gone:

“Got the same-sized crew, same amount of ore, night the same as day. How come the amalgam from the night shift is always less than the day crew’s?” Jep mused loud enough for his brother Thomas to overhear.

“Maybe it’s that Johnny Lang,” Thomas volunteered. “You know, I’ve wondered why he was so eager to run the night crew. I thought he was trying to be a good partner, but now I’m having doubts.”

“Same here, Thomas. Whaddya think? Maybe we ought to hire someone to keep watch.”

“Maybe.”

So Jep Ryan hired a private detective to surreptitiously observe the workings of the night crew at the Lost Horse mine. And It didn’t take long for the private eye to report back to Jep some disturbing news. It seems Johnny Lang had been slipping away from the mine, with burros packed, while the night crew was busy operating the ten-stamp mill. No one was noticing due to the noise, and diligence they were paying to their duties.

Inititally, the Lost Horse had a 2-stamp mill. But the Ryan brothers upgraded it to a 10-stamp mill, to handle the abundant ore it was producing.

“Don’t deny it Johnny, this private eye has caught you red-handed,” Jep leveled a serious, even contemptuous gaze at the skinny, middle-aged man. “Now I’m gonna give you a choice. Thomas and I will buy you out for $12,000, and you will leave the Lost Horse mine and stay away from here. Otherwise I’m going to the sheriff, and you’ll be charged with grand theft and embezzlement.”

Johnny Lang was an amiable man. It was hard not to like him. But he knew his charm could only go so far. He accepted the offer and walked away with $12,000.

Lang in 1923, looking skinny from too few burritos in his diet.

A few months later, Lang staked his own claim in what is now known as Johnny Lang Canyon. It was located about 8 miles northwest of the Lost Horse mine. He began hauling ore out, with his burros, to Bill Keys’ ranch several miles to the north of his claim. Bill Keys bought the rich ore from Johnny. But he had strong suspicions about where that ore actually came from. He figured Lang had secret caches scattered all over the desert from his peculation at the Lost Horse.

Lang squandered all of his gold profits. In the 1920’s he returned to the Lost Horse Mine, which had played out and been abandoned. He took up residence in the old office structure, and began to slowly starve to death. One by one he killed off his four burros, and ate them.

One cold, January morning in 1926, Johnny Lang tacked a note on the door of the mining office stating he was hiking into Indio to get some supplies. The note promised that he’d be back “soon.” Two months later his mummified body was found by Bill Keys a few miles west of the Lost Horse mine. The 72-year-old Lang had fallen ill during his hike and perished.

Bill Keys buried him on the spot, with the help of a few friends, and erected a headstone. The headstone and burial spot remain in situ to this day, just a few yards away from Keys View road in Joshua Tree National Park.

Johnny Lang’s grave. The headstone reads, “Johnny Lang died here. Buried by B. Keys, Frank Kiler, Jeff Peeden, Mar 25, 1926.”

Gold Brick House

I like to think there’s hidden gold in every life. Just like in the life of Jep Ryan.

Jep was a miner in the Mojave Desert. He owned the Lost Horse Mine, along with his brother Thomas. From 1896-1899, it was the most successful gold mine within the borders of what is now Joshua Tree National Park.

The Ryan brothers were real go-getters, and also ran a cattle ranch a few miles away from the mine. Around the year 1900 they built a three-bedroom house on the ranch, out of adobe bricks. The bricks were fired out of clay, sand, and tailings from the Lost Horse Mine.

The Lost Horse played out in 1908, and went idle. But in the 1930’s a more efficient method for processing gold ore was developed that enabled Jep Ryan to briefly reopen his old mine. He focused on extracting gold from the abandoned tailings, that had sat for decades in huge mounds.

The riches he gained from this new extraction process led Jep to recall one of the ingredients he had used for building his adobe ranch house. And thereafter he dubbed his home, “The Gold Brick House.”

The Gold Brick House caught fire in 1978, but its external walls still stand, although eolian winds and softening rains have gradually rounded the edges of these walls. About 6 years ago, I photographed this site. Click through the slideshow below, and you may notice an aureate tinge in the stucco and exposed bricks. Is this coloring from the natural earthtones of Mojave clay? Or is it gold, from the Lost Horse tailings?

It’s hard to say. But I think it’s safe to say that when Jep Ryan lived here, there was a fortune of hidden gold in his life.

The Wonders of Willow Creek, Part 5: China Ranch Loop Trail

This is the final part of a 5-part series of posts entitled, The Wonders of Willow Creek. To read the previous post, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!

China Ranch Loop Trail

Behind the gift shop at China Ranch is a trailhead that leads to several fantastic footslogs. This is what I like most about this tourist attraction. The landscape around the China Ranch Date Farm is striking, with natural arches, polychromatic hills, slot canyons, Willow Creek, the Amargosa River, old mines, and historic remnants of the Tonapah & Tidewater railroad bed.

This ACME Company’s siding was an ore loading site for the T&T railroad. It was also used for unloading sophisticated roadrunner-catching equipment, that had been mail-ordered by a certain coyote, named Wile E.

It’s one of the most stunning and scenic geological areas I’ve ever hiked, in my opinion, and I’ve hiked in many a stunning and scenic setting, such as Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Yosemite, and Joshua Tree National Parks. Perhaps it doesn’t quite match those parks for beauty, but I think it comes close. Yet so far, amazingly, China Ranch remains a fairly well-kept secret.

An orange-headed mushroom grows out of the Sperry Hills, near the confluence of Willow Creek and the Amargosa River.
One of the roadside signs you might happen to notice, while searching for China Ranch.

Maybe that’s because it’s in a remote locale, that can be a little tricky to find. You have to travel down several lonely desert roads, while being on the lookout for their faded, sunbaked signs. I’ve never seen it advertised anywhere, and though I’m a longtime resident of Southern California, I’ve never heard of it until just recently.

You can’t see it from a distance, because this oasis is hidden within a canyon. You only know for sure you’re in the right place when you drop down a steep incline and suddenly a V-shaped green splash of land appears before you, about a mile away.

China Ranch Road seems flat and unremarkable, until it suddenly plunges into this hidden oasis.

I hiked the China Ranch Loop Trail in late-May, which is a time of year when the weather routinely reaches the 90’s. That high heat alone can be a deterrent to tourists. And from mid-June through mid-September, one can expect triple-digit heat most days. But I began my hike at the cool hour of 5:30 am, and finished a little after 9:00 am, just as sweat was beginning to stain my hat and shirt. So I managed to dodge most of the heat.

After the hike, I cooled myself off with a delicious date smoothie, from the gift shop’s cafe.

This fluted, orange column stands watch near the entrance to a slot canyon.

By beginning my hike at 5:30 am, I not only beat the heat, but I also had the trail all to myself the entire time. Yeah, the early-bird gets the trail, which is great news for misanthropic hillstompers like me.

The trail was fairly easy, until I ventured off to a spur trail to visit a slot canyon.

To find the slot canyon, look for the weird rock formations projecting from the Sperry Hills, across the Amargosa River.

It’s not clearly marked at that point, and I became a little mixed up before I finally found my way. And my way involved slow-footing down a steep declivity to the banks of the Amargosa River, then balancing myself on an old 4-by-4 beam, and a series of partially submerged rocks, in order to cross the river, mostly dryshod.

The Amargosa River. It was legally designated a Wild and Scenic River in 2009. It has also been designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, and is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Then, looping back to the ranch, I had to scratch my head a few times to figure out my way. I don’t know why it works, but head scratching has saved me many a times, in the wilderness. And speaking of being scratched, toward the end of the route there was a short stretch where I had to crawl on my hands and knees to clear some overgrown, thorny mesquite branches pleached over the trail.

The rhyolite rock walls of the slot canyon. My thanks to Jason Frels and his photography blog, for inspiring me to download Nikon’s “NX Studio.” By taking RAW formatted photos on my hike, I was able to apply NX Studio’s Active D-Lighting. This brought out details in the dark areas of my photos, without overexposing lighter areas.

But other than those few problems, this was an easy trail. It was also helpful that China Ranch has a website that includes descriptions of their trails. I found these descriptions to be somewhat useful for finding my way, but not 100% reliable.

Palisades Rock Wall. Using Active D-Lighting, I was able to suss out much of the details of this richly-veined rocky mountain, that guards the mouth of Amargosa Canyon. In person it’s even more stunning, but the morning shadow that engulfs it hides a lot of beauty from the camera.

As for heat being a deterrent to tourists, I imagine the situation might be different during the winter months. That’s when temperatures are much cooler and more bearable for hikers. I don’t know how crowded the trail becomes, but the parking lot at the trailhead is very large. So my guess is, there are a lot of feet raising the dust during those months. After all, who can resist such scenery?

This canyon of cliffs tempted me, but I had no time to explore it.

My wife and I both loved visiting the China Ranch Date Farm. It’s a unicorn we’ll never forget, and that we could enjoy chasing again. The history, the many trees and riparian greenery, and the spectacular landscape are calling for our return.

Perhaps the most curious sight along the trail was this castle-shaped geological formation, high upon a cliffside.

Wikipedia has failed to do justice to this portion of the Amargosa Valley. But thank goodness I still have eyeballs and feet, and could correct the record with my on-the-ground research. There’s nothing like going straight to the source. And this kind of research was one hell of a lot of fun, too.

It’s sights like this that call me back to the China Ranch Date Farm.

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