Category Archives: History

Harrison Colds

Painting of William Henry Harrison, also known as “Old Tippecanoe.” Hmm, that name sounds familiar.

On this day in history, 180 years ago, the greatest president our country has ever had, died in office. William Henry Harrison (aka “Old Tippecanoe”) was our 9th president, and our first to perish before completing his elected term.

I believe he was our greatest president because he only served in office for one month, so he had no time to get anything accomplished. Thus, he left our country alone, and didn’t mess anything up.

I have the highest admiration for anyone who fails to accomplish anything significant. And so I regard President Tippecanoe as an exemplum, a role model, that I encourage everyone to follow. I say, be like Old Tippecanoe and you won’t mess with anyone’s lives, and you can die peacefully, having been harmless to our world.

I rate the severity of common colds on a scale of 1 to 10. But there’s another designation, that goes off the charts. I call them Harrison colds. President Harrison caught a cold on March 26th, 1841, and died nine days later, on April 4th. That’s one whopper of a cold.

It’s a popular myth that Harrison caught his deadly cold on his Inauguration Day. No, all he caught was hell from his audience, for giving a long speech during foul weather. He delivered the longest inaugural address in American history. It took him nearly two hours, heroically standing in a cold rain without an overcoat or hat, to tell the American people about all the things he planned to do as president.

He didn’t catch a cold from this, as one might expect, and as many have assumed. But it does illustrate his intentions to screw around with everyone. I think his untimely death saved his soul.

After assuming office, he met with throngs of White House visitors, to the point where he complained in a letter dated March 10th, “I am so much harassed by the multitude that call upon me that I can give no proper attention to any business of my own.” Perhaps this is another reason he didn’t accomplish anything. He was too busy schmoozing with the public, to attend to matters of the nation.

He also called Congress into a special session, to deal with a problem he couldn’t handle himself. The federal government was running out of money, and he hadn’t the slightest clue what to do about it. I guess the concept of borrowing against future generations hadn’t been invented yet.

Calling this special session is considered to be his only official act of consequence. He made the call on March 17th, 9 days before catching his cold, but the special session wasn’t scheduled to begin until May 31st, nearly two months after he died. So I give Harrison the benefit of the doubt, and don’t count this as an accomplishment.

On March 26th he caught his deadly cold. I’ll bet he contracted it from one of his unwanted guests. And the fucking intruder probably wasn’t wearing a face mask, or practicing social distancing. May his soul be condemned to rot in hell forever!

This cold was a doozy. It rapidly progressed into pneumonia and pleurisy. Our sniffling, sniveling, snotty president sought a nice, quiet place to rest and recover, but his many visitors rudely occupied all available space in the White House.

Then his doctors made his condition worse by prescribing unhelpful and dangerous treatments such as opium, castor oil, leeches, and snakeweed (a tranquilizing herb). He went over the edge and died on April 4th, 1841, having accomplished absolutely nothing of consequence, with or without his cold.

Except one thing. His death sparked a brief constitutional crisis over the title of his successor, Vice-President John Tyler.

Many politicians, including Tyler’s own Cabinet, thought he should be called “Vice-President acting President.” Tyler would have none of it, and insisted upon being called “President.” He won. Tyler was a forceful asshole, and didn’t take shit from anyone. Perhaps that’s how he was able to complete his predecessor’s term of office without catching a Harrison cold.

Too bad for Tyler. He learned nothing from the man he succeeded.

Chapter 13: Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge

The forecast had called for mild, clement weather, with temperatures in the 70’s for the Amargosa Valley. But then a strong, Mojave breeze seized the region. The November wind was howling nearly gale force when I arrived at Ash Meadows. It would continue this way all day, and the temperature would never rise above 67.

But I wasn’t going to let that deter me. I surveyed the blowing dust ahead, steeled my determination, and pressed the gas. Within a hundred yards, my car left the pavement and vibrated over a dirt road, toward the Visitors Center about a mile away.

It’s a national wildlife refuge, not a national park (except the 40 acres around Devils Hole), so I didn’t expect amenities like paved roads, food kiosks, or public transportation. Nor did I want those things. They attract crowds, and I hate crowds when I’m trying to enjoy nature.

Although it’s a wildlife “refuge,” hunting is allowed, ironically. At Ash Meadows you can deploy a shotgun and bird dog to bag quail, geese, ducks, coots, moorhen, snipe, dove, cottontail, jackrabbits, and jackalopes. But at least no fishing is allowed, so the fish have a true refuge here, safe from humans.

The Visitors Center surprised me. It was a huge, modern building, and promised things like maps, souvenir shopping, and public restrooms. But it was closed, due to Covid. But that was okay, because I had procured a map at a rack near the entrance. And I have little use for souvenirs.

Behind the Visitors Center was a boardwalk, leading toward a patch of green in the distance. The wind flung my hat off, and I had to chase it down. I waved a white flag of surrender to the breeze and walked my hat back to my car for safekeeping. Then off to the boardwalk I returned, struggling against the near-gale, with bald pate exposed to the skin-cancerous sun.

The Visitors Center in the distance, with the boardwalk and alkali meadow in the foreground.

This was the Crystal Spring hike. A 0.9 mile loop, according to the sign. During the first of this walk I was surrounded by a low-shrubbed, beige desert, sprinkled with salt. An informational sign revealed that this was a rare alkali meadow, due to the presence of salts. As such, it was a unique kind of meadow that harbored rare plants.

It’s one of the starkest sort of landscapes you might ever witness. Takes a bit of getting used to, to find the beauty in it. But it’s there. After all, how often do you see a white-covered landscape, where the white is salt, and not snow?

Beyond the alkali meadow lies Crystal Spring. According to the informational sign, the bottom of the spring is 15 feet deep, and every minute, 2,800 gallons of fresh water flows into this spring from the earth below. It comes from limestone bedrock, that has been collecting water for thousands of years, in an aquifer. “Fossil water,” they call it, due to its age. The water is 87 degrees, year-round. The Amargosa pupfish swims in this water, having evolved and adapted to the unusually warm temperature.

Crystal Spring.

There were informational signs at every one of the three featured hikes at this refuge, by the way. The signs were well-maintained and educated the visitor about this unusual environ. All three hikes are short boardwalk strolls, and make for easy walking. And the boardwalks were in good repair. In fact I was impressed with how well-maintained I found nearly everything at Ash Meadows. And there were pit-toilet style restrooms available at every trailhead (Except the Visitors Center, which likely has more modern restrooms. However, like I said, it was closed).

Crystal Spring overflows into a creek that eventually trickles into the Crystal Reservoir. This is a man-made reservoir, constructed by farmers back in the 1960s. It makes for a surprisingly large lake that visitors are allowed to swim, and even boat on. But today there were no boats, due to the high winds and swollen waves sweeping over the water’s surface.

Crystal Reservoir.

I made it back to my car without blowing away, and proceeded to Devils Hole. This was a 3.6 mile drive from the Visitors Center, over a fairly bumpy dirt road. Devils Hole is both impressive and a letdown. It’s a short, five-minute walk from where you park, but you can’t go down into the hole itself and get close to the water.

The water is where the famous and extremely rare Devils Hole pupfish reside. Tourists can’t be trusted to get near that water, or who knows what foreign objects they might throw in there, that would disturb the fish. So you are relegated to an observation platform, high above and away from the Devils Hole opening, with a cage-like structure that prevents any tossing of anything into the home of the pupfish.

Devils Hole, through the cage. Notice the devil horns that form the top of the pool of water?

You can’t see any pupfish from that distance, unless maybe with binoculars. Which I did not bring. Nor can you hear them barking, if indeed pupfish bark. But I did feel amazed, knowing I was staring at a hole in the ground that had been there for 60,000 years, and where one of the world’s rarest fish evolved. How that resilient fish managed to stick it out in this confined, isolated hole in the ground for this long, is truly one of the wonders of this world.

My next stop was a four-mile drive to Point of Rocks. This is a 2/3 mile boardwalk hike that leads to Kings Pool. Kings Pool is another warm, artesian spring. In ancient times, natives believed this body of water possessed special powers, and they gathered here for celebrations and other solemn occasions.

The waters of Kings Pool are crystal clear, with a hint of turquoise. The contrast of this pool, against the surrounding barren desert, is stark. Like Crystal Pool, Kings Pool overflows into a stream that meanders away toward Carson Slough.

The turquoise waters of Kings Pool are thought to possess special powers.

I could tell just by casual observation that one hell of a lot of restoration work had been completed at Ash Meadows, over the past 36 years that it has been a national wildlife refuge. But much more work remains. The Carson Slough is still mostly straight, due to the modifications made by Spring Meadows, Inc. Restoring it to its former, windy, twisty watercourse where it can create the kind of swampland that once attracted large flocks of migratory birds, remains a project for the future.

If such restoration was left to nature, it would take many thousands of years. The human hand destroyed this watercourse, so the human hand must be employed to bring it back to its former self in any of our lifetimes.

But there was one restoration project that had been completed, that I wanted to see next. And that was Jack Longstreet’s restored cabin. It had been destroyed by a flash flood in 1984. But fortunately, there were enough extant photos of it that it was able to be restored, in 2006, to look very much like Longstreet’s original design.

The drive to his cabin and Longstreet Spring was 3.4 miles, one-way, from the Visitors Center. The road was bumpy and I dared not damage the suspension of my precious car by driving faster than 10 to 15 miles per hour, even though the speed limit sign allowed 35 mph.

I parked at the trailhead, and only had to walk about 3 minutes to reach the cabin and spring. Visitors can step inside and get the same view through the door and windows that ol’ Jack must have enjoyed more than a century ago.

A view of the Funeral Mountains, that Jack Longstreet enjoyed, through his cabin window.

One bonus to my excursion this day, was that there was hardly anybody else at Ash Meadows. This must have been due to a number of factors including: Hardly anybody knows about this wildlife refuge; it was the middle of the week; the wind was blowing hard as a cheap whore; and Covid. I met nobody on the trails, and only passed by three vehicles on the dirt roads, the entire time I was there.

I spent about six hours at Ash Meadows, enjoying the hikes and scenery, in spite of the powerful, cool wind. Once I exited and found paved road, the drive back to Longstreet Casino was an easy 10 minutes. But by the time I got back I had a splitting headache, probably from the effects of both the wind, and my frickin’ heart rhythm going out of whack, due to all my physical activity.

But it was worth it. I love nature, and I’ve fallen in love with Ash Meadows. I only hope this beautiful jewel of the desert will soon be completely restored to all of its former glory.

The migratory birds are anxiously waiting.

This has been the final installation of my series, The Amazing Amargosa. Thanks for reading! Click here to read the previous installation. Click here, to start at the beginning.

Chapter 12: New City

In 1980, Spring Meadows, Inc sold their water rights and land in Ash Meadows to Preferred Equities, Inc (PEI). The good news about this was that PEI planned to put a stop to all the agriculture that had so extensively damaged this wetland. But the bad news came when PEI announced a development project, called New City. The plan was to build a small city on top of Ash Meadows.

Environmentalists were aghast. This was the largest oasis in the Mojave Desert, and now it was going to be destroyed completely. They immediately established a Nature Conservancy, and fought back to preserve Ash Meadows, so it could be restored to its natural state.

But the executives of PEI seemed determined. They launched a public relations campaign, promoting the proposed development. They spelled out all the practical reasons why this New City would be so beneficial to the Amargosa Valley.

Why, it would bring good-paying jobs to the area. And they pointed out that where water is, life is. It would be a retirement community, where folks who had worked hard all their lives could live the good life, until the end of their lives, in a desert paradise with a warm, sunny climate.

There would be houses, golf courses, shopping centers, paved streets, and sidewalks for exercising the legs. Every house would have a well-watered, beautiful green lawn. And there would be enough water for swimming pools in every backyard, and an artificial lake for fishing and boating.

The vision of PEI was similar to the vision of those who transformed California’s arid Coachella Valley into the verdant country club cities of Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, and Palm Desert.

Their vision of New City gave little consideration to all the many unique species of plants and animals at Ash Meadows, that would very likely go extinct. Because that would be impractical. The practical thing was what all that water could do for human beans.

But the newly-established Nature Conservancy pushed back. They pressed the government to stop the development. And a legal war ensued.

PEI began its tractor work, in spite of the public outcry. They sent in bulldozers, and managed to clear some of the land for new roads and buildings. But that was about as far as they got. As the legal battles heated up, further development was halted.

Finally a reprieve came for all the wildlife in Ash Meadows, and all the people who love nature. In 1984, the U.S. government negotiated the purchase of Ash Meadows from PEI. It was to become a national wildlife refuge.

This is the latest installation of my series, The Amazing Amargosa. Come on back in a few days for the final installation, entitled, Chapter 13: Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. Click here to read the previous installation. Click here, to start at the beginning.

Chapter 11: For Peat’s Sake

The Carson Slough once drained Ash Meadows like the Mississippi drains the Midwest. It wound about on a curvy, tortuous course, forming oxbows and overflow areas, which in turn created marshlands. This caused Ash Meadows to be the largest wetland in Southern Nevada, at 5,600 acres.

Tens of thousands of migratory birds stopped, rested, and refueled at these wetlands, every year for eons. And over those eons, these wetlands also created tons and tons of peat.

Peat forms in swamps, bogs, marshes, fens, and other wetlands, where water doesn’t drain efficiently away. The stagnant water deprives dead plants of oxygen, and this keeps them from decomposing completely.

Suppose you put a dead guy named Pete in a hermetically sealed, plastic bag. Oxygen would not be able to reach his corpse, and poor old Pete would never decay properly. That’s what peat is.

Sphagnum moss is one of the most common components of peat, which anyone can appreciate. After all, moss is one of the most common plants we see growing in swamps. But any plant will do, as long is it can’t completely deteriorate, due to a lack of oxygen.

Because peat consists of old, dead, non-decayed plants, it makes an excellent fuel. Human beans have been harvesting peat for hundreds of years, and burning it just like coal. In fact, peat is often the first stage in the formation of coal.

Back in the 1960’s a rancher drained the Carson Slough for the purpose of getting to all the peat that had formed for millennia. He mined the peat and sold it to those who wanted to burn it for fuel. And this is how one of the greatest, lushest, wetlands in the American West was destroyed, for peat’s sake.

After he’d mined all the peat out, he sold his now desiccated land to Spring Meadows, Inc. They filled in the empty peat bottoms, by bulldozing nearby sand dunes into them. They then used their bulldozers to straighten out Carson Slough, converting the ancient winding streams into straight, concrete ditches. And they also constructed several reservoirs in Ash Meadows, called Crystal Reservoir and Peterson Reservoir.

Spring Meadows, Inc used this newly-created irrigation system for large-scale ranching and farming. But in the process, they reversed hundreds of thousands of years of wetland formation, by straightening out Carson Slough and its adjoining tributaries. Now very little wetland remained for migratory birds that relied upon this oasis on their journeys south and north.

Today, only a small fraction of the birds that once frequented this area, bother to stop by. The ecological devastation is mind-numbing, and we are left with only our imaginations, when we wonder how Ash Meadows appeared for most of its long life.

This riparian stream that drains Kings Pool, hints of the vast swampland that once covered 5,600 acres of Ash Meadows.

This is the latest installation of my series, The Amazing Amargosa. Come on back in a few days for the next installation, entitled, Chapter 12: New City. Click here to read the previous installation. Click here, to start at the beginning.

Chapter 10: Devils Hole

Another beautiful monument to impracticality, besides Marta Becket, is Devils Hole, at Ash Meadows.

About a half million years ago, great caverns formed in the Spring Mountains, next to Ash Meadows. Warm groundwater filled the caverns, and about 60,000 years ago a small hole opened up and exposed the groundwater to the sun and fresh air. Human beans have recently named it Devils Hole.

Devils Hole is a cave that branches into the caverns at least 430 feet deep. But nobody knows how much deeper it goes, because the bottom of the caverns has never been mapped.

Soon after Devils Hole opened up, one of the world’s rarest fish evolved. It’s called the Devils Hole pupfish. The water of Devils Hole remains very warm the year round, at 92 degrees Fahrenheit. And the water is low on oxygen. But somehow, this strange fish managed to evolve and adapt under such extreme conditions.

The Devils Hole Pupfish, feeding off algae. This is a public domain photo, as I was not allowed to dive into Devils Hole and snap a photo, myself.

Devils Hole is the only place on Earth that this species of pupfish can be found. The fish is blue in color, and about 1.2 inches in length. Its population fluctuates between 100 and 500 little fishies, depending on the seasonal availability of algae, which it eats, and the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water.

In 1952, President Harry Truman designated and declared 40 acres of land that surround Devils Hole and its pupfish, to be part of the nearby Death Valley National Monument (now a national park). It can feel strange standing there, knowing that you are in the same national park whose main boundary lies 10 crow’s flight miles away.

Devils Hole is a 5-minute walk from this trailhead. It’s contained in a fenced-off area at the base of the mountain, to the left.

In 1967, the Devils Hole pupfish was included on the very first official listing of endangered species. And what was endangering this fish was declining water levels. This pupfish lives just above a shallow rock shelf near the cave entrance. And it must have this shallow area, for feeding and spawning. This is where the sun shines, and where the algae grows.

But nearby wells were dropping the underground water levels, putting it in danger of losing the shallow rock shelf it needs. The pupfish cannot survive in the deep, dark recesses of the caverns. If levels were to drop so low that it’s forced down to those depths, it will die off and go extinct.

So a fight began, between farmers and others with large wells, who wanted to keep pumping massive quantities of water out of the ground, and the pupfish lovers, who love pupfish. The Justice Department took the side of the pupfish lovers, and filed a complaint, and in 1976 the case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

And the high court ruled in favor of the pupfish. Now, when water levels decline, all groundwater pumping in the Amargosa Valley must cease and cannot resume until the water has risen enough to satisfy this poor, defenseless piscine.

Yeah, it’s impractical. And none of us will probably ever see a Devils Hole pupfish in our entire lives. Not even those few of us who visit Devils Hole, since it must be viewed from a high platform, far above the water’s surface. This height makes it nearly impossible to detect their tiny swimming bodies. I know. I was there, and I sure couldn’t spot them. I probably should have brought binoculars.

The viewing platform, high above Devils Hole, prevents tourists from throwing stuff into the water, or otherwise disturbing the fish. To get a good photo of Devils Hole, I had to position my camera lens as best I could between the wire slats. I think the solar panels power the equipment used, for monitoring the water in Devils Hole, and for powering a nearby weather station.

And yet somehow it feels reassuring to me that we still have this rare fish. I find it fascinating that this unique species is still swimming around in that tiny hole in the ground, as it’s swam for the past 60,000 years.

The government spends a lot of money monitoring the water level and water quality of Devils Hole, in order to keep the pupfish alive. It’s a damned impractical way to spend our tax dollars. And yet I’m glad it’s being done. I hope the pupfish continues to survive in Devils Hole for many more generations to come.

Devils Hole. This is the best zoom shot I could get of the rocky shelf where the pupfish lives and eats. If you strain hard, you can imagine that you’re actually seeing the teeny-tiny little pupfish. The equipment at the right measures water level and water quality.

This is the latest installation of my series, The Amazing Amargosa. Come on back in a few days for the next installation, entitled, Chapter 11: For Peat’s Sake . Click here to read the previous installation. Click here, to start at the beginning.

Chapter 9, Part 2: The Sitting Down Show

Soon the opera house opened, and Marta debuted her acting and dancing talents at Death Valley Junction. It was a one-woman show, with the star of the show dancing ballet, on pointe, while performing a soliloquy. A narrative. It was the thoughts and inspirations and interesting observations of one woman. A show business woman from New York City, who had transplanted herself to a most unlikely location.

Her audience size that night was zero. Except the audience she had painted on the walls. And they loved it. It was a command performance, deserving of rave reviews. Her ovation was thunderous, followed by curtain call after curtain call.

Marta continued performing weekly this way, to her audience of zero, into the 1969 opera season. And then into the 1970 season.

One day in 1970, journalists from National Geographic magazine happened to be in the area. They discovered Becket performing her impeccable on pointe ballet, and all without an audience. It struck them as the oddest thing. It was very unique. A unicorn.

They wrote a profile about her, and it was published in two magazines that were widely popular at the time: National Geographic and Life. And this led to an international interest in the unusual Amargosa Opera House of Death Valley Junction.

Soon curious tourists from all over the world flocked to this remote locale, and Marta found herself performing to audiences that truly were sold out. Many notables began to attend, including Ray Bradbury and Red Skelton. In fact, Red Skelton became a personal friend of hers.

This was Red Skelton’s favorite room at the Amargosa Hotel. He painted this mural of juggling circus performers, for Marta.

Around this time, she opened the adjoining hotel, giving tourists a place to lay their heads before exploring nearby Death Valley. But many hotel guests came only to watch her perform ballet.

Colonnade fronting the Amargosa Hotel.

The local churchgoing ladies snubbed her, because they disagreed with her lifestyle. But she found a way to get their husbands to attend her performances. She befriended the sex workers at the brothel just across the Nevada border, and they began bringing their johns to watch her show, many of whom she recognized.

She continued performing to live audiences at her opera house for the next four decades. Age and back problems caught up with her after she turned 80, and she could no longer dance on pointe. But the show must go on, so Marta began what she called, The Sitting Down Show. In this show, she sat at the edge of the stage and regaled her audience with stories, including the story about the “not practical” lady.

Marta Becket signing autographs after her Sitting Down Show. Sorry, but this was the best photo I could get of her, due to my handheld camera, dim lighting, and prohibition against flash photography.

My wife and I watched her season opening performance in November of 2007, when we stayed at the Amargosa Hotel on a vacation to Death Valley. This was billed as her last season, and we were lucky to have reserved tickets ahead of time. It was standing-room only at the back of the theater. But we had seats.

Marta was engaging, funny, saucy, and thought-provoking, during her soliloquy. We loved it. It was one of the most unusual and memorable performances we had ever witnessed.

She changed her mind about retiring from show business, and performed again for the 2008-2009 season. Then she retired, but came back out of retirement a year later, for the 2010-2011 season. Her final performance was on February 12, 2012.

She passed away at her home in Death Valley Junction on January 30, 2017, at age 92.

Today, the Amargosa Opera House is closed, due to Covid. The hotel closed also, but has apparently re-opened. You can visit it, and even stay there, though it’s reputed that at least one of the rooms is haunted. But this historic landmark will never be the same without the impractical Marta Becket. She will always remain one of the most colorful, unique characters to have graced the Amargosa Valley.

This mural, painted by Marta Becket on the lobby wall of the Amargosa Hotel & Opera House, is her vision of the property in ruins, long after her death. Her spirit still lives on as the ballet dancing, pink sylph faintly seen hovering above the ruins, against the Funeral Mountains, in the upper right.

This is the latest installation of my series, The Amazing Amargosa. Come on back in a few days for the next installation, entitled, Chapter 10: Devils Hole. Click here to read the previous installation. Click here, to start at the beginning.

Chapter 9, Part 1: The Ballet Dancer

In 1967, a woman’s car got a flat tire. The owner of the car was one 43-year-old Marta Becket, from New York City. And her car’s tire just happened to go flat near the abandoned, dilapidated Amargosa Hotel and Corkill Hall, at Death Valley Junction.

Marta Becket was a ballet dancer, actress, choreographer, and painter. She had been in the corps de ballet at Radio City Music Hall. And she had been a Broadway actress, appearing in Show Boat, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Wonderful Town. And later, after age had weathered her complexion and Broadway no longer wanted her, she started her own one-woman show, which she performed in small theaters and school auditoriums all over the country.

Marta stood near her flat tire and surveyed the desert landscape that surrounded her. She absorbed the barren crags of the Funeral Mountains to the northwest, the undulations of the Greenway Range to the southwest, and the spreading Nopah Range to the east. She regarded the broad, flat floor of the Amargosa Valley, and the dry watercourse of the Amargosa River, running through it. And she took note of the short and sparse shrubbery that covered this valley floor.

And somehow it seemed like she’d found her destiny.

Then she turned her attention to the dilapidated U-shaped building. The Spanish-colonial designed Amargosa Hotel and adjoining Corkill Hall that had been built and abandoned by the Pacific Coast Borax Company. And she got a crazy idea. She would stay put, right there.

Sure, service is slow getting your tire repaired in the middle of nowhere. But that’s not why Marta decided to stay. No, she was following an inspiration, and on an impulse decided to act on it.

She located the owner of the hotel, and rented Corkill Hall. Then she renamed it the Amargosa Opera House, and got busy renovating it. And on top of making it hospitable for human attendees, she put her artistic talent to work.

The Amargosa Opera House, formerly Corkill Hall.

She painted the ceiling with cherubs, and on the walls she limned a wrap-around mural, depicting Renaissance figures of nobility, seated as an audience in tiered galleries. It was an audience she imagined might attend Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.

Cherubs painted by Marta Beckett, on the ceiling of the Amargosa Opera House.

This would be her audience. An audience that would always show up, and never leave a seat empty. An actress’s dream come true.

Marta painted a medieval audience on the walls of the Amargosa Opera House, that always shows up for performances.

Marta’s neighbors regarded this invader from New York City with a mix of droll curiosity and head-scratching bewilderment. And by neighbors, I mean those living within, let’s say, a 50-mile radius. Because that’s how sparse and spread out the population is, in that neck of the desert. But even so, everybody knew everyone there, and anytime anything unusual happened, such as the current goings-on at the Amargosa Hotel, word spread like wildfire, and everyone found out.

One curious neighbor, with a particularly snooty attitude, with whom Marta would have frequent run-ins over the next several years, ventured into the former Corkill Hall and found Marta up on a ladder, busily painting her mural. She stiffened up and barked, “What do you think you’re doing?”

Marta replied that she was painting a mural for her opera house that would be opening soon.

“But why?!” she sounded confused and exasperated.

“Why not?”

“But it’s not PRACTICAL!” she protested.

Marta had to chuckle. Little did this poor flibbertigibbet realize that the scene she was making would one day become part of a future repertoire.

Not practical. Marta had a lot to teach the world, at her opera house in the middle of nowhere, and this was one lesson. Not practical. Isn’t that what life is all about? The living spirit goes well beyond that which is practical.

Why do coyotes howl? Why do crows perform aerial stunts on windy days? Why do bloggers write posts?

We do that which is practical in order to maintain life, so that we can keep doing that which is impractical. Impractical is what life is all about. Without impractical, we’d never want to be practical.

This is the latest installation of my series, The Amazing Amargosa. Come on back in a few days for the next installation, entitled, Chapter 9, Part 2: The Sitting Down Show . Click here to read the previous installation. Click here, to start at the beginning.

Chapter 8: A Tough Job to Finish

Back in the early 1900’s there weren’t many labor laws in the books, to protect workers. And the Pacific Coast Borax Company was just one of many employers who took full advantage of this lack of protection.

In 1907 the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad laid a narrow gauge spur off their main line, about 5 miles south of the Nevada state border. At the junction of this spur with the main line, a town arose that was first called Amargosa, but later renamed as Death Valley Junction. Its population never exceeded 400, and today it’s 4 or less.

The railroad spur led southwest about 6 miles, to the Lila C. borate mine. The Pacific Coast Borax Company hired men to load borate ore onto the railroad’s freight cars. They were hired for specific periods of time, and paid by contract. Under the terms of the contract, if they quit, were fired, were disabled, or killed before their contract expired, they wouldn’t be paid.

It was grueling, backbreaking labor, with long, cruel hours. And the working conditions were not safe. Many men were injured and disabled, and thereafter abandoned by the company. They were left unpaid and penniless. Some men were even killed in accidents. Many simply quit, due to exhaustion, and departed unpaid. But those with enough stamina to complete their contract received a lucrative payout. It was enough money to tempt strong, healthy men to sign on and take the gamble.

In 1924, the borax company decided they needed a bunkhouse for the workers, and a hotel for visitors and prospective investors. And so they constructed the Amargosa Hotel. It was a Spanish colonial style, U-shaped structure, with a large plaza that allowed for ample parking of horseless carriages, and horses with carriages.

The Amargosa Hotel, as it appeared in 2007.

At the north end of the structure, they built Corkill Hall. This became a social center, and was used from 1924 to 1948 for recreation, dances, and other gatherings by residents of the Amargosa Valley. During those 24 years, lonely desert rats drove for many miles, on a regular basis, just to socialize and be around others.

But in 1948, all that ended. Corkill Hall and the Amargosa Hotel were abandoned and left to fall into labefaction under the elements of the harsh Mojave desert climate. And for the next 19 years these ruins would lay dormant.

Until the arrival of a very odd lady.

This is the latest installation of my series, The Amazing Amargosa. Come on back in a few days for the next installation, entitled, Chapter 9, Part 1: The Ballet Dancer . Click here to read the previous installation. Click here, to start at the beginning.

Chapter 7, Part 3: Longstreet’s Last Days

After Jack posted his very expensive, $800 bail, he put the Chispa Mine debacle behind him and returned to his homestead at Ash Meadows to be with his new bride, Susie.

Jack had made a fortuitous choice in the location site of his homestead. A spring near his cabin fed the Carson Slough. At that time, the Carson Slough meandered about with bends and oxbows, like any other natural watercourse does that’s been in existence for eons. This tortuous course allowed water to pool and form marshes, creating a great wetland that attracted thousands upon thousands of migratory birds.

Longstreet Spring, near Jack’s cabin. It’s difficult to detect the water, because the pool’s specular surface blends in well with the surrounding reeds. This spring emerges from the ground at 16 gallons per second. It’s one of the cooler springs of Ash Meadows, at 78 F. The springs closer to the foothills are generally 91 – 93 F.

For Jack, food was free. Less than a half-mile from his cabin, he could hunt an unlimited amount of geese and ducks for dinner. That’s uncommon for someone who lives in a desert.

And the water on and near Jack’s homestead made it very valuable. So in 1907, he sold it for $30,000, which was a king’s ransom in those days. But he never put that money in the bank. Hell, even though he was in his 70s, he was still a fearsome man. Nobody dared mess with Jack Longstreet, so his money was safe enough outside of a bank. And this worked out well for Jack, because the Panic of 1907 caused many banks in Nevada to fail.

Jack moved from his Ash Meadows homestead to nearby Windy Canyon. There he established a ranch and mine. He was an old man by then, but still in good physical shape.

In his senior years, he was regarded by the locals as gruff but kind-hearted. He treated any visitors with a wary, suspicious eye, and kept his gun cocked. But he offered them the southern hospitality he had always provided to those he had no truck with, and was more than willing to regale them with old gunslinger stories.

Jack at age 94.

By 1928, Jack had remarried twice again, and was now on his fourth squaw from the Paiute tribe. Her name was Fanny Black. He was 94 years old, and perhaps stiff joints and the confusion of senility was what led to his death. Or maybe it was Fanny.

Nobody knows exactly how the “accident” happened, but Jack somehow managed to shoot himself in the armpit and shoulder. He traveled 140 miles north to the nearest hospital, in Tonopah, Nevada, where they treated his wound. But Jack was impatient. He wanted to get the hell out of the hospital and return home. So he checked himself out early. Too early.

He made it back to his ranch in Windy Canyon, and then suffered a stroke. He lay alone for three days, without water, and was unable to move. A friend found him while he was still alive, but Fanny was nowhere around. It seemed strange that his wife was not by his side, nursing him.

He was taken back to the hospital, where he now had no strength or ability to leave. Fanny was finally located and taken to the hospital also, to see him. But before she arrived, Jack died.

Four years later Fanny also died, and was buried next to Jack, in Tonopah.

But this old gunslinger’s legend lives on. Andrew Jackson Longstreet remains a man of mythical character, and a celebrated figure in the Amargosa Valley.

The Longstreet Inn and Casino, located near the Nevada/California border is named in his honor. You can find it on Highway 373, about 7 miles from Longstreet’s old homestead. And you can visit Longstreet’s restored cabin, by driving down a bumpy dirt road through the nearby Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.

The eponymous Longstreet Inn & Casino, about a quarter mile from the California border.
To the right of the entrance, visitors are greeted by a statue of Jack Longstreet.

This is the latest installation of my series, The Amazing Amargosa. Come on back in a few days for the next installation, entitled, Chapter 8: A Tough Job to Finish . Click here to read the previous installation. Click here, to start at the beginning.

Chapter 7, Part 2: The Claim Jumpers

Jack Longstreet landed in the Amargosa Valley in 1889, seeking out a safe place to live. He needed safety, because this gunslinger had made some enemies back in the silver mining town of Sylvania, where he’d recently stirred up trouble.

He wanted a home that was protected and isolated. He was a loner anyway, so he began scouting around for an out-of-the-way alcove where he could file for a homestead. He ventured into the vast and lush, Ash Meadows oasis, and found something that looked appealing: a small, white mound hill.

There are many of these hills at Ash Meadows, averaging about the height of a tall man, and they’re known as fossil spring mounds. They’re formed by slow flowing springs that trap wind-blown dust, dirt, and other sediments. A tiny mound forms from the sediments, and the spring water has to force its way to the top of the mound. This cycle continues over and over, as the mound grows higher and higher, until the weight of the mound is too much for the water pressure to overcome.

The water either stays underground, or finds an exit elsewhere, perhaps out of the side of the mound. And in the case of the mound that Longstreet discovered, the spring was escaping out of the side, from a small cave.

With homestead secured, he enlarged the cave, then built a stone cabin around it, so that the white mound formed part of the back wall and part of the sides. He used the cave for refrigeration, and the spring constituted his indoor plumbing.

He was no longer married, so after a few years he found a new Paiute, named Susie, to be his next wife. She lived there with him in this cabin for about four years, from 1895 to 1899.

Things were going smoothly for Jack, when he married in 1895. But then he got into trouble again. He, and several men with bad reputations, decided to jump the claim of the Chispa gold mine. This mine was in the Spring Mountains, a few miles east of the Amargosa Valley, and west of the boom town of Johnnie, Nevada.

The Chispa was owned by a group of Mormons, and it had been very productive for awhile. But then it was shut down temporarily while awaiting a change in ownership. Caretakers were put in charge, to guard the mine during this interim.

One of the former mine employees got together with Longstreet, and they came up with a heady idea. They reasoned that since the mine hadn’t completed an assessment the previous year, the claim was no longer legal, and could be taken over by anyone. So he and Jack, and a few of Amargosa’s ne’er-do-wells, appointed themselves as the rightful ones who should take it over. One was a man named Phil Foote, who was a wanted outlaw.

On a late-summer day in 1895, these claim jumpers rode up on the mine with their guns drawn, and ran off the caretaker crew. They then demanded $12,000 in cash from the Mormon owners, before they would relinquish the mine back to them.

The Mormons were having none of it. This threatened to spoil their deal to sell the mine. They filed a complaint with the local law, a Sheriff McGregor.

McGregor agreed with the Mormons that this was outrageous. But rather than go up against the likes of men like Jack Longstreet or Phil Foote, he decided to make a 140-mile ride north to Belmont, Nevada, which was the Nye County Seat at the time. He was seeking a nonviolent way to settle the matter, through safe, legal measures.

That didn’t set well with the Mormons. They felt impatient, and didn’t want to wait for the Sheriff to finish dodaddling around in Belmont. So they decided to take the law into their own hands.

One of the Mormons was a no-nonsense man named Bob Montgomery. He had just received a shipment of new rifles from the Nevada Southern Railroad. He passed those rifles around to his fellow co-owners, and they came up with a plan.

Meanwhile, Longstreet and his gang weren’t too worried. They felt protected by a steep slope to the north of the Chispa. And there was only one road leading into the mine, and it passed through a narrow canyon. They figured they had a tactical advantage, and they drew a line in that road. They informed the Mormons that if one of them so much as ventured a toe past that line, they’d be shot.

One warm morning, the claim jumpers were casually enjoying breakfast, which was probably a pile of complacency pancakes, with a helping of hubris on the side. To their surprise, the Mormons suddenly swept over the steep hill to the north and charged down upon them, with rifles blazing.

A tremendous gunfight broke out, but the Mormons had the advantage. They shot Phil Foote in the chest, and pinned down the rest. The situation suddenly became very dire for Longstreet and his gang.

Jack saw his friend dying, and realized they all were in one hell of a fix. So he decided to surrender to the Mormons and leave the mine, in hopes he could save his friend. But in spite of that, Foote died later that afternoon.

Eventually some arrests were made over this shootout, and Longstreet was one of those who ended up in jail to stand trial. He was convicted, but managed to buy his freedom by posting an $800 bail. And nobody was charged with the killing of Phil Foote, because it couldn’t be determined who’s bullet had ended the desperado’s life.

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 3: Longstreet’s Last Days. Click here to read the previous installation. Click here, to start at the beginning.

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