Category: History

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.

Chapter 7, Part 1: The Gunslinger

Mining attracted some colorful characters to Nevada, and one was the gunman, Jack Longstreet. He drifted into the northern Arizona Territory in 1880, but not much is known about him prior to that point in his life. Except that he came from Kentucky, by way of Texas, which accounted for his soft, southern drawl. And he was born in the mid-1830s, probably 1834. And his full name was Andrew Jackson Longstreet.

Jack Longstreet in 1907, around age 73.

He stood nearly six feet tall, was large of build, and carried a piece on his hip; a long-barreled Colt .44 with five notches scratched on it. And he was reputed to be quick and accurate with that revolver.

He was educated also, as evident by the fact that he could read and write. This was uncommon for men of the West, at that time.

He always kept his hair long and straggly, hanging over his ears. That was to hide the fact that he had a missing ear. Back in his days of youth, he ran with a band of cattle rustlers in Texas. One day they were caught by some local vigilantes, who strung them all up except Jack. They spared the boy, due to his young age. But to teach him a lesson about the evils of cattle rustling, they cut off one of his ears. Jack kept his hair long, thereafter.

In 1880, at about the age of 46, Longstreet tried his hand at mining, in Northern Arizona. He also took a liking to the local Southern Paiute Indians, learned their language, and made one of them his wife. This was at a time when there was much prejudice against Indians, but Longstreet didn’t give a damn. And nobody dared cross him. By the time he took this wife, Jack was widely recognized as a tough and dangerous gunslinger, and was reputed to have killed several men.

Two years later, he drifted on up to Moapa, Nevada, about 50 miles northeast of present-day Las Vegas. There he opened a saloon and drug store. But Jack had itchy feet. Or maybe he was trying to stay ahead of the law. In 1888 he ventured up to Beatty, Nevada, just north of the Amargosa Valley.

Then in 1889, he picked up stakes and moved again, about 60 miles northwest, to the silver mining boom town of Sylvania. Sylvania straddled the California and Nevada border. And here, in this future ghost town, he found trouble of the Old West style.

In spite of his rough-hewn physical exterior, Jack Longstreet usually behaved like a Southern gentleman, with very courtly, perhaps overly courtly, hospitable mannerisms. And he carried within his inner constitution, a strong moral code. But he was also short-tempered and never a man to back down from a fight. Especially if he thought someone was being cheated.

He frequently mingled with the Paiute Indians, and spoke their tongue, and so it must have been from them that he learned of a great injustice perpetrated upon the red man. It seems the foreman of the Sylvania Mine employed Paiutes, but was paying them in the mine’s own scrip, which was nearly worthless.

So the quick-tempered Longstreet took it upon himself to rectify this unfortunate situation.

He kidnapped the foreman, and under threat of lead poisoning, or perhaps a lynching, he forced the rogue to write checks of value to his employees, drawn on a local bank. The local Paiutes were properly paid, and Jack became their hero.

But the local law wasn’t so impressed, so Jack thought it best to leave Sylvania and mosey back down to the Amargosa Valley. At that time, the Amargosa Valley was a hideout for all sorts of outlaws, desperadoes, and ne’er-do-wells on the lam. Lawmen kind of avoided the place, as it was dangerous for them. And few lawmen had the guts to take on 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 7, Part 2: The Claim Jumpers . Click here to read the previous installation. Click here, to start at the beginning.

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.

Chapter 5: Sister Valley of Death

Nobody knows exactly when the first European set eyes and foot upon Ash Meadows and the Amargosa Valley. The natives had long established a network of trails in the American West, and some of these footpaths connected present-day California with the lands of present-day Nevada, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.

Spanish explorers became familiar with this network as early as the 16th century. And a route was established by the Spanish around this time, that connected New Mexico to California, and that passed through the Amargosa Valley. This eventually became known as the Old Spanish Trail.

But for hundreds of years, few Spaniards traveled this trail, and none ever established themselves in the Amargosa Valley. They left these natives alone, to continue on with their primitive civilization.

Mountain men learned of this route, from the natives, and traversed it to reach California during the 1820s and 1830s. American explorer John C. Fremont traveled this trail in the 1840s, and very likely passed through the Amargosa Valley. He made a sketchy map of the area, but it was difficult to figure out.

In 1847, the Donner Party met with a well-publicized disaster while trying to cross the high and rugged Sierra Nevadas. So in October of 1849, another party of wagon train immigrants, encamped in Salt Lake City, decided to go low, upon a more southerly route to the California goldfields. They would make the unprecedented move of skirting around the Sierras, that were so deadly in the winter.

They used a copy of Fremont’s sketchy map, and sought out the lush and water-abundant Owens valley, to the west of Death Valley, as their route around the Sierras. But Fremont’s map depicted a non-existent, east-to-west mountain range, and this set them arsy-versy on a discombobulated route that ended them up in the much drier Amargosa Valley, to the east of Death Valley.

They stopped at Ash Meadows, and rested and filled up with water. At this point, the natives could have advised them to head due south, paralleling the course of the dry, Amargosa riverbed, where their trek would be much easier. But by this time, the natives had come to regard the white man as a cruel and mean people, and so they allowed them to find their own fate.

And find it they did. This party of fools initially drove south, to present-day Death Valley Junction. But then they made the disastrous decision to drive their wagons and mules west and northwest, to seek out Walker Pass of the Owens valley. This carried them along the route of California’s present day Highway 190, over the Amargosa mountains, and straight down into the heart of Amargosa’s sister valley. The valley of death itself, at Furnace Creek.


A colorful but stark landscape greeted the 49ers as they passed over the Amargosa mountains toward Furnace Creek. Photo taken at 20 Mule Team Road.

The Panamint Mountains stood like an impenetrable wall, to their west. They were trapped, and had to decide whether to continue either north or southwest, to seek a way around the towering Panamints. With no guidance, and no knowledge of the territory, most of them continued north toward what appeared to be a pass near present-day Stovepipe Wells.

A late-arriving family, the Wades, made a more fortunate gamble. They turned southwest and found an exit from the valley through Wingate Wash, and escaped unscathed.


Furnace Creek is the splotchy greenish color in the center of the photo, as seen looking north from Dante’s Ridge.

Those who gambled north through this terra incognita, were greeted by a landscape devoid of much vegetation. By the time they reached the sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells, their oxen were dying from lack of forage. There they made a heartbreaking stop at what is today referred to as “Burned Wagons Camp.” At this camp, they slaughtered their remaining oxen and made jerky.


The sand dunes, near Stovepipe Wells.

They then proceeded on foot toward Towne Pass, but were forced by exhaustion and disorientation to stop about 5 miles southwest of Stovepipe Wells, and make camp.

The desert heat generally rose no higher than the 60s and 70s. It was nice and cool, for Death Valley. They were lucky it was December. Had they arrived in July, when high temperatures average 116 F at Furnace Creek, and where the highest temperature ever officially recorded on planet Earth, of 134 F, would melt thermometers in July of 1913, they would have surely died of heat exhaustion.

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 escaped the ravages of this hellish valley.


11,049 foot high, Telescope Peak and the snowcapped Panamint Mountains, from Artists Drive in Death Valley.

Two men were sent south to search for help and a way out, for those families that remained. Four weeks later, after a nearly impossible 500 mile round-trip trek, they returned with food supplies, three horses, and a mule. But the three horses died before they could reach the camp.

With only a mule and the meager food provisions, the remaining parties managed to footslog their way to civilization. However, two soon died along the way, just west of the Panamints.

Before the return of this rescue party, they had sent another party, of three men, on a mission southwest, to find a way out of the valley. Two made it out and managed to reach civilization and return with provisions. But one of these men, a Captain Culverwell, couldn’t keep up with his two traveling companions. He turned back, but died of dehydration just a few miles short of the camp. He is the only one of these 49ers to have died within Death Valley itself.

The Timbisha Shoshone, who inhabited this valley, could have helped these hapless travelers. But it is said that their contempt for a people they considered to be cruel, kept them away.

Their name for the valley was Tumpisa, which means “Rock Paint,” after the paint they made from the red clay that can be found in the area. But this 49er party, as they sat starving in the shade of short shrubs, came up with a new name. Perhaps they were inspired by Psalm 23:4, which references the valley of the shadow of death.

Because from that time on, this inhospitable geological wonder has been known as Death Valley.

The Death Valley ‘49ers Organization holds an Annual Encampment every November, to commemorate and reenact the disastrous trek of the ‘49ers through Death Valley.

This is the latest installation of my series, The Amazing Amargosa. Come on back in a few days for the next installation, entitled, Chapter 6: The Wheeler Survey. Click here to read the previous installation. Click here, to start at the beginning.

Chapter 4: The First Humans

Tens of thousands of years ago, eagle-eyed scouts with genes that could be traced to the steppes of Asia, prowled this continent, searching for new, unexplored places to settle down and raise a family. Who knows exactly when it happened, but at least 10,000 years ago, a scout must have mounted a high peak or tall hill, such as Shadow Mountain, in the Nopah Range, Pyramid Peak, over in the Funeral Mountains, or perhaps Razorback Ridge, near Beatty.

As he or she scoured the landscape of the Amargosa Valley, surely their eye must have landed on all the green against the foothills of the Spring Mountains. And they brought back exciting news to their tribe. And Ash Meadows would never be the same.

Archaeologists have uncovered ancient campsites at Ash Meadows, dating back at least 10,000 years. And they’ve discovered pottery and other signs of permanent human habitation that go back at least 1,000 years, probably longer.

Early humans raised their families here, sang songs to the gods, feasted and starved, no doubt fought a few wars and battles over the lush and valuable springs, and made a home out of Ash Meadows. And it became a gathering place for tribes all over the region, who traveled hundreds of miles to this sacred site for reunions and powwows of all occasions.

King’s Pool, at Point of Rocks in Ash Meadows, was a gathering place for the Paiute and Shoshone people, who believed this pool possessed a special power.

No doubt there was a sorting out, with weaker tribes and clans being driven away. By the time the white man arrived, the tribes that remained in this prized valley were the Pharump Southern Paiute and the Timbisha Western Shoshone.

They had established a great agricultural civilization in the Amargosa Valley, with Ash Meadows leading the way in productivity. The tribal families at Ash Meadows used selective plant breeding to develop a superior mesquite tree, that enhanced both the size and taste of its nutritious pods.

They also diverted water into small fields, to cultivate corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers. They ascended the surrounding highlands, and hunted mountain sheep for some of their meat. And when the season was right they would gather pinyon pine nuts in the same mountains.

No doubt, the human impact from these tribes disturbed the ecological system to some extent, for the plants and animals that had thrived in this region for thousands of years prior. But still, it was very minimal compared with the harm European civilization would eventually exact upon Ash Meadows.

In the hands of these native tribes, Ash Meadows remained the largest wetland in Southern Nevada. Its waters and meadows and tortuous Carson Slough, teemed with wildlife. It continued to be a haven for ducks, wading birds, birds of prey, and migratory birds. And within its streams, springs, and pools, large populations of pupfish and speckled dace, and snails, and insects, played out their lives, as the cycle of life continued uninterrupted.

This is the latest installation of my series, The Amazing Amargosa. Come on back in a few days for the next installation, entitled, Chapter 5: Sister Valley of Death . Click here to read the previous installation. Click here, to start at the beginning.