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Death Valley

April 2024
6min read

On Christmas Day of 1849 a party of twenty-seven wagons heading through Nevada toward the California gold fields lumbered over a barren ridge and downhill into a desolate place. Before the travellers lay miles of scorched and blasted earth, raw outcroppings of multicolored rock, and stunning heat. The little caravan split up; a group of bachelors who called themselves thejayhawkers piked north, and two families—the Bennetts and the Arcanes—pushed southward along with a few single men. The Jayhawkers were out of it in two or three days, but the other group pressed on deeper into what one of them called ”… the most God-forsaken country in the world. … this was the Creator’s dumping ground where he had left the worthless dregs after making a world, and the devil had scraped these together a little. …” Day after brutal day they slogged across blinding salt flats only to come up at last against impassable mountains. The wretched party camped around a water hole and devised a forlorn plan. Two young men, William Lewis Manly and John Rogers, would go forward over the mountains and scout a trail to the civilization that had to be close by.

But there was another three hundred miles of desert to cross, beyond the mountains, before the two ragged, dying scouts reached what passed for civilization in California of the gold-rush days. They bought supplies and then turned back into the desert to rescue their companions. When they reached the camp, only the two families were still there; one of the single men was dead, and the rest had struck out on their own. The next day, their hold on life renewed, the survivors started out of the valley where they had expected to leave their bones. Manly wrote that “just as we were ready to leave … we took off our hats, and then overlooking the scene of so much trial, suffering and death spoke the thought uppermost saying, ‘ Good-bye, Death Valley! ’ ”

The fierce country deserved the name. Death Valley is twice the size of the state of Delaware—some three thousand square miles of terrifying silences, level wastes where rain has been known to evaporate before it reaches the ground, and poisonous springs. The valley runs between mountain ranges for 140 miles through California and Nevada. The Indians called it Tomesha—“ground afire”- and during the summer months it is the hottest place on earth. Flies with their wings burned off crawl along the ground like beetles, and lizards lie on their backs to give their feet relief. But for all this, some seven hundred species of plants and many animals cling to life in the fissures and salt pools of the valley, and its monstrous landscapes possess a barbarous beauty.

It was not, of course, the scenery that drew men back into the valley after Manly and his party escaped, but tough optimism and the promise of wealth in the scorched hills. Prospectors have been working the valley for over a century, founding transient communities with names full of grim humor and the prescience of death: Coffin Canyon, Suicide Pass, Skeleton Mine, Lostman Spring, Starvation Canyon, Arsenic Spring, Dante’s View, and Deadman’s Gulch.

The first mine in Death Valley was no mine at all. One of the Jayhawkers, searching for a sight that had fallen off his rifle, picked up a small chunk of ore. After he was safely out of the valley, he found that his souvenir was almost pure silver. For the next half century men endured temperatures as high as 145 degrees searching in vain for the Lost Gunsight Mine.

The elusive metal finally turned up in 1873 in the Panamint Mountains on the western edge of the valley. Panamint City sprang into being with a population of one thousand, its own newspaper, and saloons staffed with wantons imported from San Francisco’s Barbary Coast. It was one of the toughest towns in the West. Wells, Fargo & Company, whose prosperity did not derive from undue caution, would not send wagons into Panamint. The little Sodom boomed for four years, and then the veins of silver ran dry. The miners and their women disappeared overnight, and finally a cloudburst washed most of the town away. Aqua purgat .

The search for precious metal went on, and often the prospectors were annoyed by a ubiquitous grayish silt that tainted the water. They cursed the stuff and passed it by, thus ignoring the valley’s most enduring source of riches. The first to profit from it were Aaron and Rosie Winters, a dirt-poor couple who lived in a tiny dugout near the Funeral Mountains on the eastern boundary of the valley. One evening in 1880 a prospector drifted in out of the desert and. during the conversation, mentioned that horax was selling for fifty cents a pound, described its appearance, and explained how to test for it. Winters immediately set out with his wife for nearby Furnace Creek, where he had noticed deposits of what he now hoped was borax. He scraped together a small pile, saturated it with alcohol and acid, and put a spark to it. “She burns green. Rosie,” he cried. “We’re rich!”


The next year Aaron Winters sold his claim to William T. Coleman and Company of San Francisco for twenty thousand dollars. Coleman built the Harmony Borax Works a mile north of Furnace Creek Ranch. Everything went smoothly through the winter; but when the brutal summer clamped down, the borax ceased to crystallize. Coleman relocated his refinery on higher, cooler ground, where transportation problems gave birth to Heath Valley’s most durable symbol.

Coleman had started out hauling borax from the Harmony Works with an eight-mule team. When he realized that a short-lived competitor was able to haul twice as big a load with a twelve-mule team. Coleman had the idea tha,t a twenty-mule team could pull truly formidable amounts of borax. His foreman ordered wagons built to gargantuan specifications: sixteen feet long, six feet deep with realwheels taller than a man and handed with iron tires an inch thick. The twenty-mule teams each pulled two of these monsters containing twenty-four tons of borax as well as twelve hundred gallons of water. For five years the ponderous, 125-foot-long trains groaned out of the Harmony Works and made the grueling ten-day haul to the Mojave railhead 165 miles away. It was hot. tough, trying work, and often the teamsters rolled into Mojave bloodied by savage quarrels. But they never lost a mule, and the wagons were so sturdy that there was not a single breakdown.

There was good money in borax, but the powder lacked the glamor of gold and silver, and men kept coming to chase after the tantalizing traces of metal that glittered in the walls of the valley. Tawdry little communities grew up out of the sand, fought and drank their feverish lives away, and vanished. In the early 1900’s two prospectors in the Panamints sat down on a ledge to wait out a fog. When it lifted, they found themselves on top of unbelievably rich deposits of gold. A few weeks later the town of Skidoo was offering gamy diversions to scores of miners.

Today most of Skidoo’s Himsy buildings are gone, but Rhyolite, across the valley, was built to last. In 10,04 “Shorty” Harris (described on his tombstone as “a single blanket jackass prospector”) turned up chunks of ore. Nearby an Indian swapped for a pair of overalls a claim from which five million dollars’ worth of gold was eventually taken. These two strikes gave rise to the town of Rhyolite, which, in its great days, had a fine stone hotel, a bank, two railroad depots, two churches, and a stock exchange. In 1906 the population topped ten thousand, but the panic of 1907 crippled the market for precious metals, and by 1911 the town was-dead. The Indian watched the people trickle away and later was fond of saying, “White man come, make big fuss, go away. I still have overalls.”

One of the men who passed through Rhyolite in its boom days went on to become a legend in his own right. Walter Scott was born in Kentucky in 1872, but by the time he reached his early teens he was in Death Valley working with the Harmony mule teams. He put in a long stint doing fancy riding for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, but he never got the desert out of his blood, and by 1900 he was back in Death Valley looking for gold. In 1905 he became a national figure as Death Valley Scotty when he hired a private Santa Fe express train and rocketed from Los Angeles to Chicago in a record forty-four hours and fifty-four minutes. The money for this and other extravagant sprees was rumored to come from a secret gold mine, but the gold mine, it would seem, was really Albert M. Johnson, a Chicago millionaire whom Scotty lured to Death Valley for his health—evidently with good results.

Johnson’s name appears on the deeds to Scott’s most extraordinary project. While travelling with Buffalo Bill in Germany Scott had been delighted by the castles along the Rhine. Sometime in the early igao’s he decided that he wanted a castle of his own, in Grapevine Canyon at the head of the valley. In 1924 a Moorish fantasy began to take shape in the desert. By the time “Scotty’s Castle” was finished, it had swallowed up three million dollars. It presides over Death Vallev with ultimate incongruity. Inside are baronial halls hung with tooled-leather draperies, a room devoted solely to housing the finest pipe organ west of the Mississippi, furnishings from Spanish cathedrals and palaces, a living room cooled by water trickling down a wall of jasper, and eighteen fireplaces.

Scott died in 1954, having outlived the glory days of the valley. He left his castle as a monument to his stagey career. It is now administered by a charitable institution established by Johnson’s will, and Scott would no doubt have been delighted to know that today 150.000 people visit it yearly.

Although Death Valley was proclaimed a national monument in 1933, mining is permitted there, and some prospectors still scramble up and down primeval canyons hoping for a strike. But most of the thousands who visit the valley are drawn to it by the awful grandeur of its landscapes. There is something at once threatening and reassuring about the fact that, just a few miles to the west of the neon blare of Las Vegas, there is country that has barely tolerated the works of man, and has been changed by them almost not at all.


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