Death Valley day: A history to match a landscape of extremes

An old 20-mule-team borax wagon, an enduring symbol of Death Valley history, is on display at the site of the former Harmony Borax processing plant, The stovepipe and other remnants of the old Harmony Borax Works are on display for today's Death Valley visitors to inspect, Zabriskie Point, named for a former borax company executive, provides an expansive view of Death Valley's badlands, Death Valley National Park, California, Jan. 17, 2021 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

FEATURE — Early explorers dismissed it as a barren wasteland with no merit — a place to be avoided. It’s own name denotes a foreboding place that might not be on the top of the list for many tourists.

Who would want to visit a place with “death” in its name, anyway?

In several ways, Death Valley is an anomaly as far as national parks go. It’s far and away different from the picturesque mountain vistas and stately trees of the northern counterparts in its state, Yosemite and Sequoia.

Death Valley is truly a land of extremes. It is home to the lowest spot in North America, Badwater Basin at 282 feet below sea level. Only 16 miles away from Badwater, Telescope Peak rises 11,043 feet above sea level. It is also the place where the highest temperature on earth (134 degrees Fahrenheit) was recorded in 1913.

An early 20th century visitor, feminist activist Edna Perkins, who sought refuge in the desert for a time, described Death Valley eloquently in these words:

“We knew that the valley was sterile and dead, yet we saw it covered with a mantle of such strange beauty that we felt it was the noblest thing we had ever imagined.” 

The sign marking Badwater Basin and pointing out that it is 282 feet below sea level is a popular photo opportunity for visitors of Death Valley National Park, Calif., Jan. 17, 2021 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Death Valley’s noble beauty includes many locales that seem otherworldly, including badlands, salt flats, and sand dunes.

It has a fascinating history to match its landscape. 

Early exploration

Death Valley received its name from two groups of gold seekers heading to California a little late in the game, thinking they were taking a shortcut. In the end, it was the exact opposite. They entered the valley in late December 1849 and “eventually, the dry, vast and seemingly empty area ensnared both parties,” Hal Rothman and Char Miller wrote in their book, “Death Valley National Park: A History.”

Hemmed in by snowpack that covered the western Panamint Mountains, they searched for another escape from the valley. Two men from the group headed south to find such a route and took five weeks to return to the others with news that they had found a way out. By then, three members of the party had died of dehydration.

“Upon leaving their base camp, someone in the party reportedly commented, ‘Goodbye Death Valley,’ giving the region its foreboding name,” Rothman and Miller wrote.

These first white explorers set the stage for future exploration as they reportedly announced the presence of large silver deposits in the mountains surrounding Death Valley. Henry Washington, a surveyor who reached the interior of the valley in 1857, marked nearly one million acres from the sink of Death Valley to the crest of the Amargosa as potential ranch and farmland, but a surveying party 12 years later reported otherwise, defining the region in terms of its “utter desolation” and lack of water and vegetation, Rothman and Miller noted. By 1877, with the help of later surveys, a detailed map of Death Valley’s topography became available.

Future mining opportunities grew directly out of these surveys.

Mining in Death Valley

Death Valley’s foreboding landscape became an off-and-on mining mecca with short-lived towns sprouting up near the gold and silver deposits found in the area.

Two well-known silver and gold mining ghost towns in the Death Valley region share similar histories of boom and bust. 

Southern Utah University history professor Mark Miller, who has done extensive research on Death Valley, explained in an interview for this story, that Panamint, a town of 2,000 people in the mid-1870s, sprang to life after the discovery of a vein of silver in Surprise Gulch in the Panamint Mountains (named after the Timbisha Shoshones who were once called “Panamints”) in the isolated western part of today’s national park. Within a few months of that find, a mile-long town snaked up the gulch. 

Investors who made their fortunes in the Comstock Lode, near Virginia City, Nevada, sunk millions of dollars into claims in and around Death Valley.  But as those investors tried to develop mines, they found the area’s extreme isolation and harsh environment hindered their progress.  Ores that were produced had to be shipped by mule or other means hundreds of miles across desert mountains, canyons, and saline flats to the nearest roads and railheads.  Mining also requires a lot of water, and in the desolate desert environment, it was always in short supply.

“Within a few years, the rich silver veins petered out and the town disappeared almost as quickly as it arose,” Miller said. 

Another boom and bust mining town was Rhyolite, Nevada, just outside the park’s eastern border. It came to life in 1904 after “Shorty” Harris and a partner discovered rich gold deposits at the site. It didn’t take long for the town to reach a population of 10,000 people. But its life was very short as the Panic of 1907, one of the nation’s early economic depressions, led to bank foreclosures and loss of available investment capital.  Within a short time, Miller explained, production ceased and by the late teens everyone had moved away.  

“Overall, like elsewhere in the West, silver and gold mining was very prone to boom and bust cycles tied to international markets and prices of commodities,” Miller said. “ These two towns’ silver and gold deposits were simply not significant enough to support long-term, capital intensive development in such isolated and forbidding locations.” 

This historic photo shows a 20-mule team before its 165-mile journey to the railhead in Mojave, California, Death Valley National Park, 1883-1889 | Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, St. George News

Gold and silver mining didn’t have as much significance to Death Valley as borax mining, however. Borax, a crystalline compound used in detergents and cosmetics, was plentiful among the valley’s salty terrain. It required a time-consuming refining process to separate the mineral from mud and salts, which happened onsite. It operated eight months out of the year as the searing summer heat made it impossible for the borax to crystallize.

The heyday of borax mining was between 1883 and 1889 when the Harmony Borax Works, whose operation was near Furnace Creek, transported approximately 2.5 million pounds of crystallized borax every year along a 165-mile road to the nearest railhead in Mojave, California with teams of 20 mules pulling larger-than-average wagons. The image of these 20-mule teams became iconic both for Pacific Coast Borax and for the monument itself.

“Although the teams only ran for six years, they have made an enduring impression of the Old West,” the Death Valley National Park history web page states. “This is primarily due to a successful advertising campaign promoting 20 Mule Team Borax Soap and the long-running Death Valley Days radio and television program.” 

Those transportation struggles and cheaper competition led to the demise of Harmony Borax, but borax mining continued in deposits south of the valley controlled by the Pacific Coast Borax Company, which bought out Harmony Borax and held its claims in reserve. 

Pacific Coast Borax ceased its mining operations in the 1920s, but continued to be a presence in the valley with its tourist accommodations, including the Furnace Creek Inn and a fleet of busses that would give tours to visitors much like railroad subsidiaries did in other parks, such as the bus tours and lodges maintained by the Utah Parks Company in Zion, Bryce Canyon, Cedar Breaks and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

An old 20-mule-team borax wagon, an enduring symbol of Death Valley history, is on display at the site of the former Harmony Borax processing plant, The stovepipe and other remnants of the old Harmony Borax Works are on display for today’s Death Valley visitors to inspect, Zabriskie Point, named for a former borax company executive, provides an expansive view of Death Valley’s badlands, Death Valley National Park, California, Jan. 17, 2021 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

An interesting connection with Pacific Coast Borax and the early National Park Service is the fact that Stephen Mather, known as “The Father of the National Parks” was a Pacific Borax Company executive before becoming the first National Park Service director.  He helped come up with branding the company’s product “Twenty-Mule-Team Borax” due to the transportation method of the compound in the 1880s. 

“Mather wanted Death Valley to become a national park but felt his promotion of it would be seen as a conflict of interest,” Miller said. “He encouraged his staff to focus on the now-famous image of the 20-mule teams crossing Death Valley as the centerpiece of a campaign to set aside the valley as a park.” 

Unfortunately, Mather never saw the area become one of the first desert additions to the park service system as he died in 1930.

Today, the park contains over 18,000 mining features. The most prominent reminders of mining activities in the area still standing for today’s visitors to see are the ruins of the Keane Wonder Mine, which includes towers and terminals from an aerial tramway used to transport ore, and the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, similar to the kilns at Old Irontown and near Silver Reef

Park Service protection

At the turn of the 20th century, it didn’t look very likely that a place like Death Valley could become a national park area. At the time, “most Americans thought of national parks as places of monumental scenic grandeur, and many still treated the nation’s desert areas as wastelands,” Rothman and Miller wrote. Additionally, the duo explained, extractive processes were anathema to the park service’s vision of “America the Beautiful,” which was another strike against the area.

Attitudes had to change and two dynamic early Park Service leaders had to come onto the scene to make park service protection a reality.

Mather, although reluctant because of his connections to Death Valley, had an affinity for the area and felt it was deserving of protection. In 1927, Mather led a tour of Death Valley that included other National Park brass, including his right-hand-man and deputy director Horace Albright, as well as Pacific Coast Borax representatives. The area’s scientific and scenic potential impressed the group, but existing mining claims remained an obstacle to national monument designations.

After Mather’s death, Albright succeeded him as National Park Service director and worked to change perceptions of what a national park area could and should be. Albright was keenly aware of legislative tools he could use to help in his campaign to designate Death Valley a national monument, chief among them the Antiquities Act of 1906, which gave the president of the United States the authority to proclaim unallocated public land a national monument without involving Congress. He felt that President Herbert Hoover would be just the president to do it. With the help of a few park superintendents who also extolled the idea of protection for Death Valley, Albright requested that the General Land Office temporarily exclude new claims to the area.

Zabriskie Point, named for a former borax company executive, provides an expansive view of Death Valley’s badlands, Death Valley National Park, California, Jan. 17, 2021 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

After Hoover’s defeat to Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 election, Albright seized on the opportunity for the outgoing administration to leave a legacy, much like Theodore Roosevelt did in designating numerous national monuments on his way out in 1909. 

“Albright recognized the exiting president’s desire to offer the nation a conservation gift,” Rothman and Miller wrote. “(Hoover) found solace in the opportunity to leave a legacy that he believed people would admire.”

During this lame-duck period, Hoover’s administration designated Death Valley a national monument on Feb.11, 1933. At the same time, Hoover proclaimed four other national monuments, two of which, like Death Valley, were desert parks — Saguaro in Arizona and White Sands in New Mexico — the first of their kind under park service jurisdiction.

Due to the early overall lack of funding for national parks and monuments, the Civilian Conservation Corps was a godsend to the fledgling monument. By October 1933, eight months after its designation, two companies of approximately 400 men each entered Death Valley to start constructing essential infrastructure to accommodate visitors to the monument. In total, 12 companies worked in Death Valley over the Corp’s nine-year history. 

“These crews graded 500 miles of roads, constructed an airplane landing field and installed water and telephone lines (and) erected a total of 76 buildings,” the Death Valley National Park history web page states. “They built trails in the Panamints to points of scenic interest. Additionally, these crews helped improve the visitor experience by building campgrounds, restrooms and picnic facilities.”

Several CCC-era buildings are still in use to this day.

In 1994, the park was redesignated Death Valley National Park and expanded by about 1,000,000 acres, making it the largest park outside of Alaska. The park was expanded again, by about 35,000 acres, in 2019. 

This historic photo shows a ranger posing next to the actor portraying C3PO during the filming of Star Wars – Return of the Jedi in Death Valley National Park, Calif., in 1982 | Photo courtesy of National Park Service, St. George News

Death Valley claims to fame and interesting tidbits

In 1969, Charles Manson and his “Manson Family” of followers fled Los Angeles after committing a series of brutal murders. They holed up in the Barker Ranch, located in the southwest corner of the park and originally built by ranchers who wanted to live in solitude. A place away from civilization is just what the “Manson Family” was looking for. They started a rash of vandalism which culminated in the burning of a park service loader being used to fix a road near the Racetrack Playa. That incident prompted the beginning of an investigation by an alliance of park service rangers, highway patrolmen and Inyo County Sheriff’s deputies.

Clues led law enforcement to the Barker Ranch, which was raided and led to the capture of Manson himself. During the investigation, law enforcement rounded up 26 people on suspicion of arson, vandalism and grand theft auto. 

In the end, the Manson Family misjudged Death Valley National Monument as the perfect place to hide out because of its remoteness, but they failed to take into account the dedication of rangers and local law enforcement, wrote Julia Busiek in an article for “National Parks” magazine in October 2019. 

“Manson and four of his followers were eventually convicted of first-degree murder for the deaths of their nine victims and sentenced to death,” Busiek explained. Their sentences were commuted to life in prison following the passage of a law that outlawed the death penalty in California. Manson died at age 83 in 2017.”

A more iconic claim to fame for the national park is as a filming location for two of the first three Star Wars films. Visitors wanting to know what the planet Tatooine looks like need only visit Death Valley locations such as Golden Canyon, Artists Drive, Desolation Canyon, Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Dante’s View and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. 

One curiosity of Death Valley is it is home to the Devil’s Hole Pupfish, one of the first species to be added to the Endangered Species List and the vertebrate with the smallest native habitat by area of any vertebrate animal on earth, the bottom of a sinkhole that’s fed by a vast underground cave and aquifer system.

“After Death Valley was declared a national monument, scientists and preservationist allies worked to have the pupfishes’ only habitat protected,” said Miller, who is working on a book about this and other preservation efforts in the Southwest. “It took until the 1950s, but Devil’s Hole was finally included in a separate, small section of the national monument near the Nevada border.”

There have been a few challenges that would have despoiled the pupfish habitat over the years.

“Still controversial today, the government has spent millions of dollars to preserve the species,” Miller explained.

A tribe without a homeland

The National Park Service has been notorious throughout its history of forcing out Native Americans who once lived and thrived within national park borders. Indians in national parks didn’t fit the vision the park service had for the pristine, scenic lands it administered. For instance, in Yosemite, the Miwok suffered that fate as did the Blackfeet in Glacier. The Timbisha Shoshone in Death Valley are an exception to that.

These descendants of the first human residents of Death Valley lived in a small collection of adobe casitas and ramshackle trailers on the southwest edge of the Furnace Creek complex, which was known as “Indian Village,” a place not labeled on official park maps because the park administration didn’t want tourists to notice it. Other members of the tribe lived in dispersed locations throughout the monument.

The Shoshone were the underdog. They were not a federally recognized tribe and possessed no federally-protected homeland. However, they showed incredible resolve, perseverance and determination to make their case heard loud and clear using legal means and allies in high places to reach their ultimate goals.

Once the monument was established in 1933, their entire territory fell under the authority of the park service, which soon after the designation produced glowing studies of the monument’s geology, wildlife, and historic sites but made no mention of the Indians, Miller reported in an article he wrote about the tribe’s plight in the “Journal of the Southwest” in 2008. Park agents simply ignored them, a product of the park service lacking a coherent policy towards Native Americans at the time.

One positive of the park service presence in Death Valley is it gave the Shoshone work. For instance, Shoshone men helped build tourist facilities at Furnace Creek as well as the famous Scotty’s Castle in Grapevine Canyon at the northern end of the monument. Previous to that, some Shoshone men found employment with the area’s mines.

However, the monument administration wanted to restrict their subsistence activities within the monument and at first proposed complete Indian removal. By the 1940s, Death Valley officials completely banned hunting and gathering in parklands. 

“The loss of the bighorn hunt, in particular, had deep cultural ramifications as young Shoshone men had traditionally proven their manhood by killing a ram,” Miller explained in his article. “Together, these actions posed a severe threat to Timbisha Shoshone culture.”

Park service officials were also concerned that the Indians could monopolize the valley’s limited water supply.

The east entrance sign in Death Valley National Park clearly shows that it is the homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone, Death Valley National Park, Calif., Jan. 17, 2021 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

In the 1930s, one park superintendent and a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent showed sympathy to the tribe and put in motion the creation of the Indian Village for them, which put the Shoshone near employment opportunities and also provided for a trading post where tourists could purchase Indian wares. The village still wasn’t an ideal situation because it sat on park service land, meaning the Shoshone could not practice self-government nor gain official recognition as a tribe. 

Park service officials, however, saw the Indian Village as temporary and in 1957, superintendent Fred W. Binnewies initiated a new removal policy aimed at the village.

“Binnewies planned to eliminate the Shoshone village gradually and quietly by limiting Indian residence to present occupants and their descendants,” Miller noted. “To accomplish its goal of removal through attrition, the park service began collecting rents, razing vacant dwellings and evicting Shoshone families who failed to pay their rent or left the premises unoccupied.”

Traditionally, the Shoshone would leave in the summer to cooler climes, but many started staying and braving the heat just so they could keep their homes. 

Thankfully for the Shoshone, attitudes about Native Americans in national parks began to shift in the 1970s and 1980s. For instance, Miller explained that scientists began acknowledging that “Native Americans had a rightful, even natural, place in the environment and that, in fact, national park lands “had been managed and altered for thousands of years by native land-use practices.”

Using the legal system and federal records generated by the park service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, oral testimonies, and academic studies, the Timbisha Shoshone band convinced the bureau, through a new acknowledgment process, that they were a tribal unit of long duration and, in 1983, the Timbisha finally became a federally recognized tribe, which would serve as a powerful tool at their disposal, Miller wrote.

Environmental groups and other tribes in similar situations, such as the Hualapai of the Grand Canyon, helped the band in their fight to gain an official tribal homeland. President Bill Clinton’s executive order in 1994 stating that federal agencies must deal with tribes as sovereign nations and that Congress must hold oversight hearings on the rights of aboriginal groups in the park service system also helped the cause, Miller noted.

“The tribe argued that a reservation was a matter of human rights: all peoples deserved a homeland, water, and freedom of movement,” Miller concluded.

On Nov. 1, 2000, President Clinton signed the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act, which gave the tribe approximately 7,500 acres within Death Valley National Park to be held in trust as reservation lands, including 300 acres at Furnace Creek. An important concession was park service officials agreeing to recognize the Shoshone’s traditional use of lands within the park as well as acknowledging their water rights.

“The Death Valley conflict ended in an unprecedented way — with the NPS recognizing the Shoshone’s traditional land uses, and more importantly, acknowledging their right to live within the park itself,” Miller wrote in his article. “For the first time in its long history, the NPS agreed to create an Indian reservation within the boundaries of a national park.”

The act designated two-thirds of the park as co-managed by the park service and Timbisha Shoshone, said Death Valley National Park Management Assistant Abigail Wines.

The Timbisha case signaled a growing public acceptance of Native American presence within national parks and indigenous use of parklands. It is clear to visitors entering the park who it originally belonged to as “Homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone” is emblazoned on the park entry sign.

Wildflower blooms are a regular occurrence in Death Valley in February and once in a while there will be a super bloom like this one in February 2016, Death Valley National Park, Calif. | Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, St. George News

Visiting Death Valley today

Today, Death Valley deals with similar challenges facing other national parks — many due to increased visitation, which has risen from 828,574 annual visitors in 2009 to over 1.7 million visitors in 2019. Wines said that often, visitors drive off road illegally in the park, damaging resources and leaving tracks that scar the landscape for years. Another obstacle many other national parks face that is also a problem at Death Valley is its maintenance backlog. Many of the park’s facilities, namely its water systems, are aging and failing.

“This causes us a lot of after-hours overtime to deal with emergency repairs, and prevents us from being able to work on proactive repairs and improvements,” Wines said.

Other challenges that are more unique include feral burros damaging springs and chasing off native wildlife as well as illegal marijuana farming near remote springs.

Challenges aside, one thing popular among today’s visitors is the wildflower bloom that happens in the spring.

“There are always some flowers in Death Valley during the spring – but about once a decade there is a ‘superbloom.'” Wines explained. “The most spectacular aspect is when the slopes of the alluvial fans that are between the mountains and the salt flats go from nearly barren rock to a burst of bright yellow flowers that track the sun. The most common flower is called desert gold and it looks like a miniature sunflower, up to 3 feet tall.”

Overall, the park service has managed Death Valley well, Miller feels.

Because of the wonderful job the Park Service did of limiting construction and having small, winding roads throughout the park, this helps to maintain a sense that one is traveling through the frontier and into wildlands largely untouched by humankind, something increasingly rare today,” he said. “It is still a place where humans can feel small and part of the natural world.”

For more information on visiting Death Valley National Park, visit its website.

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About the series “Days”

“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.

“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.

To keep up on Wadsworth’s adventures, “like” his author Facebook page or follow his Instagram account.

Wadsworth has also released a book compilation of many of the historical features written about Washington County as well as a second volume containing stories about other places in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada.

Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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