Death Valley


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!”