Death Valley

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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.