Monday, April 16, 2012

The Lure of the Ore

In 1842, the discovery of gold in California attracted hordes of prospectors, engineers, con-men, drunkards, fools and entrepreneurs to the west in a quest for gold and precious minerals. Vibrant colors in the hills and canyons of Death Valley, the hottest, driest, lowest point in the United States, promised rich veins of copper, silver and gold as shown in this photo. 

Artist Drive,  National Park Service

Though the promise of riches never really "panned out," it was not from lack of trying. The discovery of silver and gold attracted entrepreneurs who thought they were up to the challenges involved in extracting, processing and transporting the ore.  In the 1880's, the Modock Consolidated Mining Company was operating a smelter in the Panamint Springs area. George Hearst, father of publisher William Randolph Hearst, was a principle owner of the mining interest. Having exhausted local timber needed for smelting, they needed a new source of fuel, and so, in 1887, they constructed ten kilns to process charcoal for smelting gold, silver and lead. Pinyon pines and juniper growing 25 miles away at an elevation of 6800 feet were the nearest source of timber!

Charcoal kilns at Wildrose, 1877 photo:  Maria O'Meara
Designed by a Swiss engineer and constructed by Chinese laborers, each kiln stands 25 feet high and 30 feet across and could process 40 cords of wood at a time. 

Charcoal kiln at Wildrose, photo: Maria O'Meara
Transporting charcoal to the smelter required hauling carts loaded with thousands of pounds down the 25 miles of twisting, narrow roads; even today, the drive takes you through a narrow canyon and bouncing over hairpin turns on rut-filled dirt roads. The kilns were used for only two years before being abandoned. Due to their remoteness and brevity of use, they are among the best preserved kilns in the west today. They were refurbished by a team of Navajo Indians in 1971. A view from nearby shows how remote the location is. 

View from Wildrose, photo: Maria O'Meara
A mineral less glamorous than gold or silver would make Death Valley famous. Borax or sodium borate was used to make soap, disinfectants, and paints, and as an ingredient for smelting gold and silver. More recently it has been used in rocket fuel. In 1881, deposits of borax were discovered near Furnace Creek, one of the lowest points in Death Valley. Teams of 20 mules transported borax from mines to processing plants on enormous wagons.

Twenty mule team transporting borax c. 1884,  National Park Service
Borax mining proved far more profitable than gold, silver, or copper but processing borax requires temperatures low enough for crystallization and during the sweltering summers, it was so hot, the minerals wouldn't crystallize. Shutting production down for three months a year proved unprofitable, and the borax mines were abandoned in 1888.

Gold strikes continued into the early 1900's, as thousands of claims were struck. Towns with names like Rhyolite, Skidoo and Leadfield sprung up. In its heyday, Rhyolite boasted a population of 10,000 with two churches, 50 saloons, a train depot and a three story bank. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and the bank panic of 1907 dried up investments in mining and sent the town into decline. In 1911 the mine closed.

Though there was certainly gold in those colorful hills, the lack of fuel, extreme temperatures and the remote locations made getting it unprofitable. When the bubble burst, the ghost towns, mines, and enormous pieces of equipment were left behind in the desert.

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