Essay: Human Environment Interaction in Death Valley

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  • Published on: November 15, 2018
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  • Human Environment Interaction in Death Valley
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Before visitors came to Death Valley to view its stark beauty, miners and prospectors traveled to Death Valley with a different intent. For well over a century, miners and prospectors had been looking for alleged hidden treasure in Death Valley. They happened to be correct, for there were gold and silver in the hills of Death Valley. But it was the less glamorous minerals of Death Valley that were the most profitable. Probably the most mined mineral was borax, or white gold. It had over a 100 commercial uses and gave birth to the famous 20 Mule Teams. Then Death Valley railroad arrived, making it easier to transfer Borax and even tourists into Death Valley. This early tourism eventually transformed into the tourism we have today.

When exploring Death Valley, one is bound to arrive at some abandoned mines shafts, tunnels, and other remains of Death Valley’s extensive history. The Death Valley mining boom began around 1850, when 49ers stumbled upon a mountain of native silver. The prospectors created a crude gunsight for a rifle. This bit of metal influenced the minds of the people of the East and made them believe that a legendary mine existed in Death Valley. It was never found, but it set off a mining boom that would continue for decades. The miners had to face though conditions such as the brutal heat and the threat of attack from the local Native Americans, who sought to drive the invaders out of their land. Even with these though conditions to dissuade people from traveling to Death Valley, people still thrived to come to Death Valley. This could have been because they thought the reward was greater than the risk, or they thought that the hellish conditions were proof that great riches lie in wait. However, physical dangers were not the only problems that early miners faced. Their extraction techniques were not great, they had a lack of water and fuel, and there was no easy way to transport the ore to the market. All of these problems made mining a challenging business. On top of that, most newly arrived miners were struggling financially. They came to Death Valley in order to increase their riches, hoping to find some valuable orb to help them accomplish that. It was extremely tough for the miners to keep going.

One of the major items that were mined during this boom was not gold or silver, but borax. Borax, also dubbed as white gold, is mineral that is closely associated with Death Valley. After Borax was found in 1881, William T. Coleman built the harmony plant around what is known today as Furnace Creek Ranch and began to process ore in late 1883 or early 1884. The Harmony Borax Works was the name of the entity that was exporting and processing the borax. When in full operation, a group of 40 men would produce about three tons of borax daily. During the summer months, when the heat would not permit the processing water to cool enough in order for suspended borax to crystallize, the workforce would be moved to the Amargosa Borax Plant, which is near present-day Tecopa, California. After the product was finished, a way to get the finished product from the Heart of Death Valley to the market was required. In order to do this, a reliant and efficient form of travel had to be created. So the 20-mule team was born. The Harmony operation became famous through this system, which used large mule team and double wagons to haul borax to a long overland route to Mojave where the closest train link was located. The image of the iconic 20-mule team has become the symbol of the borax industry in this country. With on five years of production, the Harmony Borax plant stopped operation in 1888.

Second to borax among all the other minerals mined was talc, a humble clay. 60-miles of talc deposits stretched the southern section of the valley and parts of the Panamint Range. In 1912, a man named Lycurgus Lindsay opened Death Valley’s first major talc mine while trying to find the right material to use for his two Southern Clay pottery works. Besides pottery, talc is used in wall tiles, creating a huge market for it. In turn, there was a construction boom in Southern California for the first half of the 20th century. Talc was also essential to Second World War. A higher-grade of talc was mined in the area and was used for essential wartime manufacturing of electric insulators. Talc mining continued even in the 20th century and Death Valley remained one of California’s most important sources of minerals.

While the mining industry in Death Valley was big, boom towns arose in sites where valuable resources were found. Many people flocked to these mining districts in order to get a chance to mine for ore. But after the mining boom, these towns were no longer needed and became ghost towns. One ghost town is called Panamint City. It was called the rawest, the toughest, and the worst place that was ever considered a town. Its founders were outlaws that found silver in Surprise Canyon while obscuring themselves from the law in the Panamint Mountains. They gave up their life of crime after their discovery and by 1874, the town had reached the height of its boom with it having a population of about 2,000 denizens. By 1875, the boom ended and the city was destroyed by a flash flood in 1876. However, mining in the area still continued despite the lack of residence. The ruins of the city were added Death Valley National Park in October 1994.

A more famous ghost town was called Rhyolite. It was founded by Shorty Harris and E.L. Cross, who were prospecting when they came upon a lot of quartz. Soon, the quartz attracted many prospectors and miners and so several camps were created in Beatty, Nevada including Bullfrog, Amargosa, and Jumptown. A town was laid within the proximity of the camps and was given the name of Rhyolite due to the silica-rich volcanic rock that was in the area. Out of 2,000 claims in the 30-mile radius of Bullfrog district, Montgomery Shoshone Mine was the most promising. This prompted everyone to move to Rhyolite, and in a short period of time, the town boomed with buildings popping up everywhere. Even people from as far as San Francisco was drawn to this place like a moth to a flame. Rhyolite had stores, schools, hotels, machine shops, electric plants, etc. It even had its own stock exchange. The town citizens had an active social life with dances, basketball games, symphony, and opera. In 1907, a financial panic took over Rhyolite which was the first event that leads to the death of Rhyolite. In the next few years, banks started to fail and mines were closing. On March 14, 1911, the directors voted to close down the Montgomery Shoshone mine and in 1916, the town was closed for good.

Death Valley became a National Monument in the February of 1993. It owes much of its early development to twelve to the Civilian Conservation Corps, CCC, because they created trails, buildings, and camps since 1933 until 1942. It was expanded by 1.3 million acres on October 31, 1994 and it was designated as a National Park through the passage of the California Desert Protection Act. Today, Death Valley is one of the biggest National Parks in the US and hundred thousands of people visit Death Valley each year. Death Valley has had a long history and is one of the best National Parks today.

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