Essay: Human Environment Interaction in Death Valley

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  • Subject area(s): Education essays
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  • Published on: November 15, 2018
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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.

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