Death Valley's history is intertwined with the California gold rush. Searching for a shortcut to the diggings along the American River, mining hopefuls passed through this region in 1849-50. They gave Death Valley its name and were the first to discover its potential mineral wealth.
Hopeful prospectors and miners returned here to search for gold and silver, hoping to make their fortunes in the desert. These activities followed boom and bust cycles where only the mine and mill owners prospered. Later mining operations focused on borax, talc, gypsum and salt.
Death Valley's remoteness contributed to the high cost of bringing in supplies. Local support operations were developed near natural springs. Several early ranching efforts aimed at raising animals and crops to serve the mining community developed into permanent settlements. Others focused on serving the growing tourist trade in the early 20th century.
Death Valley’s “white gold” deposits formed the basis for the area’s long term development and tourist industry.
Borax was first discovered here in the 1870s. However, the region’s remoteness prevented successful mining activities until 1883 when the Harmony Borax Works opened.
Borax deposits were gathered from the desert floor and purified at the Works, then shipped via 20-Mule Team wagons to the railhead at Mojave. The Pacific Coast Borax Company obtained mining rights in the area in 1890, opening the era of underground mining of Colemanite, a purer grade of borax. This led to the arrival of the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad in 1907 and the growth of towns such as Beatty and Death Valley Junction.
Advertising of borax products, using images of the 20-mule teams, generated international publicity for Death Valley and hastened the development of tourism. Visitors often camped at the borax company’s developed property at the Greenland Ranch. To accommodate them, the company built tourist cabins there, and in 1927 opened the more-luxurious Furnace Creek Inn. They also transformed the mining town of Ryan into a hotel and used it rail lines to provide tourists with scenic rides overlooking the desert floor.
Borax mining in Death Valley has ended. Its legacy is still present in the mining remains and artifacts left by those who sought wealth in the white mineral deposits found here.