Mining in Death Valley

View of a deteriorating wooden cabin from the glassless window of another historic wooden cabin in a bare desert landscape.
Historic structures such as these cabins at the Queen of Sheba Mine are found throughout Death Valley National Park and are part of the long history of mining in the area.

NPS/Neal Nurmi

Since the 1848 discovery of gold in California, Death Valley has experienced over 140 years of boom and bust mining.

 

Early Mining

From the 1880s to the early 1900s, mining was limited and sporadic in the Death Valley region. Many of the early mining districts met with a notable lack of success. Primitive and inefficient technology, scarcity of water and fuel, and the difficulties of transportation made it economically impossible to mine anything but the highest grade ores.

Borax

One of the earliest successful mining operations was the Harmony Borax Works, which was active from 1883 to 1888. This operation was famous not for its ore deposits, but for the Twenty Mule Team wagons used to transport the partially refined borax. A very memorable advertising campaign used the wagons’ image to promote the company’s Boraxo soap and the Death Valley Days radio and television programs.

Boom & Bust

With renewed interest in gold and silver mining, the early 1900s witnessed new mines. Skidoo, Inyo, and Keane Wonder became large-scale operations. The boom towns, including Rhyolite, which sprang up around these mines flourished during the first decade of the 20th century but soon slowed down after the panic of 1907. Prospectors including Shorty Harris and Pete Aguereberry scoured the mountains searching for metals such as gold, silver, antimony, copper, lead, zinc, and tungsten. Prosperous large-scale metal mining in Death Valley ended around 1915 and the once bustling towns which supported them became ghost towns.

Explore the locations below to learn more about historic mining in Death Valley National Park.

 
Two wooden towers connected near the top by metal cables in a hilly desert landscape.

Keane Wonder Mine

The wooden towers of an aerial tramway still stand at this profitable historic gold mine.

Historic wood and metal twenty mule team wagon in pink evening light.

Harmony Borax Works

Explore the history of borax mining in Death Valley.

Four masonry bee-hive shaped structures approximately 30ft tall with low green shrubs in front.

Wildrose Charcoal Kilns

These impressive structures were used to produce the charcoal needed for mine smelters.

 
An adobe wall about 5ft tall on both sides of a paved road leading toward desert hills. There is a brown Park Service arrowhead on the wall on the right, with a sign to its right reading "Entrance Death Valley National Monument"
An early Death Valley National Monument entrance sign.

Temporary Closure

In February 1933 President Herbert Hoover signed the proclamation creating Death Valley National Monument. This resulted in a temporary closing of monument lands to prospecting and the filing of new mining claims. By prior agreement the monument was quickly reopened to prospecting and mining by Congressional action in June of the same year.

 
A large yellow mining vehicle dwarfs a historic, blue-painted wooden twenty mule team wagon.
This twenty mule team wagon from the 1880s is dwarfed by its modern counterpart.

Mining Changes

As improvements in mining technology allowed lower grades of ore to be processed and new heavy equipment allowed greater amounts of rock to be moved, mining in Death Valley changed. Gone were the days of the "single-blanket, jackass prospector" long associated with the romantic west. Open-pit and strip mines for borates, talc, and sulfur began to scar the landscape as internationally-owned mining corporations developed claims in highly visible locations within the national monument. The public outcry that ensued led to greater protection for all national park areas.

 
A large terraced mining hole dug into a multicolored desert.
Public outcry over high impact mining such as the 400 foot deep Boraxo Mine led to increased protection for all national parks.

More Protection

Congress passed the Mining in the Parks Act in 1976 which closed Death Valley National Monument to the filing of new mining claims and required the National Park Service to examine the validity of thousands of pre-1976 mining claims. Mining was allowed to resume on a limited basis in 1980 with stricter environmental standards and mine operators were required to get approval of a Plan of Operations to mitigate damage to the environment.

Death Valley National Park was established in 1994, enlarging the previous Death Valley National Monument by 1.3 million acres and assuming jurisdiction over hundreds of unpatented mining claims.

 

Death Valley's Last Mine

For over a decade the Billie Mine, an underground borate mine along the road to Dante’s View, was the only active mine in the park. In 2005 when the Billie Mine closed, the last of Death Valley’s mines had ceased operations.

Last updated: June 26, 2021

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

P.O. Box 579
Death Valley, CA 92328

Phone:

(760) 786-3200

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