Death Valley
Historic Resource Study
A History of Mining
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A. Summary of Mining Activity

1. Slow Beginnings

The mineral resources of the Death Valley area have been assessed and investigated ever since the days of the California Gold Rush. Extending over a period of at least 120 years, the fascinating and often complex mining history of the region has unfortunately been overshadowed by the much shorter but more romantic adventures experienced by the Bennett-Arcane party and other groups of the '49ers who attempted to cross the valley floor on their way west to the goldfields. For several years after their harrowing travails this desolate area was regarded as a vast, forbidding tract, and only a few daring souls finally ventured into it again in the 1850s, enticed by rumors of the Lost Breyfogle Mine and the fabulously-rich Gunsight Lead. Many unfortunates, unaware of and unequipped for the hardships involved, perished from the heat, the lack of water, and other excruciatingly painful inflictions perpetrated by the harsh environment. Their persistent endeavors, however, not only resulted in formation of several early mining districts, but also contributed enormously to the growing store of knowledge about the topography and resources of the region that was slowly being acquired through military surveys and personal exploratory forays.

Mining in Inyo County, and especially in Death Valley, was slow in gaining momentum, though by the early to mid-1860s there were reportedly fourteen quartz mills and 130 stamps at various locations in the county. [1] Despite their enthusiastic beginnings, the early mining districts met a notable lack of success in their endeavors to extract and process their ore due to a variety of reasons, including lack of money, primitive and inefficient technological methods, the constant threat of Indian depredations, the scarcity of water and fuel, and especially the absence of nearby transportation facilities, which made it economically impossible to mine any but the highest-grade ores. The silver excitement at Panamint City, lasting from about 1874 to 1877, roused the mining community for awhile from its sluggish state, and was soon followed by the establishment of other mining ventures in such places as Chloride Cliff, Darwin, Lookout, and Lee.

From the 1880s to the early 1900s, however, only sporadic and limited mining operations were attempted in the Death Valley region. None of the camps lasted, again due mainly to the factors mentioned earlier, which still exercised a strong influence over the course of mining in the valley and the surrounding mountain ranges. The still-limited financial means of most miners left them little option--to either strike enough pay dirt immediately to finance future operations, or else shut down. The exciting discoveries of gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota, at Leadville, Colorado, at Tombstone, Arizona, and elsewhere in the West attracted many men away from the region who were already discouraged by their inability to make paying propositions of their remote and inaccessible mines in Death Valley. It was actually the discovery of nonmetallics in the area, initially of borax and later of talc, that ensured the region's industrial future, for in time these commodities far outweighed the more sought-after metallic elements in lasting commercial value.

2. A New Century Brings Renewed Interest in Metallic and Nonmetallic Resources

Not until the early 1900s did conditions become conducive to large-scale hard-rock mining operations, prompted by a renewal of interest in gold and silver. By this time more people had penetrated the desert regions, and responsible authorities were encouraging the immigration by locating and marking water supplies, roads, and trails with signs and designating them on maps. The primary instigator of this move was the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, which had earlier negotiated passage of a law in California calling for the erection and protection of water supply sources in the state's deserts. The U.S. Geological Survey improved on the situation by surveying certain parts of the southwestern deserts and subsequently publishing maps showing existing trails and water supplies. [2]

A variety of metallic minerals were exploited in Death Valley during the 1900s, including gold (Bullfrog Hills, Skidoo area, Ubehebe, Chloride Cliff, Funeral Mts., Black Mts.); antimony (Wildrose Canyon); copper (Greenwater District, Black Mts.); lead, zinc, and silver (Ubehebe, Lemoigne Canyon, Galena Canyon, Wingate Wash); and tungsten (Harrisburg Flats, Trail Canyon). This activity resulted in the formation of several boom towns whose progress paralleled for a while the maturation of Goldfield, Tonopah, and Rhyolite in Nevada. Much of the productivity witnessed in places such as Bullfrog, Skidoo, and the Ubehebe region was directly attributable to lessees. Often large companies working a particular mine were not immediately successful in blocking out large quantities of shipping ore, due either to time or circumstances, and consequently requested that lessees take over and try their luck. More often than not they were remarkably successful, tending to be more careful in their prospecting work and generally more interested in quality than quantity. Striving to find pay ore as quickly as possible, they worked hard, and were one of the prime factors in the successful development of a mine and thus of the surrounding area. The larger Death Valley towns of the first decade of the twentieth century flourished until the financial panic of 1907 hit, causing in most of them an immediate slowdown of work and often total cessation of mining activity. Prosperous large-scale metallic mining in Death Valley ended, for all practical purposes, by about 1915, though Skidoo, for one, managed to hold on for a few more years.

During World War I nitrate prospecting was carried on in the Ibex and Saratoga springs areas, prompted by the nation's need for the product for use in explosives and fertilizers. After World War II, in the 1950s, tungsten prospectors combed the hills near Skidoo and in Trail Canyon, mostly covering areas previously claimed or prospected. This activity was a direct result of new price stability and the absence of tungsten exports from mainland China. [3] Lead and silver deposits in Wingate Wash were also investigated at this time. A major talc industry that had begun during World War I but that had never thrived because of a limited market and the remoteness of the deposits started up again after the Second World War, as did uranium prospecting.

The search for and mining of metallic resources in the monument has generally been sporadic because of its dependence on the fluctuating selling price of a certain commodity, which in many cases has resulted in the development of particular properties over and over again and the reopening of others because the initial owners were ignorant of a mineral that had since become of economic significance. Most nonmetallic mineral deposits, except for the major talc and borate ones still being worked today, have been of only marginal importance, detrimentally influenced to a great degree by their scattered occurrence in isolated geographic locations, the high transportation costs involved in taking them to market, and the always variable law of supply and demand. All mining in the area has been subject to shifts in international. monetary policies and market controls and to stiff competition with foreign vendors.

3. Attempts are Made to Regulate Mining Within the National Monument

Prior to establishment of the national monument, all publicly-owned lands in the area were open to mineral entry under a federal mining law of 1872 that was designed to promote American mineral development in the nineteenth century. Although lands withdrawn by Presidential Proclamation are normally not open to further mineral location, an Act of 13 June 1933 specifically reinstated rights to mineral entry in some parks, subject to regulations regarding their surface use. Existing claims with valid rights could also continue work. By January 1976 active interest was being maintained in about 1,700 unpatented claims (34,000 acres) in Death Valley. [4] On the valid ones the owner held prospecting and mining rights, but not title to the surface.

Before the repeal of mineral entry provisions in certain units of the National Park System by Public Law 94-429 on 28 September 1976, many inflammatory arguments had arisen between those (primarily in the mining profession) holding the extreme view that mining and prospecting should be allowed to continue unrestricted regardless of any harmful effects, and advocates of the diametrically-opposed belief (NPS officials and environmental groups) that lands within a national park or monument should not be exploited for commercial production, especially of minerals. By 1971 approximately 50,000 unpatented mining claims were estimated to have been located within the monument, 30,000 of which had been filed since 1920, during an era when people were desperate for extra sources of income. About 8,000 acres of private inholdings were patented, the majority of which are mining properties. Today five privately-owned companies possess the largest holdings: U.S. Borax and Chemical Corporation; American Borate Corporation; Pfizer, Inc.; Fred Harvey, Inc.; and Trevel, Inc. Until passage of P. L. 94-429 an average of 200 to 300 new claims were being located in the park annually. Under this law those claims not recorded with the Interior Department by 28 September 1977 were declared null and void. [5]

4. Validity Tests and Stricter Land-Use Regulations are Imposed

Although this law successfully prohibited new mineral entries, existing patented and unpatented claims were still a problem to be dealt with. This has necessitated long and costly investigation by NPS officials and scientists into the validity of unpatented claims within several units of the NPS. If a claim is judged valid, the Park Service may exercise either of two options: permit mining to continue, subject to regulation by the Secretary of the Interior in accordance with strict environmental safeguards, or, if mining activity in that particular spot is potentially detrimental either physically or aesthetically, the federal government has authority to purchase the property. If a claim is determined to be invalid by NPS personnel, the government will initiate court action to declare it void. Patented mineral deposits of known economic value in Death Valley are limited to talc and borates, whose large reserves ensure new exploration and development attempts in the near future.

Today, in order to mine Inside a unit of the park system, the owner of an unpatented valid mining claim or even of a patented one must submit a proposed plan of operations to the park superintendent and regional office that complies with the environmental safeguards set by Congress in 1976, which incorporate provisions of the National Environmental Protection Act. Archeological and historical clearance must also be given to the project. Other restrictions are imposed by permits that are necessary for constructing roads or vehicle trails or for many other mining-related activities.

5. Controversial Aspects of Mining in NPS Areas

One of the most recent threats to the integrity of the national parks related to mining exploration was that posed by a National Uranium Resource Evaluation group intending to survey thirty-seven national parks for forty-five minerals and metals under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Energy. The stated purpose was to identify lands favorable for the exploration of nuclear-energy fuels. The survey had been authorized by Congress in 1974 to determine whether this country had enough uranium to operate nuclear power plants. The proposal greatly alarmed environmentalists, who feared it would lead to wholesale commercial development of natural areas within the park system. Antagonism also arose between park superintendents and survey personnel, the former also of the persuasion that exploration of such resources in a national park is improper and that it is generally impossible to reconcile large mining operations with an area's integrity as a historic, scenic, and natural preserve. The surveyors, on the other hand, generally held the belief that parks should be opened to mining on a limited basis if the presence of a commodity sufficiently valuable to the national welfare is indicated. The potentially voluble argument was ended by NPS Director William J. Whalen's directive prohibiting such surveys within National Park Service areas. [6]

6. Death Valley National Monument Mining Division

Mining operations in the Death Valley region are carefully monitored by an efficiently-manned mining office, headed by Robert T. Mitcham, monument mining engineer. Death Valley is the only Park Service unit requiring such a large, full-time mining office and staff to administer its minerals management program. This office, aided by rangers who keep tabs on mining activity and enforce the regulations and conditions of the special-use permits, attempts to minimize the impact of mineral exploration and development on the monument, to discourage any prospecting activity involving surface disturbance unless it is related to valid mining claims or demonstrated mineral potential, and to determine officially the status of claims being used illegally and/or on which there are dilapidated structures and broken-down equipment. [7] Without the dedicated efforts of this office, working closely with the park superintendent, the Western Regional Office, and mining company officials, the effects of mining on the human, animal, and plant ecology of the area would have been irreparably damaging.

Within the boundaries of Death Valley National Monument today are the remains of mining ventures whose periods of productivity spanned the years from the late 1850s, when Mexicans first reportedly attempted to work silver and gold deposits using only the most primitive of mining techniques, to today's modern talc and borate operations that employ massive machinery and precise scientific methodology to locate and extract the ore. Only traces of the earliest mines and their associated camps can be found, although in several instances valid, historically significant structures remain in the form of mining-related apparatuses or dwelling and milling structures. Unfortunately, more recent activities involving the search for gold and tungsten in the 1930s and 1950s resulted in the abandonment of a tremendous assortment of unsightly junk on many claims within the park. Despite the fact that many metal and wood components have been salvaged over the years either for scrap or use at other claims, there are still plentiful reminders of past occupation in the form of rusty cars, battered appliances, and dilapidated tin shacks.

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Last Updated: 22-Dec-2003