Death Valley
Historic Resource Study
A History of Mining
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D. South Death Valley and the Ibex Hills (continued)

3. Gold and Nitrate

a) Amargosa Gold Placers

1. History

In 1907, the intense gold fever which gripped the Death Valley region spilled out from the mountains surrounding the valley into the desert floor below. Following the strikes at Rhyolite, Lee, Greenwater, Gold Valley, Ibex, Harrisburg and Skidoo, anything seemed possible, for gold was being found practically everywhere a prospector stuck a pick into the rocks. Moreover, the men who searched for gold on the barren floor of the desert had a theory--one that seemed to make the discovery of riches a foregone conclusion.

In the original 1849 California gold rush, the initial finds had been in the stream beds below the mountains, where gold nuggets and flakes had been washed down from the lode claims in the mountains above. As time and experience proved, a prospector could find the original lodes by following the stream beds or geologic faults back up the valleys and mountains, until he found the source of the gold. In Death Valley, the opposite theory was proposed. Since gold had already been found in so many of the valleys and mountains surrounding the desert floor, there must be some on the floor itself, washed down through thousands of years of erosion. The only problem was to find it.

The first indication of this effort came in March of 1907, when the Inyo Register reported that over 40,000 acres of land had been located as placer claims on the floor of south Death Valley, straddling the Inyo-San Bernardino County line. Since the Register was somewhat detached from the immediate scene of the excitement, it was somewhat skeptical of the prospects, wondering what anyone expects to do with about 70 square miles of Death Valley . . .

The Bullfrog Miner, however, was much more interested. As the local paper, vitally interested in the welfare of any mining enterprise in the area, the Miner gave the erosion theory much more credit. 'It is held by scientists who have made a study of the situation that the floor of Death Valley, or the great sink which ranges below the sea level, probably contains some of the richest gold deposits to be found in the world.

The Miner reporter had undoubtedly been talking to a Rhyolite prospector, Clarence Eddy, who was the leading proponent of the new theory. "Death Valley proper," Eddy later explained in detail,

contains about 500 square miles. Within this area there is sufficient wealth to make every poor man in the world richer than Croesus; to make King Solomon's mines and Monte Cristo's treasure look like penny savings banks. It is literally composed of gold, silver, copper and lead. . .

For ages the rains and snows have been beating these mountains down into Death Valley. They are filled with the precious metals. Cold, silver, copper and lead abound here. The great quartz rocks, on account of their weight go down. Down, down, down, they have rolled for centuries! The melting snows and rains of winter keep the. surface of the basin damp throughout the season. The entire surface of the valley is composed of the highest chemical matter. There is salt, saltpetre, iron--every chemical known to science, in one form or another. Vats of vast areas have formed which are perfect quagmires of chemicals under constant action.

Well, these highly mineralized rocks, largely impregnated with the precious metals, are constantly rolling down into this cauldron of chemicals. They have been doing it for ages and centuries, as already stated. The dampness of winter set the processes to work. The hot suns of summer follow. No drugests graduate not, assayer's crucible ever performed more scientific functions!

The quartz may be seen there in all stages of decomposition. It melts under these processes like the snows in the burning sunshine above. In a few years the ore is a part and parcel of the bed of this great sink--a mixture of strong chemicals in powdered and liquid form that work on and on with the centuries, filling higher and higher the great basin that has become one of the seven wonders of the world.

For time immemorial the ores of the mountains have been rolling down into the valley; the processes have been as busy as nature itself. Gold is indestructible. It may be 100, 1000, or 10,000 feet below, but it is there, and when the process is discovered by which it may be reclaimed, all the world will be rich, and gaunt poverty will cease its weary journey in the land. [11]

Not one to rest upon his theories, Eddy had already located the most promising spots in this bed or riches. Together with F. L. Gould of Reno, Eddy had made a prospecting trip to the region during the early part of 1907. His partnership with Gould soon dissolved into competition, however, as Gould managed to secure the backing of a San Francisco operator, J. A. Benson (ironically, a man who had already been convicted of government land frauds). Gould and Benson led a party into the desert region in November of 1907, in order to test the sands and locate desirable placer claims. While the Gould-Benson party was quietly acquiring placer locations (they may be the ones who located the 40,000 acres mentioned above), Eddy was more noisily doing the same, Having obtained some capital backing from Salt Lake and Rhyolite, Eddy made a trip to the vicinity of Bennett's Well with Judges L. O. Ray and J. A. Largent of Rhyolite. Ray and Largent were convinced of the possibilities. "It would require dredgers to handle the dirt," they reported, "but it is argued that there is plenty of water--salt water--to be had at almost any part of the valley, and that machinery of this kind could be easily operated. Neither judge, however, was sufficiently convinced to put up any further, money.

Nevertheless, Eddy made another trip to the valley in December, when he located 112 placer claims in the vicinity of Bennetts Well and Tule Hole, in the name of his Salt Lake financiers. The Gould-Benson group, in the meantime, was busily surveying the valley.

The fever continued through January of the next year. Eddy staked out 1,220 acres for his company, and the Gould-Benson interests, reportedly organized as the Death Valley Placer Mining Company, drilled test holes and found water, some 300 feet west of Bennett's Well. The test holes showed returns of from 50 cents to $3.50 in gold per cubic yard of dirt, far more than enough to support a successful placer operation. Further test results in February showed returns of $2.00 in gold and 30 cents in silver per cubic yard. Encouraged by these indications, the Gould-Benson group actually ordered a dredger in order to begin mining.

Eddy, however, who felt that Gould and Benson had stolen his idea, was not having so much luck. Apparently his Salt Lake financing had fallen through, for in late February James Edmunds, of Chicago, arrived to inspect Eddy's placer claims. Edmunds, however, was not very optimistic, following a short trip to the claims. In fact, his conclusions, released to the Rhyolite newspapers, succeeded in bursting the overdue bubble. His faith, reported Edmunds, was "considerably shaken in the theory. Shattered would probably be the proper word to use in the premises . . " There may well be gold somewhere in the valley, but there certainly was none where Eddy took him. In summary, Edmunds stated, it is fooling away time to look for placers. As usual in such circumstances,one candid statement was all it took to completely bust a mining fever. Even the Bullfrog Miner sadly concluded that Eddy's theory now seemed to be based on "child-like" hopes. [12]

Eddy, however, was not so easily discouraged. Nor was Gould, who by this time had lost both his dredger and his San Francisco backers. Naturally, the two again teamed up and attempted to advance their scheme once again. Two prospectors with a theory and no money, however, could obtain no results, and the great dream of dredging the floor of Death Valley for millions in gold soon faded away.

Clarence Eddy's dream, though, was hard to kill. In 1932 and 1933, during the depression, prospectors again flooded the west, searching in desperation for that one quick discovery which meant instant wealth. Again, the floor of Death Valley was not ignored. Six miles northwest of Saratoga Springs, an unidentified group dug shafts and drill holes, testing for placer gold. 1,500 samples reportedly turned up gold to the value of 55 cents per cubic yard, but no production resulted, due to difficulties in devising a method of recovery. At the same time, a group headed by one T. A. Rhodimer, working in essentially the same area as had the Gould-Benson group, claimed to have uncovered over 100 million cubic yards containing in excess of $1.00 in gold per yard. When a potential developer, the Natomas Company, sent out an expert in the fall of 1938, the old story was repeated. The experts tests showed only traces of very fine gold, and the scheme collapsed.

In 1958, the dream was reborn once more. The Mineral Productions Company of Colorado acquired leases on the same seventeen sections of ground northwest of Saratoga Springs, and again initiated tests. Although they reported assays from a trace to over $1100 per yard--with an average of around $1.00--every type of drilling equipment which was tested failed in action. In 1959, the American Zinc, Lead and Smelting Company investigated the area, but soon quit, as did Transworld Resources. Thus, despite glowing reports in at least one mining journal, and the claims of the Minerals Production company that 98 percent of the gold was recoverable by cyanidation, no serious attempts towards actual mining got off the ground. [13]

Following the flurry of 1958-1959, no further attempts were made to open placer mines in south Death Valley. Another hopeful prospector did file claims on thirty-two locations in the fall of 1973, in essentially the same area tried by Benson and Gould in 1907 and Mineral Production in 1953. As could be expected, recording of locations was the nearest he got towards actual mining.

2. Present Status Evaluation and Recommendations

Due to the nature of these abortive placering attempts on the floor of the valley, absolutely no physical clues remain to help locate the precise areas where these activities took place. The early placer claims were made in two areas: the vicinity of Bennett's Well, and the general area northwest of Saratoga Springs, along the Inyo-San Bernardino County line. More precise locations, however, are impossible. Obviously, no historic structures of any significance are in the area concerned.

There is, though, an excellent interpretive opportunity connected with this story. A feasibly located interpretive sign, placed somewhere along the road leading to or through south Death Valley, would have a decided impact upon tourists. Perhaps nothing could better impart the real meaning of gold fever than to stand in the heat of the valley, staring across the shimmering floor of the sink, trying to comprehend the dream of the men who thought it possible to float a dredger in the middle of that wasteland.

b) Amargosa Nitrate Mines

1. History

The history of nitrate mining in south Death Valley is very similar to that of the gold placering attempts. Both types of mining activity were in the same general region, both left little or no traces on the land, and neither resulted in any production at all.

Attempts to find nitrate in the area, however, predated those of the gold hunters. As early as 1892, a mining engineer named J. M. Forney issued an ambiguous study of nitrate claims in the area roughly fifteen miles northeast of Saratoga Springs and fifteen miles southeast of Shoshone--outside the present Monument boundaries. In 1896, several groups of prospectors recorded large claims of from 1160 acres to 2,760 acres in this region, but no further activities took place. [14]

The first--and only--true rush to the area was in 1902. Again, the rush was the result of a promising report, this time by the California State Mining Bureau. Its Bulletin 24, published in the summer of 1902, described in glowing detail no less than eight niter fields in the south Death Valley region, totaling some 32,000 acres. In the opinion of a modern geologist, the "erroneous assertions" made by this report have been responsible for raising unjustified hopes from 1902 until today.

But the damage had already been done, and the rush was on. Of the eight fields described in the report, four were all or partially within the present-day borders of the Monument. Contemporary descriptions are vague, but it is evident that much of the ensuing pandemonium took place within the confines of the park.

The San Francisco Chronicle was the first paper to report the beginnings of the grand rush. In October of 1902, 900 men were reported either in the valley already or poised to make the rush. In an interview with a gold prospector, who professed not to be interested in niter, the following was excerpted:

is there niter there? There is enough niter in Death valley to make it a center of population and life instead of the center of desolation and death that it has long been. Tens of thousands of men will be employed. Railroads will be run into the valley from all points. From what I have seen and learned I should say that Death valley will prove to be the rival of Chile as a producer of niter.

Within a week, however, the bad news come in. On October 13th, an official of the Geologic Survey denounced the rush:

. . . There is, in my opinion, not the slightest chance that anybody going in to locate nitre will make a dollar. The demand for saltpeter is comparatively small, taking all manufactoring, mining and medical and chemical uses, including gunpowder manufacture, and the market is held at present by a trust that controls all the saltpeter to fill all the demand in sight.

In strikes me as a little short of insanity for the average miner to go into Death Valley to locate nitre claims. I have been through Death Valley and know what such a trip means. So far as profit is concerned they might well make a rush on Salton basin and locate salt claims. [15]

The geologist was undoubtedly correct. Either due to his more pessimistic statements, or to the inevitable disappointment of prospectors already on the scene, the rush faded as quickly as it had appeared. Very few of the prospectors even had enough hope left to bother recording any claims which they might have made.

Following the grand rush of 1902, more desultory efforts in the niters beds of south Death Valley appeared from time to time. In the fall of 1905, it was reported that the state government was inspecting the beds, and again in April of 1906, the unconvinced California State Mineralogist called attention to the possibilities of the region. In 1907, two companies, the Pacific Nitrate Syndicate, and the American Niter Company, ran tests in the area. The Greenwater Times and the Greenwater Miner reacted to the news in the manner to be expected of Greenwater papers, claiming that the "largest powder works in the world are to be established at the southern extremity of Death Valley." Even the Bullfrog Miner scoffed at that.

The Pacific Nitrate Syndicate ran fairly extensive tests in the area during the next year or two, and had enough employees on the spot during 1909 to warrant the erection of several tents and frame buildings at Saratoga Springs. When the tests proved futile, one of its employees, A. W. Scott, Jr., filed on 160 acres of niter claims in the immediate vicinity of Saratoga Springs, and continued the efforts for a short time. Scott was also kind enough to leave behind a photograph album, Niter Lards of California, depicting life at Saratoga Springs in 1909 and 1910. [16]

Further study of the areas niter beds was undertaken by the U.S. Government in 1912 and 1914, and by the California Nitrate Development Company in 1914 and 1916. The only concrete results of all this study and testing were recommendations that further tests and studies be made. Finally, in 1922, the USGS issued the definitive report of the niter deposits of the region. Eleven deposits in and near south Death Valley were exhaustively studied, including the two major deposits within the Monument boundaries: the Saratoga bed, lying south and southwest of Saratoga Springs, and the Confidence bed, running ten miles north and south of a point directly opposite of the Confidence Mill site.

The results of these studies effectively put an end to nitrate prospecting in Death Volley. Speaking in general of the entire area, the report concluded that

Nitrate salts in extractable quantities have been found in the deposits described in this report, but considered in relation to the needs of the country, even for a very short period during the emergency of war, these deposits were not regarded as of immediate practical importance, because of the relatively high cost of any known method of collecting and extracting such nitrate in a commercial form, as compared with the cost of getting the nitrate from Chile.

More specifically, the Saratoga deposits were considered "too small to be worth consideration as a source of nitrate even under war conditions," while the "most abundant sort" of niter found in the Confidence field was "too poor," and "the richest is too scarce, to be exploited commercially." Thus died the niter mines of Death Valley, without ever having produced. [17]

Niter lands of California
Illustration 256. Niter lands of California--this was the desolate country which attracted the great nite rush of 1902. Photo from "Niter Lands of California," courtesy Death Valley National Monument Library, #3083.

2. Present Status Evaluation and Recommendations

Again, like the gold placers of the same region, the nature of the activities involved in niter prospecting left little or no visible scars on the ground. True fanatics, armed with accurate and specific maps and research data, will be able to find various cuts and trenches scattered throughout the area, but absolutely no remains of historic significance will be found.

The short-lived camp at Saratoga Springs connected with niter prospecting will be discussed in the Saratoga Springs chapter below.

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Last Updated: 22-Dec-2003