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

4. The Saratoga Springs Region

a) Saratoga Spring Area Talc Mines

1. History

Shortly after the discovery of talc mines in the Ibex Springs region, several more talc deposits were located to the south, in the hills north of Saratoga Springs. The first of these was the Ponga, a single talc claim about three miles north of Saratoga Springs, which was located by Ernest Huhn in the mid-1930s. After sinking a small shaft, Huhn depleted either his capital or his desire to develop the claim (or perhaps both), and it lay idle until 1948, when it was eased to the Southern California Minerals Company. This company worked the deposit from 1948 to 1955, obtaining 12,554 tons of commercial talc. The Ponga has been idle since 1955, and is now owned by Pfizer, Inc.

The Superior Mine, located in the midst of the hills north of Saratoga Springs, was the next to be developed. Consisting of three claims, this mine was owned and operated by the Southern California Minerals Company from its beginning in 1940 until recent years. The Superior Mine was easily the most developed and most productive talc mine in the southern Death Valley region, producing 141,000 tons of ore during its most active period, 1940-1959. The Superior remained in intermittent operation through the early 1960s. Its now dormant facilities are owned by Pfizer, Inc.

Adjacent to the Superior is the Whitecap Talc Mine, also owned and operated during its active life by the Southern California Minerals Company. Consisting of a single body of ore, the Whitecap was worked between 1947 and 1951, yielding 6,315 tons of ore. The mine has not been operated since 1951, and is now the property of Pfizer, Inc.

Illustration 257. Map of the Northwest portion of the Avawatz Pass Area.

To the southwest are the three groups of workings known collectively as the Saratoga Mine. The northern group of this complex was opened in 1944 and worked for one year by the Champco Minerals Company, which extracted about 1,000 tons of ore. After lying idle for several years, the Saratoga complex was leased by the Southern California Minerals Company, which opened new bodies of talc in the south group in 1949. These were worked for several years until being abandoned in 1954, having produced only small amounts of talc. Finally, in 1955, the central group of claims was opened by the Southern California Company, and intermittently operated until the mind-1960s. As a combined total, the output of the three groups of the Saratoga Mine are estimated as having produced 5000 to 10/000 tons of talc. All the Saratoga holdings are now idle, and are in the possession of Pfizer, Inc.

During the active phases of these Saratoga Springs area talc mines, ore was hauled by truck to various railroad points for shipment to processors in Los Angeles and Ogden, Utah. The usual shipping point was Dunn Siding on the Union Pacific Railroad, about 28 miles southwest of Baker, California--a point approximately 64 miles from the mines. [18]

2. Present Status Evaluation and Recommendations

As a group, the Saratoga Springs talc mines closely resemble those of the Ibex Springs area. At the Ponga, which was essentially a lode operation (with a minimum of bulldozer exploration and assessment work), there is a wooden ore bin, a collapsed wooden headframe, an engine house foundation, and two shafts. All of these structures are in poor condition, and none possess any historic significance.

The Whitecap site contains only a wooden headframe and ore bin, but both are in excellent condition. The Saratoga groups contain the usual assortment of wooden ore bins, headframes, tramway remnants, and foundations-in various stages of deterioration. As in the case of the Ponga, both the Whitecap and Saratoga were essentially shaft and lode operations, with a minimum of bulldozer stripping carried on in the later years of development.

There is not much to differentiate between the Ponga, the Saratoga, or the Whitecap. The wooden mining remains are relatively intact and most are in good shape, probably because all three mines were operated by the same company, which refrained from stripping abandoned sites, in case of future developments. As in the Ibex Springs area, a policy of benign neglect is recommended. There is certainly nothing within these sites to warrant the utilization of preservation money, and their remoteness from general tourist traffic will probably preserve these remains with only a usual amount of natural deterioration.

The Superior Mine, reflecting its greater period of production, has more extensive structural remains. These are, however, of a more modern period than found elsewhere in the region, and consist of tin and frame living shacks and mine buildings, as well as a steel headframe. In a mining sense, this site is the most important one in the area, but it is also the most unsightly and the least historic. Judging from the condition of the camp, operations in the last years were carried out on a shoestring budget. As a result, the area today resembles a modern garbage dump more than a possible historic site. When the underground talc lodes ran out, the company resorted to stripping operations before giving up, leaving the area pitted with large and small gouges and holes, and destroying the possibility of interpreting the earlier years of activity. This general condition of the site, coupled with the modern flavor of the remaining structures, makes the Superior mine unworthy of any preservation efforts.

Superior Talc Mine workings
Illustration 258. Partial view of the Superior Talc Mine workings, showing steel head frame, steel frames for abandoned buildings, and dumps. 1978 photo by John Latschar.

Ponga Talc Mine ruins

headframe and hoisting works of Whitecap Talc Mine
Illustrations 259-260. Top: Ruins of short-lived Ponga Talc Mine, overlooking south Death Valley. Bottom: Wooden headframe and hoisting works of Whitecap Talc Mine. 1978 photos by John Latschar.

Saratoga Talc Mines
Illustration 261. Saratoga Talc Mines: View from middle group of workings north towards northern group. 1978 photo by John Latschar.

Saratoga Talc Mines
Illustration 262. Saratoga Talc Mines: View of southern group of workings. 1978 photo by Linda Greene.

b) Saratoga Springs

1. History

Like Ibex Springs to the north, activities at Saratoga Springs have been constant and varied over the last hundred years, for the springs have long been the most important watering spot in the south Death Valley region. As with Ibex Springs, little remains to bear witness to Saratogas past, due to the destruction wrought by years of harsh weather and the sticky hands of generations of prospectors and travelers.

The first printed mention of Saratoga Springs is connected with the 1871 Wheeler survey. Although accounts are somewhat contradictory, a portion of the Wheeler party apparently camped at the springs, and named them after the well-known resort of Saratoga Springs, New York. Whether or not the springs were first discovered by Wheelers party, they soon became known to travelers, teamsters and prospectors of the desert region, and were important desert stops for all. Although the accounts again vary, the springs were a primary watering hole for the famous 20-mule team borax wagons during the 1880s, as they were on the direct route from the old Amargosa borax works, and the alternate route for the Harmony borax works of Death Valley. [19]

After the borax works were closed in the ate 1880s, the springs reverted to the occasional use of prospectors and travelers, until 1902, when the mad nitrate rush began. These rushers left almost as soon as arrived, however, and the springs were quiet again until the reverberations of the Bullfrog boom reached down into south Death Valley. Then, in 1905 and 1907, occasional references were made in the Rhyolite newspapers to gold and silver miners who had prospects nearby. None of these prospects panned out, and activity around the springs soon declined. In 1909 the niter prospects were again investigated, and due to the efforts of A. W. Scott, we have a pictorial account of life at the Saratoga Springs mining camp. But Scott's camp only lasted a year or two, and the springs area was subsequently deserted. The only visitors for the next twenty-odd years were lonely prospectors and tourists, who slowly but surely dismantled what had been left behind by earlier occupants. A 1921 visitor saw no signs of life in the vicinity of the springs. [20]

In the 1930s, with the opening of the Saratoga district talc mines, the springs once more became an important source of water. Throughout the life of the Ponga, Superior, Whitehouse and Saratoga mines, all water for the daily use of the mines and miners (with the exception of drinking) was drawn from Saratoga Springs. At the same time, a small resort and water bottling effort was carried out by a local entrepreneur. World War II killed the resort, due to gas rationing, and the water bottling business soon followed suit. The mines were slower to die, and continued to draw upon the Spring waters until the 1960s, when they finally closed. [21]

stone cabin

stone cabin
Illustrations 263-264. Top: Stone cabin built ca. 1890, converted to blacksmith shop in 1909 by Pacific Nitrate Company. Photo from "Niter Lands of California," courtesy Death Valley National Monument Library, #3076. Bottom: Same site, 1978. Photo by Linda Greene.

Pacific Nitrate Company's camp
Illustration 265. Pacific Nitrate Company's camp in vicinity of Saratoga Springs, at its height ca. 1910. Photo from "Niter Lands of California, courtesy of Death Valley National Monument Library, #3104.

stone cabin
Illustration 266. Second stone cabin, Saratoga Springs area, probably built by Pacific Nirtrate ca. 1909, may be seen through framework of cabin under construction. Photo from "Niter Lands of California, courtesy of Death Valley National Monument Library, #3092.

spring house
Illustration 267. Spring house at Saratoga Springs, undated, ca. 1930. Note tourist accommodations in right background. Photo courtesy Death Valley National Monument Library, #1563.

2. Present Status Evaluation and Recommendations

Little remains upon the site of all this activity. While this is not unusual for a desert watering hole, the situation at Saratoga Springs is further confused by conflicting data concerning the two principal remaining structures--the remnants of two stone cabins.

O. A. Hutford, a compiler of popular lore, wrote that in 1901 there were two old stone houses at the springs, built in the 1890s, and used as a saloon and a store for the borax teamsters. A. W. Scott, however, in his photograph album "Niter Lands at California," labeled one of the structures as a stone house built by a "one lunger" about 1889, who lived there for two years. Scott's niter company converted the stone house into a blacksmith shop.

Scott's pictures, taken between 1908 and 1909, also show halt a dozen tent and frame structures built in the vicinity of the springs during that period, including a store and a spring house. Although it is not certain, the spring house appears to be the one used by the Saratoga Water Company in the 1930s.

Unfortunately, through the depredations of time, weather, and economic talc miners, no remnants of the frame or tent structures built by the niter company are now visible. The only extant structures at Saratoga Springs are the slowly crumbling walls of the original two stone houses built sometime prior to the turn of the century. The smaller of these is little more than a pile of rubble, but the larger one is still partially intact. Constructed of unmortered stone, with dimensions of nine feet by twelve feet, the three to four foot high waits of this ruin are clearly discernable. [22]

Due to its sensitive location, just north of the fish pool at Saratoga Springs, the site of these stone ruins should be subject to a policy of benign neglect. Although they are a part of an interesting site, the ruins do not justify preservation or stabilization funds, but should be protected against vandalism, and made a part of the interpretation of the long history of Saratoga Springs.

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Last Updated: 22-Dec-2003