Chapter 14

Death Valley Trip

A Letter to My Parents in Michigan


March 28, 1931


Dear Folks,
At last I have time to write and I will start at the beginning.


Helen and I set out (from Ontario, California) at noon last Sunday for the desert and Death Valley. We went via San Bernardino, then cut off near Victorville and passed through the new turkey-raising town of Adelanto, right out on the desert midst the Joshua trees. From there a dirt road set in and cut straight north across the desert, past Kramer, and on to Atolia, a deserted former tungsten mining town.


We drove around the town and went into the old amusement hall, now deserted, its broken windows and doors open to the elements. There was the organ, going to rack and ruin, and also, up in a booth, the projection machine, an expensive one. In it were two slides, one of which was the familiar "Ladies Please Remove Your Hats" with a picture of a buxom woman with a large hat. It was just as it had been left many years before. We took the slide along as a souvenir.


The route we were traveling was not the main one into Death Valley and seldom used. In the next town we were to see the Old West. It was Red Mountain or Inn City, popularly called Sin City, and it was wide open, with such saloons as the Red Mountain, Roy's Place, the old Silver Dollar, Eva's Place, and the Monkey House. Prohibition didn't matter. Tough miners leaned against posts outside, semi-naked girls walked about the streets, and drunks wobbled along. The town has a few cinnabar (quicksilver) mines, but is mainly the amusement center for the mining towns of Randsburg, Johannesburg, and Trona.


From Sin City we sped over dirt roads, coasted for almost ten miles down a long hill, then just at dark entered a canyon through which flowed a hot, green poison river, ominous looking by moonlight. The canyon led out to the flats of Searles Lake and Trona, one of the most unusual towns of its kind anywhere. All this time we had been in the desert, and the towns had been small or deserted. So to come to a place of several thousand, with huge factories and fine buildings, was a surprise.


Trona is a closed-corporation town owned by the American Potash and Chemical Co. and supported entirely for the company workmen, having no tourist accommodations whatever. It is beautifully laid out, with well-built houses, dormitories, mess halls, and the large Austin Hall, in which is located the store, post office, library, stage and airplane depots, and the open-air theater. The line of men were just waiting to go into the theater when we arrived.


The chemical plants are much like the Dow works of Midland, Michigan, all the salts being pumped out of Searles Lake, about half of which is dry salt beds, and the rest water. Potash and Borax are the principal products.


We camped on the desert and came back next morning to look around for a couple of hours more. All of our trip so far had been in our own San Bernardino County. One doesn't realize what his own county contains, especially when it is the largest in America.


From Trona the roads became B-A-D. Just the kind I would like to drive Edna Fournier over to hear her scream. We climbed and climbed until we reached a summit from which a vast stretch of desert was visible ahead. Then we started down over a road which was 1. so narrow we just had room to navigate, 2. so steep it pulled us at 20 and 25 miles an hour in low, and 3. so rough our eye-teeth shook.


Finally we reached the desert floor and bounced along over a narrow, rough trail to Ballarat, a deserted city whose population of 1,000 had dwindled through the years to one family and Shorty Harris.


We visited the family first, and talked with a woman whose eleven years in the place had seemed to leave no mark except loneliness. Their reason for being in Ballarat was a gold mine in the hills.


One way they relieved the monotony was by the uniqueness of their living system. The town, of course, had more houses than people, so this family used one for sleeping, had the one next door for cooking and eating, then had one at the other end of town for a general living house. It was just dinner time (the noon meal) so they had to leave to go up to the other end of town.


We had read about Shorty Harris in the Saturday Evening Post and were anxious to see him so drove over to the dilapidated adobe but which was his.


Shorty and I struck up a friendship immediately and the time we spent with him was a pleasure. He invited us in and we pushed back the clutter of his single room sufficiently to find seats on the bed, while he answered our questions and spun yarns about the days of yore.


Shorty Harris is the father of Rhyolite, Nevada and the discoverer of the Bullfrog mine of that place, which brought 13,000 people to the city, netted Charlie Schwab alone a million dollars, and started one of the most interesting mining booms the country has known. He is also discoverer of the mines at Harrisburg, just west of Death Valley, and founder of that city.


Shorty is 76 years old, just my height, and as firm as a hunk of rock except for his rheumatic legs. "I worked in wet mines when I was a kid," he said, "and that's what I get for it." His face is furrowed, and his eyes deep-set under heavy protruding lids, the sun-protection which nature provides for a true desert prospector. He is the genuine article, a desert rat, and never will we meet a better or more interesting one.


"How did you happen to run onto the Bullfrog?" I asked, and he began to relive the experience for our benefit. He was searching food for his burro when he came to promising country. "This looks good," he said to his partner, Crane. "We're going to stop here and look around." So they looked around, and found the Bullfrog.


We asked about his early life. He had been born in Little Rhodie, but as a youth came out to Dodge City, Kansas, when that was the wildest cow-town in the West. Then, with two other young men, he went to Leadville, Colorado and there made two of the biggest strikes of his life. Not so big as Rhyolite, so far as content was concerned, but he got more out of them. His two partners went back to Rhodie, but he chose the West, and came to Nevada and then Death Valley. "Let the band play on," said Shorty, slapping his hands together as he finished his story, and we soon found out that this was his favorite expression.


Shorty is in hopes of making one more big strike, one so perfect that the gold will come in sheets just the right thickness to be cut into $20 gold pieces. "The accessible hills have all been gone over a thousand times," he explained. "We'll have to go back into new country." I forgot to mention that, if everything stacks up all right next winter, I am going to help him make his strike. As I said, he and I took to each other, and this winter we are going to take our car and a burro and go back to find the "gold in them thar hills." We will go by car as far as possible, then strike out by pack animal. For gold can't be found without a burro. It is while hunting a lost burro that has strayed from camp, or else while looking for feed for the beast, that all strikes are made. Otherwise the prospectors would just sit in camp. Maybe when Shorty Harris and I go prospecting we won't find gold, but I'll find a lot in his yarns which he spins around the campfire at night.


Almost reluctantly, we bid good-bye to Shorty and headed on toward our main objective. We had thought the desert would be hot but this was spring and we were either just comfortable or actually cold most of the time.


Emigrant Springs was our campground for the night. The wind whistled down the canyon until we had to get out every available sweater and even put on bathrobes to keep warm under our heavy quilts.


Next morning a couple of cars came along, the first we had seen for 20 hours. It was a party of notables, including Mr. Eichbaum, owner of 1,000 acres in the center of Death Valley, including the springs where we were camped and the famous Stove Pipe Wells. He operates Bungalow City, which we were soon to visit, and owns the toll road leading in from Darwin—the usual approach to the Valley. He was escorting a company of National Foresters who were visiting the place to see the possibilities of making it a national park.


As usual, it was about ten o'clock before we were packed to go, then we dropped leisurely down, struck one end of the toll road and paid our eighty cents (full toll from Darwin is $3.00) and continued on to Stove Pipe Wells and Bungalow City. During this stretch we got our first real taste of Death Valley and I have to admit that our impression was unfavorable. The flat, rather colorless view was uninteresting, after the unusual country through which we had been traveling all the way from Cajon Pass and San Bernardino. But first impressions are not always the best.


Bungalow City consists of a large building for lounging, kitchen and dining room, with sleeping quarters in a dozen or so attractive one-room bungalow cabins. Rates are $3.00 per cabin. A unique thing about it is the fact that it has positively no connections by wire with the outside world, and this is a reason it is so popular, as a resort for people who don't want to be reached by phone. We saw the stovepipe which gave the original wells its name. During the entire day the sky had been overcast with clouds which were now becoming quite bunchy and black. We were assured that it would not rain.


So we headed out toward the dunes, and played for nearly an hour in the great rolling sand heaps before starting on again over the gravely country toward Furnace Creek. The road was rather uninteresting until we reached Mustard Canyon and off toward the right saw the dilapidated adobe ruins of the Old Harmony Borax Works, the famous twenty mule team workings of Borax Smith.


Furnace Creek Ranch was just a short distance away, a charming oasis in the desert with orchards of dates, fields of alfalfa, and other crops all irrigated by Furnace Creek. Just a mile off was the great Furnace Creek Inn, a ritzy place where a room costs as much as $20.00.


We gave these things the once-over, then headed for Golden Canyon, three miles away. This is where our opinion of Death Valley suddenly began to change.


Golden Canyon, I would say, compares favorably with Bryce, and has more color than the Grand Canyon. We entered it by a tiny gateway between high rocks and for a couple of miles wound along the narrow road between rocks of gorgeous reds and greens and yellows. Finally the road ended and we walked for a quarter of a mile more, to the very end of the canyon, and amused ourselves with listening to the perfect double echoes which our shouts produced against the rocks. After eating lunch we backtracked to the mouth and headed south.


We skirted the Black Mountains which were a great mass of colored reds and greens and browns. It looked as though the delicate fabric of a rainbow had in some time long past caught on one of the jagged peaks and come floating down to rest on the range of mountains.


The Devil's Golf Course was an area of rugged salt waste, the salt standing in crusted hummocks, and the whole thing looking exactly like a new-plowed field after the first snowfall in Michigan. We cut to the left and went down to the salt pools where, by hiking out through some more salt hillocks, we came to small pools of briny water, crystal clear, lined with pure white salt. A mile across this waste lay the lowest point in the U.S., 310 feet below sea level. From parts of Death Valley you can see Mt. Whitney, the highest place in America, also in California. Our views this day were obscured by clouds.


Which reminds me that, of all things, it had begun to rain. Just as we left the salt pools in the gathering dusk the drops began to fall, and soon our windshield was speckled with a mixture of alkali dust and water. The wind howled and the sprinkle turned into a cold driving downpour. We sped back toward Furnace Creek Ranch, wondering where we would camp, and fearing to draw off from the road onto the clay flats if a heavy rain was coming.


At the ranch they told us of a public campground nearby and in the wet and darkness we scurried about pitching our tent, then went immediately to bed and bundled ourselves with every stitch of clothing and quilts we could muster.


The rain stopped in the night and a furious wind sprang up, drying up all signs of the water and stirring up a dust that by morning covered us thick.


Rains are scarce in the Valley, and a sand storm comes along perhaps once a month in the winter on the average, and we had hit them both. We headed back toward Stove Pipe Wells in a cloud of blowing sand.


From Stove Pipe we headed north on the long 30-mile trek through the more or less plain valley toward Scotty's. Our lunch was gritty with sand and we had quite a time standing against the wind, but the storm died shortly after, and we presently arrived at Mesquite Springs, eight miles below Scotty's and kept up by him for tourists.


I don't know that I have given the proper idea or not, but all through the valley there is no sign of civilization except at the one or two places I have mentioned. We saw very few cars, but at the springs, the only natural source of water in the whole 50-mile upper stretch of the valley, there were three other cars besides ours, camped for the night. Our supper was good and the night clear, star-lit, windy and cold.


At eight o'clock next morning we had just finished dressing when we heard a car approach over the grade from above. It pulled right up to where we and the other cars were camped. A man got out, raised the hood of his Franklin, and began examining the engine.


I glanced his way casually, then took another look. "Helen, look. I swear, that's Death Valley Scotty."


It was. We and the other campers rushed to meet him. We soon discovered that nothing was wrong with his car. He had pulled up and stopped, on his way out of the Valley, so that all of us who were obviously headed toward his castle would have a chance to meet him. We were surely thankful for that.


Scotty was above the average height, though his breadth and ample stomach made him look short. He was full-faced, pleasant looking, and was dressed roughly. His pants were distinctly out of press and he took occasion to turn up the cuffs another notch while he was tinkering with the car. Shorty Harris's speech had been quite correct, grammatically, but Scotty spoke with rough unconcern.


"Yes, I knowed John Taite," he said in response to a question from one of the campers. "He got his hand blowed off several years ago."


When he saw how dirty we were from the wind and sand he said, "It sure is a tough life." He asked if we had visited his castle and said, "Well, the house is there and if you want to go through, just ask John to take you."


So when he left to head down the valley, we breakfasted and drove up to the end of Death Valley, topped a rise, and there saw ahead of us a $3 million dollar home in the desert.


Scotty has a rich partner, A.M. Johnson, who years ago was in a wreck and given up to die but regained his health in Death Valley by hiking around with Scotty. It is really Johnson who built the castle, but they both live there, Johnson furnishing the money and Scotty the name, fame, and atmosphere. Mr. Johnson was outside and drove away in his car shortly after we arrived. I hunted up the caretaker, delivered Scotty's message, and, along with another group of visitors, he took us through.


I used to think Scotty's castle was a lot of foolishness, a sort of joke, and that anyone was crazy to build such a thing in Death Valley. But it is merely an unbelievably beautiful winter home, built by a man who loves Death Valley, just as other millionaires build winter or summer homes in the mountains or near the sea. To describe it properly would take many pages.


The main castle has a couple of bedroom suites upstairs, all of which are furnished with intricate care. Our guide even took us into Mrs. Johnson's bedroom unannounced, and introduced us to her. She seemed to be an exceptionally nice woman and greeted us warmly. We visited the library with its great mahogany desks, and then the kitchen.


This took Helen's eye, a perfect kitchen furnished in Holland, with special copper utensils, aluminum-lined, hanging in spick-and-span rows on the walls. The Chinese cook smiled broadly as we marveled at his domicile, and drew a mammoth pie, a foot across, out of the oven for us to inspect.


A bridge led over a patio to the annex of the castle where we were taken into the music room, with a carved grating surrounding the console of the pipe organ. The pipes were concealed behind carved wooden pilasters. There was an electrical arrangement for playing the organ, also chimes, and a player piano. In fact, the whole house had chimes and musical devices everywhere.


From the music room we climbed to one of the three towers and looked down to Scotty's room and got a view of the whole landscape. Farther off, across a court and rock garden, there was another annex with suites for more guests. We gathered that the Johnsons put up people whom they do not even know, and require lots of guest space. Goodness knows they do not have any privacy, but don't seem to mind.


Our guide told us to make ourselves at home and to look about the other buildings to our heart's content. I must tell you about him. His name was Johnnie. The Johnsons had brought him from Chicago with them; he seemed to be part Chinese, and was extremely polite, talking in a pleasant foreign accent, and bowing after each remark. His eyes glowed with pleasure as he pointed out each item of interest in the house. "Thees is hand-carved," he would say, "specially made for thee house." Then bow, and smile as his eyes sparkled. He probably got as much pleasure from the house as did the Johnsons.


We poked about outside and took pictures. Back of a hill was a pile of 18,000 railroad ties, which had been hauled in from the old railroad which was torn up and which once ran from Beatty to Bonnie Clair. This was an inexhaustible supply of firewood for the 18 fireplaces in the castle.


We were reluctant to leave but finally gave a last look at the grand place and headed eastward, crossing the Nevada line in a few miles and bowling along through a desert valley. We crossed a huge dry lake bed, which was a perfect speedway, where one could have opened it up to 100 an hour or more had his car been capable of it. There was no road, but just a smooth surface and we guided ourselves by looking ahead to where the road led away on the other side.


Bonnie Clair was another deserted town, with its sheet metal shacks, mining buildings and railroad station gone to rack. One family clung on and supported a gas station. We were amused on entering the main intersection to see an official sign: "Boulevard Stop, by order of the Chief of Police." And only one man in the town.


Bonnie Clair is only thirty-six miles from Goldfield, with Tonapah just beyond, but we will have to catch those in another trip. We turned south and sped over another dry lake bed, coming out presently on the main Beatty-Goldfield road. The road was a dandy gravel stretch, and led us, after half a week in Death Valley, back into civilization.


We drove to the new boom town of Las Vegas, where I am writing and mailing this letter. It was crowded with construction workers who are building Hoover Dam. I'll write more of these experiences next week.


Love to you both,

Francis