Desert Fever
An Overview of Mining History of the California Desert Conservation Area




Nineteenth century mining in the California Desert concerned itself mainly with the “big five” minerals (gold, silver, copper, lead and zinc). In the twentieth century, non-metallic minerals play an increasingly important role, and became Inyo County's most plentiful mineral resource. In addition to the Searles Lake developments (actually in San Bernardino County but included here) and the borax discoveries at Ryan, salt, sulphur and talc were discovered in very large quantities in Inyo County.


The presence of mineable salt in the Saline Valley was noticed as early as 1902, but due to its inaccessibility, it was not until 1911 that anyone successfully and seriously developed the deposit. A 16 square mile deposit 30 feet thick, consisting of a salt (sodium chloride) 98.71 percent pure, was an attractive gem on the desert floor. In August, 1911, the Trenton Iron Works received a contract from William Smith's Saline Valley Salt Company to construct a 13 mile aerial wire-rope electric tramway. It was completed in 1913. Two hundred and sixty-eight buckets, each carrying 12 cubic feet of salt, would travel 7,600 feet from the valley floor to the top of the Inyo Mountains, and then another 5,100 feet down to Tramway, Where a 70 ton mill and employee dwellings were located.90

The Owens Valley Salt Company operated the mine from 1915 to 1919 as a lessee. In 1920, G. W. Russell revived operations for a year, and after four years of inactivity, Russell formed a new company. The Sierra Salt Corporation repaired the tramway, ‘which had fallen into disrepair after previous companies hauled the salt out by truck. In 1929 the tramway was reopened, but in the I930s, Russell ceased operations. All three companies seemed to be plagued with difficulties in making the tramway pay for itself. Although the salt was exceptionally pure, it did not demand a high enough price to offset the tremendous investment poured into the Construction and upkeep of the remarkable tramway.91


Talc mining in eastern California began during World War I. One-half of all known talc deposits of commercial interest lie in Inyo County. Until the 1940s, the Talc City Mine, six miles northwest of Darwin, provided nearly all the steatite grade talc in the United States.92

Originally known as the Simmonds Mine, it was operated before 1915 by the Groah Mineral Company of San Francisco. Other owners include the California Talc Company (1915-1917), the Inyo Talc Company (1917-1922), and Sierra Talc Company (1922- ). The mine first provided talc for use in the manufacture of insulating cores for Hotpoint stoves. Later, in the mid-l930s, the talc was used in making high frequency electrical insulations. By 1950 the total production from the Talc City mine was a quarter of a million tons.93

The Zinc Hill mine, six miles northeast of Darwin, was one of the biggest zinc producers in Inyo County during 1918. During World War II, the mine produced some 2,500 tons of zinc ore. A mill site and ghost mining camp that once serviced the Zinc Hill Mine lies between Darwin and Panamint Springs on State Highway 190. A pack trail runs from the mill to the mine. Several shafts had inclined tramways and aerial tramlines connecting them to the pack trail. From 1917 to 1920, this mine was the major zinc producer in California.94


California's largest sulphur deposits are located on the western edge of Last Chance Range in Inyo County. First discovered in 1917, the sulphur lies in a mineralized area three miles long by one mile wide. A bedded deposit 16 to 30 feet thick contains ore values ranging from 30 to 80 percent sulphur. Estimated reserves in 1938 showed over a million tons of ore containing at least 40 percent sulphur. Most of the development of this area occurred in the late 1930s. 96

Six claims known as the Crater Group were developed in 1929-1930, with several shafts and a large open pit completed by the Pacific Sulphur Company of New York. This company produced approximately 12,000 tons of sulphur. In August of 1936 Sulphur Diggers Inc., obtained a lease on the Crater Group and operated them until September, 1937. Retorts were installed at the mine and 5,000 tons of 96 percent sulphur ore produced.96

The Western Mining Company took over operations in 1938, built a new 100-ton retort and concentrated on mining, by open pit methods, an exposure of 10,000 tons of sulphur on the Crater Number Six Claim. A 125 horsepower boiler provided steam for the retorts, which consumed 3,250 gallons of water each day. 15 men were employed at the mine. An additional 15 worked at the refinery. In late 1941, an explosion destroyed the refinery. World War II finally caused operations to cease in August of 1942. 97

Adjoining the Crater Group on the south were the Fraction and Southwest Sulphur claims, comprising 18 acres, which developed a 6 to 12 foot sulphur vein. Further south, the Gulch Group were 10 claims located originally by James Jacoby in 1918. Half of the 20 foot wide sulphur vein on this property consisted of massive crystalline sulphur 90 percent pure. The richness and extent of sulphur reserves in this area is well proven. Their isolation and distance from an adequate water supply for milling operations have discouraged extensive development.98


A light to dark greenish gray color of perlite is found on the east side of the Dublin Hills, 2 miles west of Shoshone. Perlite is a volcanic glass used as a filler for plaster, rubber and paint; as an abrasive in soaps and cleansers; in filters, as an insecticide carrier, and soil conditioner. Ed Grimshaw, A. W. Stalker and Walter Davis own 21 claims collectively known as the Shoshone Perlite Deposit. In 1948 the claims were leased to Perlite Industries, Inc. This deposit and the entire perlite industry has been developed after World War II. 99


Thomas Wright, a Los Angeles florist, discovered magnesium salts 28 miles east of Searles Lake near the Owlshead Mountains in the early 1910s. The 63 mile journey from Randsburg to the deposit was described as “an interminably long and punishing sentence of bumps and jolts, punctuated now and then by the brisk snap of breaking springs, truculent overtones in the clatter of the badly treated motor, and the sinister hissing of water frying in the radiator.” 100

A railroad to the deposit seemed to be the only economical way to develop the find. The high cost of roadbed grading persuaded Wright to adopt a monorail system. Work began on the monorail in 1922 and the 28-mile line from Magnesia (two miles south of West End) through Layton Canyon and Wingate Pass to the Epsom salt works was completed in 1924.101

When an engineer made the trip shortly after the line opened in one hour, with a full load of ore, the Epsom Salts Line became known as the “fastest moving monorail in the world.” For two years, Wright's American Magnesium Company produced a small tonnage of hydrated magnesium sulfate, which was shipped over the monorail to Magnesia siding and on to Wilmington, California for refining.

By the summer of 1925 mining operations began to suffer. The Wilmington plant was receiving ore containing 50 percent waste rock and the monorail was suffering from track warpage, cloudbursts and poor locomotive design. In June, 1926, the mine shut down. The monorail stood intact for approximately 10 years. In the 1930s the single rail and timbers were pulled up for scrap. The Naval Weapons Center, Mojave Range B now completely surrounds this deposit and most of the monorail line.102


Covering more than 40 square miles of northwestern San Bernardino County and a small part of Inyo County, Searles Lake contains half the natural elements known to man. This mineral treasure chest was not recognized as such by the emigrants who camped on its shore and tasted of its brackish waters while escaping from Death Valley in 1850. They had already found and left behind a rich silver deposit. Drinkable water to them was much more valuable than any silver or brine. Nevertheless, it was the emigrant's lost silver deposit, the famed Lost Gunsight Mine that first lured Dennis Searles into this area and put him in a position to discover and develop the lake that now bears his name.

Dennis Searles was among those searching for the Lost Gunsight Mine with Dr. S. G. George in 1860. Two years later, Dennis and his brother John were mining gold in the Slate Range. While there, they noticed that a large dry lake nearby contained borax. They went back to mining their gold, as borax wasn't quite the moneymaker as gold is, but by 1866 Indians had chased them all away from the Slate Range. 103

In the 1870s the Searles brothers were in Nevada, where they saw F. M. Smith successfully mining borax from a marsh. Dennis and John ran back to their lake, staked claims, and formed the San Bernardino Borax Mining Company in 1873. That year they scraped together a million pounds of borax and sold it for $200,000.

Mining law regarding placer deposits limited the Searles brothers to 160 acres, but they were able to control the entire lake by discovering and monopolizing the closest source of water, some seven miles from their plant. Most of their competitors were required to sell out sooner or later and the Searles brothers' early profits were largely the results of harvesting the borax already gathered into piles by their competition. The San Bernardino Borax Mining Company operated until 1897 when John Searles died. In 1898 Francis Smith bought the 100 ton a month plant and closed it. The equipment was moved for use at Smith's richer Daggett and Borate deposits.104

Trona was discovered in Searles Lake in 1905, and that year the California Trona Company, with a $50,000 loan from Goldfields American Development, began buying up claims on Searles Lake. In 1913 the California Trona Company became the American Trona Corporation. Raymond Ashton began building a railroad from Searles Station to the lake, the line (the Trona Railroad) being completed in March of 1914. A huge, heavily financed refinery was completed in October, 1916.

Baron Alfred de Ropp since 1908 had managed to make the Searles Lake operations pay. As manager of the Goldfields American Development Company, de Ropp was the man responsible for investing a million dollars to erect a refinery capable of extracting potash at a profit. His vision had paid off, but when he resigned in 1920, a lack of leadership was felt. The American Trona Corporation was reorganized later as the American Potash and Chemical Corporation, and this company operates the plant at Searles Lake today.105

Current production is 1800 tons each day of sodium, potash, boron, lithium, bromine, liquid bromine and boric acid. The American Potash and Chemical Company operations at Trona are the only source of potash currently being mined in California. The Trona plant is a 32 million dollar investment employing 1 ,500 people. Patented claims cover 2,560 acres of Searles Lake with 3,400 additional acres being leased from the federal government.

A rival plant to the American Potash and Chemical Company operated briefly for a four year period from 1916 until 1920. The Borosolvay Plant was operated by the Solvay Process Company of New York. Located 21/2 miles south of Trona at Borosolvay, while in operation the plant produced 200 tons of potash a month. In addition to the aforementioned minerals, sodium carbonate is also recovered from Searles Lake by the American Potash and Chemical Company and the West End Chemical Company. The West End Chemical Company originally mined borax with poor results when the company was organized by Francis Smith in 1920. Three years later the refinery was rebuilt to recover soda ash in addition to the borax, and it has been successful ever since. The process used to recover soda ash and borax involves injecting the lake brine with carbon dioxide gas, obtained by burning limestone from a nearby deposit. The bicarbonate produced is dried and heated in furnaces where it becomes a fluffy brown soda ash. In its coarse state this is used in the manufacture of glass.

Searles Lake's estimated mineral production potential is staggering. Thirty-two square miles of the lake are considered worth commercial interest. Each of these 32 square miles contain an estimated 100 million tons of alkali salts. This supply is expected to last for several generations.106

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© Larry M. Vredenburgh, Gary L. Shumway, Russell D. Hartill