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

Kern County



The first recorded mining activity in the El Paso Mountains predates the Sageland discoveries by a few years, but the majority of mining activity here took place in the early 1890s. A Manzanillo Mine was being operated in 1864 and 1865 by the Yarborough Gold and Silver Mining Company. Thirty five thousand dollars were invested in equipment and development resulting in 40 tons or ore being dug out and placed on dumps. Mining operations ended shortly after Mr. Yarborough was found murdered at Mesquite Springs (between Kane Dry Lake and Randsburg). Whether or not white bandits or Indians committed the slaying, Yarborough's death was enough to convince the miners that the area was too hostile and too remote from civilization to justify their continued presence.10

With silver discoveries in Inyo and San Bernardino counties during the 1870s and l880s drawing so much attention, prospectors overlooked the El Paso Mountains. It wasn't until the depression of the 1890s that men returned to the El Pasos in search of gold. In 1893, two prospectors, Reed aid Benson, were prospecting in the Red Rock Canyon area. After moving east to the mouth of Goler Canyon, they found gold, in the gulches that now bear their names. Ramsey Cox, G. F. Mecham, Clyde Kuffel, Frank Yeager and Charley Shellman all filed claims at approximately the same time as Reed and Benson.11

On March 15, 1893, the Goler Mining District was established. John Wasserman acted as chairman that day with N.J. Ayers as secretary. After all the votes were counted, R.G. Willard became district recorder. The first claim recorded in the district was the Jackass Placer. One of the first men to capitalize on the new strike was Charlie Koehn. He had homesteaded some acreage adjacent to Kane Springs, only 12 miles from Goler Gulch, in 1892, intending to capture the trade running between Tehachapi and the Panamint Range. He already had a profitable way station going, to which he added a post office on September 22, 1893, and began delivering letters to the local miners at 25 cents each. He also sold and hauled supplies, mining tools, food and drinks.12

By December, 1893, good gold diggings were discovered in Bonanza Gulch, east of Red Rock Canyon. Over $50,000 in gold had been taken out of the El Paso Mountains by year's end. During 1894 camps sprang up at Red Rock Canyon, Goler, and at Summit. In the fall of 1895, Eugene Garlock hauled an eight stamp mill, the first in this area, down from Tehachapi. This was located at Cow Wells due to the water supply and it's centralized location for various mining districts.

Garlock's small stamp mill was soon swamped with ore, and more mills, the McKernan, Kelly, Smith, Henry and Visalia, sprang up nearby. All but the Smith mill were steam driven. As business increased, the town felt it needed a constable. John Kelly was given the job. He reportedly had a policy of talking men into surrendering without the use of a weapon, as he reportedly disliked carrying a gun. The crossroads assembly of tents, frames, and adobe buildings soon became known by the name of the man whose mill brought in so much business. Cow Wells officially died on April 10, 1896, when Ida Kelly, the constable's wife, became postmistress of Garlock. At it's heyday Garlock had at least two bars, two hotels, a stage depot, a laundry, doctor's and dentist's office and a school.13

The completion of the Randsburg Railway in early 1898 spelled the beginning of the end for Garlock's stamp mills, and the town began to die. With the railroad complete more efficient mills were within reach and the small amalgamation mills of Garlock lost most of their business. By 1900 most of Garlock's citizens had moved to Randsburg. In the twentieth century Garlock experienced two revivals. In 1911 the track laying crews of the Southern Pacific briefly camped at abandoned Garlock while laying track from Keeler to Mojave. In the 1920s, a J.D. Voss tried reopening the Apache Mine in Iron Canyon, while a salt company was busy at work on Koehn Dry Lake and a Mesquite Springs prospect looked promising. Garlock awoke, reopening its post office, a new store and a boardinghouse run by Sarah Slocum. But this respite was short lived, and the post office closed on June 30, 1926.14

COALDALE (1894-1898)

The El Paso Mountains are also the scene of one of Kern County's few coal boom towns. Coaldale was a small settlement of about 75 men situated 2 miles south of Black Mountain in Colorado Gulch. The coal camp sprang up in 1894. The quality of coal was poor, which led to the rapid decline of the camp. Coaldale apparently died during the rush to Randsburg in the early summer of 1895, but not due to any depletion of mineral values. Just 5 miles away, Randsburg was booming and the men employed by the coal company found it more attractive to dig for the yellow metal.

An electric power plant was originally planned to provide Coaldale with electricity. Poles were placed to hold the line but the enterprise never became a reality. The steam boiler never arrived in Garlock due to an unpaid freight bull. The total coal production for the mines in this area, flow known as the Colorado group, is unknown, but 220 tons of coal, worth slightly more than $1,000 was reported in Kern County production figures for 1898 and probably came from Coaldale mines.15


In 1939, a pumice deposit, now known as the Calsilco, was first worked northwest of Bonanza Gulch. The Insulpum Corporation worked this deposit in 1945. A year later the Calsilco Corporation took over operations. The pumice is worth approximately $50 to $80 a ton for use in a variety of products ranging from paint fillers and oil absorbers to toothpaste.16

The Copper Basin group was composed of 26 claims formerly owned by William “Burro” Schmidt who had single-handedly dug a tunnel 1,872 feet long to provide better access to his mines. By 1938, when he had completed his access tunnel, his copper mines were largely undeveloped. He was so interested in finishing his tunnel that the mines had completely escaped his attention. This engineering feat, located 9 miles northeast of Cantil, earned Schmidt recognition in Ripley's “Believe it or Not” newspaper series. The Apache Copper Mine and Holland Camp were developed in the late l930s. A mill at the camp in 1940 recovered a few ounces of gold and less than 100 pounds of copper. The mill was located 14 miles northeast of Cantil. The Zuna Copper Mine, located on the south side of Last Chance Canyon, yielded 30 tons of copper bearing quartz in 1941.17


In between Mojave and Willow Springs in southern Kern County is a cave where desert Indians reportedly stored salt from the Koehn Dry Lake area. Koehn Dry Lake is located at the base of the El Paso Mountains near Last Chance Canyon. Modern mining of salt on Koehn Dry Lake began when the Diamond Salt Company performed development work there in 1911 and 1912. However, significant production didn't begin until 1914 when the Consolidated Salt Company began its operation.

From 1919 to 1927, the Fremont Salt Company also produced salt by the solar evaporation of surface brine. Both companies were bought in 1928 by the Long Beach Salt Company, who continues to mine salt on Koehn Dry Lake today. In these early days the salt plant would shut down for years if rainfall and storm runoff did not supply enough water to make brine. Today, salt on Koehn Dry Lake is “harvested.” The brine is pumped from wells and channeled by ditches and flumes to ponds where it spreads out and evaporates. In 4 months, about 6 inches of salt has formed.

Years ago the salt was cut in foot-square “cakes” and hand loaded into dump cars. Now the salt is scraped into a pile and loaded mechanically. A mill is located at Saltdale, and Plymouth locomotives haul the dump cars of salt to be processed. The salt produced here is used in cattle feed, for icing refrigerator cars, and in water softening devices.18


Charley Koehn discovered gypsite near his homestead and staked claims on it in 1909. A year later a small calcining plant was put into operation to manufacture wall plaster, and in 1912, the Crown Plaster Company produced a small amount of gypsite. Koehn leased his deposits to various companies from 1910 to 1930. Claim jumpers hired gunmen in 1912 to force Koehn off his claims, but Koehn won out in a small and short-lived gun battle. After this, companies began to sue Koehn over contracts and percentages.

One of these was the Alpine Cement Company, or Alpine Lime and Plaster Company. This company was involved in litigation with Koehn, demanding $50,000 from him in damages. Judge Campbell Deaumont heard the case and asked that the suit be continued for further study. In May 1923, Koehn was arrested as a suspicious character when found running from the judge's home in Fresno. He was jailed and charged with attempting to bomb Deaumont's home. The explosive device contained fuse and newspaper, and remnants of both were found in Koehn's car. However, there is some doubt as to Koehn's guilt in this matter, and he pleaded his innocence throughout the trial. He was found guilty and sent to San Quentin where he died in prison, only days before his scheduled release in 1938.

From 1926 to 1935, George W. Abel mined Koehn's claims and sold a product known as Mojave Desert Agricultural Gypsum. A mill at Gypsite ground and sacked part of the gypsite and bulk-loaded the rest, sending all of it to the San Joaquin Valley to be used as a soil conditioner in agricultural production. Increased output from the Lost Hills deposits in the San Joaquin Valley caused a decreased output at the Koehn deposits from 1935 to 1950.19

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