By Robert Palazzo, Arcadia Publishing
Book Review by Craig MacDonald
Longtime Desert Historian Robert P. Palazzo has written a fascinating, photo-filled book on "Ghost Towns of Death Valley."
Death Valley National Park has the highest and lowest points in the contiguous United States. It also holds the record for the hottest spot on earth--134 degrees. So why have people gone to this desolate area of more than 3.4 million acres for 150 years? Not just for sight-seeing and photo-taking but to find immeasurable amounts of gold, silver, lead, copper and other treasures buried there.
Many towns were created, especially during the mining excitement of the 1870s, 1890s and first decade of the 20th Century. The wealth found in Death Valley didn't just stay there, "it provided the stimulus and capital for Los Angeles' first boom period," Palazzo explains. "The mines and towns were instrumental in the founding of Santa Monica, Inglewood and other towns in Southern California."
For historians, Death Valley provides a wealth of its own, with incredible stories about the guts and gumption of the men, women and animals (burros, horses, dogs and cats) who braved extreme temperatures and habitats to work and live there.
Working dogs? Yes, in the copper camp of Greenwater, dogs were trained to deliver packages full of Brin & Bernstein Store merchandise and mining supplies to houses and businesses. The canines carried their goods in boxes atop specially-made carts connected to harnesses. (The book has great black and white photos of the hard-working critters.)
Other intriguing tidbits: Panamint had its own Pony Express, which carried mail to the City of San Bernardino in 1874-75. It was the only mining camp with its own bank—The Bank of Panamint. Outlaws were a real problem in the desolate area but U.S. Senators William Stewart and John Jones (co-founders of the town) came up with a brilliant way to outsmart potential robbers by transporting silver from the mines to Carson City only after it had been cast into balls (weighing hundreds of pounds) and loaded on wagons.
Ballarat, an important camp for supplying the mines and miners (7 saloons and 3 hotels) was a hangout for such Death Valley characters as prospector Frank "Shorty" Harris, gunfighter Jim Sherlock, and the unofficial Mayor, "Seldom Seen" Slim, who has a peak named for him in the Panamint Mountains. In the 1969 movie, "Easy Rider," Peter Fonda's character, Wyatt, throws away his Rolex watch in Ballarat, before heading East. Also, Charles Manson once lived with friends on a ranch just south of the town.
One of the most violent towns was Darwin, which had a population of 4000. Constable Frank Fitzgerald shot some of the bad men. More than 1.5 million ounces of Silver were produced there from 1874-83. The author said over 100 burros hung around the cook house, begging for scraps. During World War II, Darwin was a major producer of much-needed lead. It was the Gateway to Death Valley until 1934, when Highway 190 opened.
Many of the camps had newspapers. Miners loved to read them as did speculators. Positive reports about mines sometimes led to an influx of money from outside investors. But stories could be total fiction. Investors were fleeced by reports about a Camp Dawson, south of Furnace Creek. The author tells of other falsehoods and discusses conflicting reports of who actually discovered or owned various camps.
The first issue of Greenwater's paper--The Death Valley Chuckwalla—was printed on butcher paper. It had a humorous message on the cover: "….We're putting out a concoction with which you can do as you damn please as soon as you've paid for it—10-cents."
Others were The Bullfrog Miner and Skidoo News.
One of the greatest things about Palazzo's book is the tremendous amount of photos, which show history as it really was. It was a rough living for many—you can see it in their faces. You also can see excited people, expecting to get rich from their finds and mines. You're sure to enjoy the booms, the busts, the hopes and dreams well-documented in this work. It will make many of you want to go and visit what's left of these unbelievable ghost towns.
(The reviewer's grandfather was a miner at Rhyolite, 35 miles from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, on the way to Beatty, NV. The book shows photos and tells the history of this oft-photographed town, which still has the amazing crumbling remains of where he banked, went to the store and railroad station.)