Park History: Death Valley National Park

As extreme as Death Valley's temperatures can get, and as desolate as its landscape appears, it has had residents for thousands of years, stretching back to the ancestors of the Timbisha Shoshone.

According to Park Service historians, these Native Americans "hunted and followed seasonal migrations for harvesting of pinyon pine nuts and mesquite beans with their families. To them, the land provided everything they needed and many areas were, and are, considered to be sacred places."

Today you can where these peoples traveled in the valley, as they left behind petroglyphs and artifacts. A Timbisha village remains at Furnace Creek, the only visible tribal community found in the park. But the tribal homeland is considered to encompass not just the valley floor, but also the surrounding mountains.

More recently, Death Valley's cultural history is well-known. At least from 1849 on. That was when a group of emigrants en route to California's gold fields encountered the worst of the valley that they attached the "death" name to.

They had set out from Salt Lake City, determined to cross the Great Basin and reach California before winter's snows made the Sierra Nevada impassable. Leaving Salt Lake in October of 1849, they decided to skirt the Sierra Nevada to the south and avoid the snows. Unfortunately, this route took them through today's Death Valley.

Let's pick up the rest of the story from the Park Service:

They entered the valley by way of present day Death Valley Junction and along the same route followed by Highway 190. On Christmas Eve of 1849, some of them arrived at Travertine Springs, the source of Furnace Creek.

The lost '49ers had now been traveling across the desert for about two months since leaving the Old Spanish Trail. Their oxen were weak from lack of forage and their wagons were battered and in poor shape. They too were weary and discouraged but their worst problem was not the valley that lay before them. It was the towering Panamint Mountains that stood like an impenetrable wall as far as could be seen.

From Furnace Creek, the routes of the two groups diverged. The Jayhawkers (including the Brier family) went north toward the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes where they decided they would have to leave their wagons and belongings behind and walk. They slaughtered several oxen and used the wood of their wagons to cook the meat and make jerky. After crossing the Panamint Mountains via Towne Pass and dropping down into Panamint Valley, most of them turned south, making their way into Indian Wells Valley near the present day city of Ridgecrest. There they follow a prominent indian trail heading south to civilization.

Meanwhile, the Bennett-Arcan party struggled across the salt flats and attempted to pass over the Panamint Range via Warm Springs Canyon, but were unable to do so. They retreated to the valley floor and sent two young men, William Lewis Manly and John Rogers, 'over the mountain' to get supplies. Thinking the Panamint Range was the Sierra Nevada, some expected a speedy return. Instead, nearly a month went by as the men walked more than 300 miles to Mission San Fernando, got supplies at a ranch and trecked back with three horses and a one-eyed mule. Along the way, one of the horses was ridden to death and the other two had to be abandoned. When Manly and Rogers finally arrived to the camp of the Bennett-Arcan party they found many of the group had left to find their own way out of the valley. Two families with children had patiently remained, trusting the men to save them. Only one man had perished during their long wait, but as they made their way west over the mountains, someone is said to have proclaimed "Goodbye, Death Valley," giving the valley its morbid name.

They may have escaped the Death Valley, but it took another 23 days to cross the Mojave Desert and reach the safety of Ranch San Francisco in Santa Clarita Valley. The so called "short cut" that had lured the Lost '49ers away from Captian Hunt's wagon train had proved to take four months and cost the lives of many men through the entire ordeal.

While the 49ers might have named the valley, they weren't the only ones to leave an imprint on it. Near the end of the 19th century the discovery of silver and borax (a laundry cleaning agent) brought industry to the valley.

One group of Chinese workers helped build Panamint City in the 1870s, when a silver rush brought in prospectors and speculators. Another group toiled in the successful mining operation at Harmony Borax Works, not far from Furnace Creek. According to historians, "They made a road 160 miles long through the salt pinnacles and raked the borax off the valley floor from 1883 until 1888 when the last 20 mule teams rolled out of the valley. Then, they, too, disappeared, leaving only bits of broken bottles, pottery shards and remnants of porcelain in their place."

The valley also boasted a population of Basques at one point: "Dolph Nevares was employed by the Pacific Coast borax company as the Greenland ranch caretaker in 1900 and later, as a prospector for borax. He left the borax company and settled at Cow Creek where he grew fruits and vegetables. 'One day I looked around wondering where time had gone--50 years of it.' Eventually Dolph left Death Valley and moved to San Bernardino. Domingo Etcharren was known as the Basque butcher from Ballarat. He was also the prospecting partner of Jack Keane. In December 1903 they found gold. Domingo took his profits and bought land in Darwin, becoming a leading citizen of that town. He and Pete Aguereberry, another Basque, were good friends. Pete had come into Death Valley in the summer of 1905 to prospect. While traveling with Shorty Harris, he found gold. In the aftermath of that strike the town of Harrisburg came into being. Long after Harrisburg had boomed out, Pete continued to work in his Eureka mine until death stopped the old prospector and miner in 1945."

One of the more impressive cultural imprints on this arid landscape is in upper Grapevine Valley where you'll find Scotty's Castle. Though it requires a 53-mile, one-way ride from the intersection of California 190 and California 374 near Stovepipe Wells to visit the "castle," this is one stop you shouldn't overlook if you make it all the way to Death Valley.

The story revolves around Walter Scott, a man with Kentucky roots who headed west to Nevada as a young boy to join his brother on a ranch. Not only was he good at "cowboying," but he was good enough to ride with Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show for a time, though that career ended in a disagreement with Bill. As that chapter of his life came to an end, he returned to the West where he became "Death Valley Scotty" -- a raconteur to most, a rapscallion to others -- and concocted a scheme to defraud investors by boasting of a gold mine in Death Valley. As the story goes, Scotty promised to split the gold he found with his investors, but they had to put up their money first to underwrite his prospecting.

One of those potential investors, though, called Scotty's bluff and insisted on seeing the mine. Albert Johnson, a wealthy Chicagoan, came to Death Valley and Scotty took him out on horseback with hopes that after a few days the heat would get to Johnson and he'd head home. Instead, though, the heat and dry air proved good for Johnson's health -- (he had been injured earlier in life by a train accident) -- and he decided to build a home and a friendship with Scotty.

That "home," though, turned into a palatial estate of sorts in the upper reaches of Grapevine Valley. Not only is this Spanish-influenced mansion seemingly out of place in the high desert, but its design seemingly pushed the technological limits of the 1920s. Johnson saw that there was a solar heating system at work, and he also had a Pelton water wheel turbine installed to generate electricity for the place. Too, an evaporative cooling system employed indoor waterfalls and even wet burlap to keep things inside the castle relatively cool on those 100-degree summer days.