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Loafing Along Death Valley Trails

Chapter XVII

Shorty Frank Harris

No history of Death Valley has been written in this century without mention of the Short Man—Frank (Shorty) Harris—and none can be. Previous pages have given most of his story. After his death at least two hurried writers who never saw him have stated that Shorty discovered no mines, knew little of the country.

From a page of notes made before I had ever met him, I find this record: “Stopped at Independence to see George Naylor, early Inyo county sheriff and now its treasurer. We talked of early prospectors. Naylor said: ‘I have known all of the old time burro men and have the records. Shorty Harris has put more towns on the map and more taxable property on the assessors’ books than any of them.’”

I first met Shorty at Shoshone. Entering the store one day, Charles Brown told me there was a fellow outside I ought to know, and in a moment I was looking into keen steady eyes—blue as water in a canyon pool—and in another Shorty Harris was telling me how to sneak up on $10,000,000. Thus began an acquaintance which was to lead me through many years from one end of Death Valley to the other, with Shorty, mentor, friend, and guide.

Of course I had heard of him. Who hadn’t? In the gold country of western deserts one could find a few who had never heard of Cecil Rhodes or John Hays Hammond, but none who had not heard of Shorty Harris. Wherever mining men gathered, the mention of his name evoked the familiar, “That reminds me,” and the air thickened with history, laughter, and lies.

He was five feet tall, quick of motion. Hands and feet small. Skin soft and surprisingly fair. Muscles hard as bull quartz. With a mask of ignorance he concealed a fine intelligence reserved for intimate friends in moments of repose.

It is regrettable that since Shorty’s death, writers who never saw him have given pictures of him which by no stretch of the imagination can be recognized by those who had even a slight acquaintance with him. Authors of books properly examine the material of those who have written other books. In the case of Shorty this was eagerly done—so eagerly in fact, that each portrayal is the original picture altered according to the ability of the one who tailors the tale. All are interesting but few have any relation to truth.

Shorty Harris was so widely publicized by writers in the early part of the century that when the radio was invented, he was a “natural” for playlets and columnists. It was natural also that the iconoclast appear to set the world right. He employed Shorty to guide him through Death Valley. “I want to write a book,” he explained, “and I have only three weeks to gather material.”

The trip ended sooner. “What happened?” I asked Shorty when I read the book and was startled to see in it a statement that Shorty became lost; had never found a mine; and never even looked for one.

“Did he say that?” Shorty laughed.

“And more of the same,” I said.

“Well, let’s let it go for what it’s worth.... He bellyached from the minute we set out.”

Those who knew Shorty best—Dad Fairbanks, Charles Brown, Bob Montgomery, George Naylor, H. W. Eichbaum, and the old timers on the trails had entirely different impressions. There was, however, around the barrooms of Beatty and other border villages a breed of later comers—“professional” old timers always waiting and often succeeding in exchanging “history” for free drinks. Though they may have never known Shorty in person, they were not lacking in yarns about him and rarely failed to get an audience.

There were also among Shorty’s friends a few who had another attitude. “What has he ever done that I haven’t?” the answer being that nothing had been written about them.

With variations the original pattern became the pattern for the succeeding writer. In the interest of accuracy it is not amiss to say that Shorty Harris was not buried standing up. The writer saw him buried. It is not true that he ever protested the removal of the road from the site of the place where he wished to be buried, because he never knew that he would be buried there. Nor did he have the remotest idea that a monument would be erected to him, because the idea of the monument was born after his death, as related elsewhere.

He did not leave Harrisburg on July 4, 1905 to get drunk at 115Ballarat. Instead, he went to Rhyolite to find Wild Bill Corcoran, his grubstaker.

He did enjoy the yarns attributed to him and their publication in important periodicals. But he was also painfully shy and ill at ease away from his home. Even at the annual Death Valley picnics held at Wilmington, near Los Angeles, he could never be persuaded to face the crowds.

One cannot laugh aside the part he played nor the monument that honors one of God’s humblest. His strike at Rhyolite brought two railroads across the desert, gave profitable employment to thousands of men, added extra shifts in steel mills and factories making heavy machinery and those of tool makers. The building trades felt it, banks, security exchanges, and scores of other industries over the nation—all because Shorty Harris went up a canyon. And it is not amiss to ask if these historians did their jobs as well.

At my home it was difficult to get Shorty to accept invitations to dinners to which he was often invited by service clubs, but in the Ballarat cabin he was as sure of himself as the MacGregor with a foot upon his native heath and an eye on Ben Lomond.

His passion for prospecting was fanatical. I asked him once if he would choose prospecting as a career if he had his life to live over.

“I wouldn’t change places with the President of the United States. My only regret is that I didn’t start sooner. When I go out, every time my foot touches the ground, I think ‘before the sun goes down I’ll be worth $10,000,000.’”

“But you don’t get it,” I reminded him.

He stared at me with a sort of “you’re-too-dumb” look. “Who in the hell wants $10,000,000? It’s the game, man—the game.”

Nor is the picture of his profligacy altogether true. Despite Shorty’s disregard for money he had a canniness that made him cache something against the rainy day. At Lone Pine Charlie Brown was packing Shorty’s suit case before taking him to a doctor. “Shorty, what’s this lump in the lining of your vest?”

“Oh, there was a hole in it. Poor job of mending I guess,” Shorty answered guilelessly.

“I’ll see,” Charlie said and ripping a few stitches removed $600 in currency.

Shorty’s last years furnish a story of a man too tough to die. He had had three major operations, when in 1933 I received the following telegram: “Wall fell on me. Hurry. Bring doctor. Shorty Harris.” It had been sent by Fred Gray from Trona, 27 miles from Ballarat, nearest telegraph station.

My wife and I hurried through rain, snow, sleet; over washed out desert and mountain roads. Outside the cabin in the dusk, shivering in a cold wind, we found two or three of Shorty’s friends and Charles and Mrs. Brown, who had also made a mad dash of 150 miles over roads—some of which hadn’t been traveled in 30 years.

Puttering around his cabin, Shorty had jerked at a wire anchored in the walls and brought tons of adobe down upon himself. He was literally dug out, his ribs crushed, face black with abrasions. With rapidly developing pneumonia he had lain for 60 hours without medical attention and with nothing to relieve pain. We learned later from Dr. Walter Johnson, who had preceded us, that if a hospital had been within a block it would have been fatal to move him. All agreed that Death sat on Shorty’s bedside.

“A cat has only nine lives,” Fred Gray said gravely, and outside in the gathering gloom we planned his funeral. Because of the isolation of Ballarat and lack of communication we arranged that when the end came, Fred Gray would notify Brown and bring the body down into Death Valley for burial. There we would meet the hearse.

Because bodies decompose quickly in that climate, time was important. While we planned these details, my wife, who had been at Shorty’s bedside, joined us. “Shorty’s not going to die,” she said. “He’s planning that trip up Signal Mountain you and he have been talking about.”

I tiptoed into the room. He was staring at the ceiling, seeing faraway canyons; the yellow fleck in a broken rock. Suddenly he spoke: “I’m losing a thousand dollars a day lying here. Why, that ledge—”

A week after returning to our home we received another telegram from Trona asking that we come for him. He had insisted upon being laid in the bed of a pickup truck and taken across the Slate Range to Trona, where we met him.

At our home he lay on his back for weeks, fed with a spoon. Always talking of putting another town on the map. Always losing a million dollars a day. He was miraculously but slowly recovering when an Associated Press dispatch bearing a Lone Pine date made front page headlines with an announcement of his death.

Though the report was quickly corrected, his presence at our house brought reporters, photographers, old friends, and the merely curious. At the time the Pacific Coast Borax Company’s N.B.C. program was featuring stories based on his experiences over a nation-wide hook-up. Among the callers also were moguls of mining and tycoons of industry who had stopped at the Ballarat cabin to fall under the spell of his ever ready yarns.

Among these guests, one stands out.

It was a hot summer day when I saw on the lawn what appeared to be a big bear, because the squat, bulky figure was enclosed in fur. Answering the door bell I looked into twinkling eyes and an ingratiating smile. “They told me in Ballar

at that Shorty Harris was here.” I invited him in. “I’ll just shed this coat,” he said, stripping off the bearskin garment. “... sorta heavy for a man going on 80.” He laid it aside. “It’s double lined. Fur inside and out. You see, I sleep in it. Crossed three mountain ranges in that coat before I got here. May as well take this other one off too.” He removed another heavy overcoat, revealing a cord around his waist. “Keep this one tied close. Less bulky....”

Under a shorter coat was a heavy woolen shirt and his overalls concealed two pairs of pants. He went on: “I was with Shorty at Leadville. My name’s Pete Harmon. We ought to be rich—both of us. Why, I sold a hole for $2500 in 1878. Thought I was smart. They’ve got over $100,000,000 outa that hole. I was at Bridgeport when I heard Shorty was sick, so I says, ‘I’ll just step down to Ballarat and see him.’ (The ‘step’ was 298 miles.) When I got there Bob Warnack tells me he’s in Los Angeles. When I get there they tell me he’s with you. So I just stepped out here.”

He had “stepped” 481 miles to see his friend.

I ushered him in and left them alone. After an hour I noticed Pete outside, smoking. I went out and urged him to return and smoke inside, but he refused. “It’s not manners,” he insisted.

Later I happened to look out the window and saw him empty the contents of a small canvas sack into his hand. There were a few dimes and nickels and two bills. He unfolded the currency. One was a twenty. The other, a one. He put the coins in the sack and came inside. A few moments later, from an adjacent room I heard his soft, lowered voice: “Shorty, I’m eatin’ reg’lar now and got a little besides. I reckon you’re kinda shy. You take this.”

“No—no, Pete. I’m getting along fine....”

I fancy there was a scurry among the angels to make that credit for Pete Harmon.

Late in the afternoon Pete donned his coats. “I’d better be going. I’ve got a lotta things on hand. A claim in the Argus. When the money comes in, well—I always said I was going to build a scenic railroad right on the crest of Panamint Range. Best view of Death Valley. It’ll pay. How far is it to San Diego?”

“A hundred and forty miles....”

“Well, since I’m this far along I’ll just step down and see my old partner. Take care of Shorty....” And down the road he went.

With humility I watched his passage, hoping that the good God would go with him and somehow I felt that of all those with fame and wealth or of high degree who had gone from that house, none had left so much in my heart as Pete.

During this period of convalescence Shorty was often guest in homes of luxury and when at last I took him to Ballarat I was curious to see what his reaction would be to the squalor of the crumbling cabin.

When we stepped from the car, he noticed Camel, the blind burro drowsing in the shade of a roofless dobe. “Old fellow,” he said, “it’s dam’ good to see you again....” I unloaded the car, brought water from the well and sat down to rest. Shorty sat in a rickety rocker braced with baling wire. I regarded with amusement the old underwear which he’d stuffed into broken panes; the bare splintered floor; the cracked iron stove that served both for cooking and heating. The wood box beside it. The tin wash pan on a bench at the door.

Then I noticed Shorty was also appraising the things about—the hole in the roof; the box nailed to the wall that served as a cupboard. A half-burned candle by his sagging bed. For a long time he glanced affectionately from one familiar object to another and finally spoke: “Will, haven’t I got a dam’ fine home?”

For ages poets have sung, orators have lauded, but so far as I’m concerned, Shorty said it better.

The last orders from the surgeon had been, “Complete rest for three months.”

In the late afternoon we moved our chairs outside. The sun still shone in the canyons and after he had seen that all his peaks were in place, he turned to me: “I’m losing $5,000,000 a day sitting here. Soon as you’re rested, we’ll start. You’ll be in shape by day after tomorrow, won’t you?”

I restrained a gasp as he pointed to the side of a gorge 8000 feet up on Signal Mountain. “No trip at all....”

No argument could convince him that the trip was foolhardy and on the third day we started through Hall’s Canyon opposite the Indian Ranch. The ascent from the canyon is so steep that in many places we had to crawl on hands and knees. The three and a half miles were made in seven hours, but on the return the inevitable happened. Shorty, exhausted, staggered from the trail and collapsed. When he rose, he wobbled, but managed to reach a bush and rolled under it. I ran to his side. It seemed the end. “You go ahead,” he said weakly. “I’m through.”

I had given him all my water and exacting a promise that he would remain under the bush, I started for help at the Indian Ranch, to bring him out.

Coming up, I had paid no attention to the trail and was uncertain of my way—which was further confused by criss-crossed trails of wild burros and mountain sheep. Coming to a canyon that forked, I was not sure which to take and panicked with fear took a sudden uncalculated choice and started up a trail. The desert gods must have guided my feet, for it proved to be the right one and an hour later I came upon the green seepage of water.

I dug a hole; let the scum run off then drank slowly and lay down to rest. In my last conscious moment a huge rattler passed within a few inches of my face. But rattlers were unimportant then and I went to sleep.

The swish of brush awoke me and I saw Shorty staggering down the trail. He fell beside the water and was instantly asleep. Time I knew, was the measure of life and I allowed him twenty minutes to rest, then awoke him and made him go in front. On a ledge, he slumped again, his body hanging over the cliff with a 1000 foot fall to rocks below.

I managed to catch him by the seat of his trousers as he began to slip, and dragged him back on the trail. Somehow I got him to the bottom. There the canyon widens upon a level area covered with dense growth. Walking ahead I suddenly missed him. He had crawled from the trail and it required an hour to find him and this I did by the noise of his rattly breathing.

I half carried, half dragged him to the car and lifted him in. He was asleep before I could close the door and remained unconscious for the entire 11 miles of corduroy road to Ballarat. There Fred Gray and Bob Warnack lifted him from the car and laid him on his bed. None of us believed that Shorty Harris would ever leave that bed alive.

The next morning I tiptoed softly out of the room, went over to the old saloon and had breakfast with Tom, the caretaker. Afterward we sat outside smoking and talking of Hungry Hattie’s feuding and her sister’s mining deals, when we heard steady thumping sounds coming from Shorty’s place. We looked. Bareheaded, Shorty Harris was chopping wood.

Shorty was born near Providence, Rhode Island, July 2, 1856. He had only a hazy memory of his parents. His father, a shoemaker, died impoverished when Shorty was six years old. “... I went to live with my aunt. If she couldn’t catch me doing something, she figured I’d outsmarted her and beat me up on general principles.”

At nine he ran away and obtained work in the textile mills of Governor William Sprague, dipping calico. The village priest taught him to read and write and apart from this, his only school was the alley. The curriculum of the alley is hunger, tears, and pain but somehow 120in that alley he found time to play and learned that with play came laughter. Thenceforth life to Shorty Harris was just one long playday.

In 1876 he started West and crawled out of a boxcar in Dodge City, Kansas. About were stacks of buffalo hides, bellowing cattle, “chippies,” gamblers, cow hands, and a chance for youngsters who had come out of alleys.

“... Among those I remember at Dodge City were my friends Wyatt Earp and a thin fellow with a cough. If he liked you he’d go to hell for you. He was Doc Holliday—the coldest killer in the West. I had a job in a livery stable. Job was all right, but too much gunplay. Cowboys shooting up the town. Gamblers shooting cowboys.”

Flushed with his pay check, Shorty wandered into a saloon and met one of the percentage girls—a lovely creature, not altogether bad. They danced and Shorty suggested a stroll in the moonlight. And soon Shorty was in love. “Shorty,” she asked, “why be a sucker? Why don’t you go to Leadville? You might find a good claim.”

“I’m broke,” he told her.

“I’ve got some money,” she said, and reached into her purse.

“I’m no mac,” he snapped.

Finally she thrust the bills into his pocket.

At Leadville he went up a gulch. Luck was kind. He found a good claim and going into Leadville sold it for $15,000. Later it produced millions. Within a week he was penniless. “Why, all I’ve got to do is to go up another gulch,” he told sympathetic friends.

On this trip his feet were frozen and he was carried out on the back of his partner. Taken to the hospital, the surgeon told him that only the amputation of both feet could save his life.

Telling a group of friends about it in the Ballarat cabin later, Shorty of course had to add a few details of his own: “Dan Driscoll came to see me and I told him what the sawbones said. ‘Why hell,’ Dan says. ‘Won’t be nothing left of you. You’ve got to get outa here. When that nurse goes, I’ll take you to a doc who’ll save them feet.’ And the first thing I knew I was in the other hospital.

“The doc whetted his meat cleaver, picked up a saw and was about to go to work, when he found there was nothing to dope me with. ‘I’ll fix it,’ Doc says, and wham—he slapped me stiff. I don’t know what he did, but when I came to I was good as new.”

After selling a second claim to Haw Tabor, Shorty was again in the money and remembered the girl in Dodge City. Returning, he looked her up, took her to dinner. They danced and dined and Shorty toasted her in “bubble water.” “I reckon everybody in Dodge City 121thought a caliph had come to town. No little girl suffered for new toggery. No bum lacked a tip. In a week I was broke again.

“Going down to the freight yard to steal a ride on the rods I met the girl and the next I knew, I was begging her to marry me. ‘Shorty, you don’t know anything about my past, and still you want to marry me?’

“‘You don’t know anything about my past either,’ I said. But it was no go.”

Years afterward when Shorty and I were camped in Hall Canyon, I asked him if he would actually have married a girl like her.

“Who am I to count slips?” he bristled. “I did ask her,” and he swabbed a tear that had dried fifty years ago.

In 1898, after working for a grubstake he started on the trip that led at last to Death Valley, by way of the San Juan country—one of the world’s roughest regions. “I walked through Arizona, to Northern Mexico—every mile of it desert. A labor strike in Colonel Green’s mines threw me out of a job and I started back. Ran out of water and lived five days on the juice of a bulbous plant—la Flora Morada. Each bulb has a few drops.

“On the Mojave I ran out of water again. Finally saw a mangy old camel drinking at a pool. I had enough sense left to know there were no camels around and went on till I flopped. A fellow picked me up. I told him I’d been so goofy I’d seen a camel and water, but I knew it was just a mirage. ‘You damned fool,’ he said. ‘It was a camel and you saw water. Hi Jolly turned that camel loose.’”

Shorty reached Tintic, Utah, and from there walked over a waterless desert to the Johnnie mine, where he was given shelter, food, and clothing.

Bishop Cannon of the Mormon Church sent him into the Panamint to monument a gold claim. “I was the only fool they could find to cross Death Valley in mid summer. I found the claim but it proved to be patented land.”

Shorty was recuperating from his last operation at my home when he came into the house one morning with fire in his eyes and a paper in his hand. “Read that and let’s get going.” (It has been erroneously stated that Shorty couldn’t read. Though he had little schooling and a cataract impaired his sight, he could read to the end.)

The paper announced a strike in Tuba Canyon near Ballarat. “Why, I know a place nobody ever saw but me and a few eagles....” His losses increased from a thousand to a million dollars a day because he wasn’t on the job, and in May we started for Ballarat by the longer route through Death Valley.

When we reached Jim Dayton’s grave, he asked me to stop and getting out of the car, he walked into the brush, returning with a few yellow and blue wild flowers, laid them on Dayton’s grave. “God bless you, old fellow. You’ll have to move over soon and make room for me.”

Then turning to me, he said: “When I die bury me beside old Jim.” Raising his hand and moving his finger as if he were writing the words, he added: “Above me write, ‘Here lies Shorty Harris, a single blanket jackass prospector.’”

It was his way of saying he had played his game—not by riding over the desert with a deluxe camping outfit, but the hard way—with beans and a single blanket. He was also saying, I think, goodbye to the Death Valley that he loved; its golden dunes, its creeping canyons and pots of gold.

About one o’clock in the morning, Sunday, November 11, 1934, the phone awakened me. At the other end of the line was Charles Brown. Shorty Harris lay dead at Big Pine. “He just went to sleep and didn’t wake up,” Charlie said.

Shorty had died Saturday morning, November 10, and Charlie had arranged for the remains to be brought down into Death Valley and buried beside James Dayton Sunday afternoon.

Out of Los Angeles, out of towns and settlements, canyons, and hills came the largest crowd that had ever assembled in Death Valley, to wait at Furnace Creek Ranch for the hearse that would come nearly 200 miles over the mountains from Big Pine. It was delayed at every village and by burro-men along the road, who wanted a last look upon the face of Shorty.

At one o’clock the caravan arrived and then began the procession down the valley. The sun was setting and the shadows of the Panamint lay halfway across the valley when the grave was reached. Brown had sent Ernest Huhn from Shoshone the night previous, a distance of about 60 miles, to dig the grave.

On the desert a man dies and gets his measure of earth—often with not so much as a tarpaulin. With this in mind Ernie had made the hole to fit the man, but with the coffin it was a foot too short. While waiting for the grave to be lengthened, the casket was opened and in the fading twilight Shorty’s friends passed in file about the casket, while the Indians, silhouetted against the brush paid silent tribute to him whom their fathers and now their children knew as “Short Man.”

So began the first funeral ever held in the bottom of Death Valley. Drama, packed into a few moments of a dying day. No discordant ballyhoo. No persiflage.... “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not 123want....” A bugler stepped beside the grave and silvered notes of taps went over the valley. The casket was lowered into the grave as the stars came out, and he was covered with the earth he loved. Thoughtful women placed wreaths of athol and desert holly and, with his face toward his desert stars, Shorty Harris holed-in forever.

Going back to Shoshone with the Browns, I told Charlie of the time I had stopped at Jim Dayton’s grave with Shorty. “I made up my mind then that I would do something about his last wish. There’s no liar like a tombstone, but Shorty deserves a marker.”

“I’ll join you,” Charlie said.

Charlie consulted Park officials and they approved. Chosen to write the epitaph, I knew from the moment the task was assigned to me what it would be. In order to get the reaction of others to the use of the word “jackass” on the monument, I decided to try it out on the Browns. “This epitaph,” I said, “may be unconventional, but unless I am mistaken it will be quoted around the world.”

I read it. “It’s all right,” Mrs. Brown laughed. Charlie approved. The epitaph, as predicted has been quoted and pictures of the plaque published around the world.

It has been stated that the Pacific Coast Borax Company paid for the monument. Actually it was provided by the Park Service. I had the bronze tablet made in Pomona, California, and Charlie Brown insisted that he pay for it. “Shorty left a little money,” he said. “Whatever is lacking, I will pay myself.”

On March 14, 1936, the monument was dedicated. Streamers of dust rolled along every road that led into the Big Sink trailing cars that were bringing friends from all walks of life to pay tribute to Shorty. At the grave the rich and the famous stood beside the tottering prospector, the husky miner, the silent, stoic Indian. Brown was master of ceremonies. Telegrams were read from John Hays Hammond and other distinguished friends. Old timers, whose memories spanned 30 years, one after another wedged through the crowd to tell a funny story that Shorty had told or some homely incident of his career.

One was revealing: “We had the no-’countest, low-downest hooch drinking loafer on the desert at Ballarat. We called him Tarfinger. He came over to Shorty’s cabin one day and said he was hungry. Shorty loaned him $5.00. When I heard about it I went over. I said, ‘You know he’s a no-good loafing thief.’ I figured I was doing Shorty a favor. Instead, he blew up. ‘Well, he can get as hungry as an honest man, can’t he?’”

They understood what O. Henry meant when he sang:

“Test the man if his heart be

In accord with the ultimate plan,

That he be not to his marring,

Always and utterly man.”

The epitaph Shorty Harris wanted seemed fitting: “Above me write, ‘Here lies Shorty Harris, a single blanket jackass prospector.’”

As I turned away I thought of the monuments erected to dead Caesars who had left trails of blood and ruin. Shorty Harris simply followed a jackass into far horizons, and by leaving a smile at every water hole, a pleasant memory on every trail, attained a fame which will last as long as the annals of Death Valley.

A Personal Narrative of People and Places
Published by Death Valley Publishing Co.
Ontario, California

A Foretaste of Things to Come
What Caused Death Valley?
Aaron and Rosie Winters
John Searles and His Lake of Ooze
But Where Was God?
Death Valley Geology
Indians of the Area
Desert Gold. Too Many Fractions
Romance Strikes the Parson
Greenwater-Last of the Boom Towns
The Amargosa Country
A Hovel That Ought To Be a Shrine
Sex in Death Valley Country
Shoshone Country. Resting Springs
The Story of Charles Brown
Long Man, Short Man
Shorty Frank Harris
A Million Dollar Poker Game
Death Valley Scotty
Odd But Interesting Characters
Roads. Cracker Box Signs
Lost Mines. The Breyfogle and Others
Panamint City. Genial Crooks
Indian George. Legend of the Panamint
Ballarat. Ghost Town
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