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Loafing Along Death Valley Trails

Chapter XXI

Roads. Cracker Box Signs

Any resemblance that a Death Valley highway bore to a road was a coincidence prior to 1926, and few tourists traveled over them unless two cars were along. “Just follow the wheel tracks and keep your eyes peeled for the cracker box signs along the road,” was the usual advice to the novice who didn’t know that tracks left by Mormons’ wagons nearly a century before may be seen today.

One of these led me to the bank of a mile-wide gash made by cloudbursts. To locate the missing link I climbed the nearest mountain and on a lonely mesa came at last upon a piece of shook nailed to a stake and stuck into the ground. But it had nothing to do with roads. A crude inscription read:

Montana Jim
July 1888
A dam good pal

Reverently I stepped aside. Never again would I see a finer tribute to man. A few rocks bleached white in the sun outlined a sunken grave. Crossed upon it were Jim’s pick and shovel. It was not difficult to recreate what had happened there. Jim and his friend looking for gold. Jim’s faltering and the sun beating him down. Jim’s partner knowing that Jim’s moniker would identify him better than a surname to anyone who passed that way interested in Jim. Out in the desert 100 miles from human habitation he couldn’t call an undertaker, so he dug a hole, wrapped Jim in his canvas, rolled him in and hoped that God would reach down for Jim.

At that period it was not an uncommon experience for the early tourist to lose his way by doing the natural thing at a crossroads and take the one which showed the sign of most travel. Often he would find later 145that he had followed a trail to a mine miles away. Often too, it led to disaster.

The story of roads begins at Shoshone with Brown. In his trips in and around the valley, he erected signs to prevent the traveler from losing his way and his life. “I would like to see Death Valley country,” people would say to him, “but everyone tells me to stay out.”

Inyo county had little revenue and that was used in the more populous Owens Valley 150 miles west. The east side (the Shoshone area) was totally neglected. Letters and petitions protesting the unfair distribution of county funds were tossed into the waste basket. “Roads in that cauldron? Who would use ’em? Nobody ever goes there but a few old prospectors.”

This was true but it was also true that on Owens Valley’s west side the lakes and forests of the High Sierras were attracting a paying crop of vacationists and the supervisors knew it would be political suicide to divert this traffic from its towns and resorts. The county-wide opinion as to chance for relief was expressed in the slang of the day by a loafer on the bench at Shoshone: “About as much as a wax mouse would have against an asbestos cat in a race through hell. They have the votes and elect the supervisors.”

The east side had never had a member on the board. In the Shoshone precinct were less than 40 voters. In Death Valley a few prospectors who would have battered down the gates of hell if they thought gold lay beyond, poked around in its canyons. A few Indians. A few workmen for the Borax Company. In 1924 Brown put his suitcase in his car, filled the tank and said to those about: “Fellows, I’m running for Supervisor.” “You’ll be the mouse,” quipped a friend.

“I’ll let ’em know somebody lives over here anyway....”

Skirting the urban strongholds of the gentlemen in office Brown knocked at every door in the district. He berated none nor claimed he had all the answers to an obviously difficult problem. “... Roads built there will lead here. Everybody will gain....” Then to the next cabin and the next canyon until he’d seen every voter.

Before the opposition knew he had been around, he was back in Shoshone selling bacon and beans.

When the votes were counted the overlords of the west side gasped. “Who the hell’s this Brown? Didn’t even know he was running....”

Taking office January 1, 1925, he found that the beaten incumbent had spent all the money allocated for road maintenance in his own bailiwick before retiring. Nevertheless, Brown convinced the new board his election proved that the people of the entire county agreed with him 146that the Death Valley area could no longer be neglected and managed to get a niggardly appropriation which would not have built a mile of decent mountain road, and his district had three challenging mountain ranges to cross.

With this appropriation he was expected to care for a mileage four times greater than that of the west side and was thus responsible for not only eastern approaches but maintenance of 150 miles of road from Darwin, all roads in the valley and those which furnished the north and south approaches. He managed to get $5000 after two years. With this he procured road machinery on a rental basis and succeeded in making a fair desert road. Then he began a one-man crusade to exploit Death Valley as a tourist attraction. “We need only roads a tourist can travel.”

He worked just as diligently for all of Inyo’s roads. “We have one of the world’s best vacation lands,” he told the west-siders. “You have an abundance of beautiful lakes and streams in a setting of mountains impressive as any in the world. On our side we offer the appeal of the Panamint, the Funeral Range, and spectacular Death Valley. Tourists will come to both of us if we give them a chance and they will be our best crop.”

By 1926 his crusade for roads had spread beyond Inyo county lines. San Bernardino county, through which passes Highway 66, a main transcontinental artery, joins Inyo on the south. Its board of supervisors was in session one day when Brown strode in. Most of them he knew. He wanted their advice, he told them. “Your county and mine need more roads to bring more people. The easiest way into Death Valley is through your county from Baker. The distance from Baker to the Inyo county line is 45 miles. If you will build the road to the Inyo line, I will build it from that point to Furnace Creek, 71 miles. Such a road would open Death Valley to the public and the tourists who will travel will spend enough money in your towns to pay your share of the cost.”

San Bernardino supervisors agreed to consider it but were not enthusiastic. One of America’s largest counties, San Bernardino had also one of its largest road problems.

Brown kept plugging, arranging meetings, convincing residents that the county’s portion of the road would be over flat country and over roads already passable, and its construction inexpensive.

Finally San Bernardino county supervisors agreed and by April, 1929, he had 71 miles of passable road. The result was that Death Valley was no longer remote as the Congo and tourists began to come.

To Shoshone it meant a few more windshields to wipe; a few more cars to crawl under. Another soft answer to frame for the sightseer 147cursing the desolation. Another shed for the store that started on the kitchen table.

In 1932 Brown went before the State Highway Commission and urged that all the roads he had built in Death Valley be taken over by the state. The law was passed.

Death Valley became a National Monument February 11, 1933, by order of President Franklin Roosevelt. At that time America was groping its way through depression, worrying about its dinner and its debts as a result of the stock market crash of 1929.

In the nation’s hobo jungles the seasoned “bindle stiff” made room for the newcomer who had always lived on the right side of the tracks. Freight trains carried a new kind of bum when the adolescent female crawled into a car alongside an adolescent male, vainly seeking work anywhere at anything.

To save them and others like them C.C.C. camps were organized and one of these recruited largely from New York City’s Bowery, was sent to Death Valley with headquarters at Cow Creek, a few miles north of Furnace Creek Inn.

The new park was under the supervision of Col. John R. White, later superintendent of the entire National Park System and to Ray Goodwin, assistant superintendent was assigned the task of building additional roads and trails to points of interest to connect with the State System which Brown had built.

Then began in earnest the flow of tourist traffic to the “God-forsaken hole” for which Brown had worked for 14 long and difficult years. But he soon found that to the problems of a small desert community he had added those of a whole county. They were the aftermath of what has since been called in a marvelous understatement by Morrow Mayo, historian of Los Angeles, “The Rape of Owens Valley.”

In the early part of the century, the city of Los Angeles had secretly acquired nearly all sources of water in Inyo and Mono counties. An amazed world applauded the engineering feat by which water was siphoned over mountain ranges to flow through ditches and tunnels, a distance of 259 miles.

The enterprise was announced by its promoters as the answer to the desperate need for water. It is now known that this need was only a mask to hide a scheme to make Los Angeles pay the cost of bringing water to 108,000 acres of waterless land in San Fernando valley so that the owners could make a profit of a hundred million dollars through its subdivision and sale. This they did.

The shameful story glorifies by comparison the cattle wars of the early West when one side hired its Billy the Kids to kill off the other—the 148only difference being that in the Owens Valley feud the Billy the Kids were the Big Names of Los Angeles who used unscrupulous politicians and laws cunningly passed instead of six-guns.

As a consequence, Los Angeles owns the towns, ranches, and cattle ranges so that merchants, householders, ranchers, and renters have no title except in a relatively few instances, to the land upon which they live or to the house or store they occupy. Los Angeles could sell or lease or refuse to sell or lease land to cattlemen, homes to residents or stores to merchants and sell or refuse to sell water to those who had lived all their lives and would die on the devastated land.

As a result, the relations between the city and the Displaced Persons of the two counties were those of victor and vanquished.

In 1935 the city succeeded in getting an act passed by the legislature which prevented any town from becoming incorporated without the consent of 60 per cent of the property owners. The purpose of the act seemed fair enough when it was announced that it was designed to save the towns from both political demagogues and crackpots running amuck in California and it became a law.

But there was more than the eye could see. Its real object had been to strengthen the strangle hold of the Los Angeles Water and Power board upon Owens Valley. Since it owned the towns it could now prevent their incorporation. There had been some feeling of security under a resolution of the Water and Power Board which had declared that merchants, cattlemen, and residents—all of them lessees, would be given preference in new leases and renewals of old ones.

In 1942 the resolution became a scrap of paper, and ranchers, cattle men and householders were advised that their leases would hereafter be renewed by a method of secret bidding.

Thus the residents of Owens Valley learned that the labor of years had brought no security. As one beaten old timer told me, “We’ve been kicked around so much I’m used to it. I helped blow those ditches two-three times, to turn that water loose on the desert. I know when I’m licked.”

Resentment in Mono county, which provided more of the water taken by Los Angeles than Inyo, was even more aroused and smoldering hatreds were ready again to blow up a ditch. The two counties constitute the 28th Senatorial district.

Brown’s success in the Assembly had not gone unnoticed in the neighboring county of Mono. “We need that fellow Brown,” a prominent citizen said, and others repeated it.

Again Charlie put his suitcase in his car, filled the tank. “We’ve 149never had anybody from this side at Sacramento,” he told a friend standing by. “I’m running for the Senate.”

“Know anybody up there?”

“I’m going and get acquainted,” he said and headed across the valley.

Most of Mono county is isolated by the High Sierras. Again the door to door technique. No torches. No brass bands. Just the old eye-to-eye-talk-it-over system. As always he let the voter do the talking and he listened, but when he slid into his car the voter was ready to tell his neighbor: “I like that fellow. Doesn’t claim to know it all.” He told his banker, his grocer, his butcher, baker, and barber.

Result? I was in the Senate Chamber at Sacramento later, when I heard one of a group of men huddled nearby say, “This is an important bill that concerns everybody on the east side of the Sierras. We’d better see Charlie.” I nudged the man reading a document at my side. “Those fellows want to see you, Senator.”

He had received the nomination of both the Democratic and Republican parties and had secured the passage of an act which denies a municipality holding more than 50 per cent of the property of another subdivision of the state, proprietary power over the security and stability of such subdivision. Moreover he was on the all-powerful Rules Committee, the Fish and Game, Local Government, Natural Resources, Social Welfare, and Election Committees, friend and frequent adviser of Governor Warren.

Honeymooning Secretary Ickes was combining business with pleasure when he reached California and wanting to see how his Park System was functioning, he took his bride to see Death Valley. Besides, he had some plans affecting the Inyo area.

The fight was having tough sledding in the legislature despite President Roosevelt’s approval. Then he talked to people less biased. “You’d better see Charlie....”

“Who the hell’s Charlie?” asked Harold.

“Senator from Death Valley....”

With Ray Goodwin, Superintendent of the Death Valley Monument to guide him, he was taken to all the show places. “Now,” said Mr. Ickes, “I want to see Brown.”

At Shoshone Charlie’s toggery is strictly for work which includes tending the gas pump, stove repairing, plumbing, and what-have-you. He was flat on his back under the dripping oil of a balky car when Mr. Goodwin stepped from the limousine.

“Charlie,” Mr. Goodwin called, “Mr. Ickes is here to see you.” Receiving no answer, he walked over to the car and added that Mr. Ickes 150was in a hurry. Still, no answer. “It’s Secretary Ickes, Department of the Interior. This is important.”

“So’s this,” Brown grunted. When he’d finished, he crawled out and wiping the grime from his hands, joined Goodwin at the waiting car. After being introduced to the bride and the self-styled “Old Curmudgeon” the latter explained his plan to add certain lands in Charlie’s district, to the Forest Reserve. “... You’re opposing me. You’re a Democrat, aren’t you?”

“I came from Georgia,” Charlie drawled.

“You’re for Roosevelt, aren’t you?”

“Within reason,” Charlie answered.

Then Mr. Ickes, with the assurance of the perfectionist began to sell his idea.

“Do you know of any reason why the area designated as Forest Reserve should not be protected as any other of our natural resources?” he concluded.

“Just one,” Charlie said.

“What’s that?” Ickes snapped.

“Your forest is nearly all brush land without a tree on it big enough to shade a lizard.”

Charlie was similarly dressed when a well tailored and impatient tourist with a carload of friends whom he was evidently trying to impress, drove up for gas.

Always unhurried, Charlie came to the pumps, slowly reached for the hose and as lazily checked the oil.

“Say, fellow—” the tourist barked. “Senator Brown is a friend of mine. Get a move on or you’ll be looking for a job.”

Without the flicker of an eyelid, Charlie quickened, jumped for a cleaning rag and briskly polished the windshield. When he brought the tourist’s change he apologized for his slowness and begged him not to report it to Senator Brown. “Jobs are hard to get and I have a wife and ten children to support.”

Touched with remorse, the tourist looked at the change. “Just give it to the kids and forget it.”

When the Pacific Coast Borax Company built its swanky Furnace Creek Inn on the western slope of the Funeral Range overlooking Death Valley, it began to look about for places that would give the most spectacular and comprehensive view of the Big Sink as a means of entertaining guests, and far enough away to keep them from boredom.

All the old timers who had wandered over the ranges were called in. Each suggested the place that had impressed him more than others. Each of these places was visited and after weeks of deliberation a spot on 151Chloride Cliff toward the northern end of Death Valley was chosen and the bigwigs started back to Los Angeles.

When they stopped at Shoshone for gas and water, Clarence Rasor, an engineer of the company was still thinking of the chosen site and asked Brown, long his friend, if he knew of any view of the valley better than the one at Chloride Cliff.

“I don’t pay much attention to scenery,” he told Rasor. “To me it’s all just desert or mountain. But I know one view that made me stop and look. Kinda got me. The chances are most folks would rave over it.”

“Could you find it?”

“Sure could....”

Rasor called the others, repeated Charlie’s story and added: “You’re in a hurry, but knowing Charlie as I do, I believe we’d better turn around and go back if he’ll guide us.”

Charlie agreed. It was a long, tortuous climb, even to the base of the peak. There Charlie went ahead and then beckoned them. Holding to bushes they walked or crawled to stand beside him; took one look and caught their breath. A mile below them lay the awesome Sink. White salt beds spread like a shroud over its silent desolation. Billowed dunes, gold against the dark of lava rock. Here a pastelled hill. There a brooding canyon. Beyond, the colorful Panamint under the golden glow of the sun.

“This is the place,” they said.

“... You can tell ’em too,” said Charlie pointing, “that right down there is Copper Canyon. If such stuff interests them, they can see the footprints of the camels and elephants and a lot of historic junk like that.”

So you who thrill at Dante’s View may thank Charles Brown of Shoshone.

When first elected to the senate, his colleagues were quick to see the qualities that had appealed to voters when they elected him supervisor. He had frequently been before that body in his fight for roads and tax reforms. They knew too that better schools for all rural areas either wholly or largely were the result of his efforts, and soon he was on the Rules Committee—a place usually assigned to those who come from the more populous districts of the state, because its five members through its power to appoint all standing and special committees, largely decide what legislation reaches the governor.

In 1950 Brown announced his candidacy for reelection under the state law that enables a candidate to seek the nomination of two parties.

The slot machine had been outlawed in California by the previous legislature and Brown had been largely instrumental in securing the 152passage of the law. Since the slot machine is a three billion dollar business in the nation, the gamblers opposed him as part of a general plan to secure repeal of the law and reinstate the one-arm bandits.

Since Mono county adjoins Nevada, gambling interests of that state contributed without stint, to retire Brown to private life. He had been in office for 25 years and opposed by this powerful group, guided by both brains and cunning, the odds apparently were against him. While the opposition boasted that he was through, Brown was calling at cabins in the hills and gulches, meeting friends on busy village streets and again when the vote was counted, it was discovered that voters have memories. He had won the nomination of both the Democratic and Republican parties by almost two to one and under the law, was re-elected.

Due to his priority standing and the retirement of older senators, the big fellow who walked 150 miles to get a job at Greenwater in order to save the fare to eat on, automatically shares with two men the power to control the legislation of the state.

Hell, like gold, is where you find it—either in people or places. A lady of wealth and aristocratic background in route to Furnace Creek’s luxury inn, stopped at Shoshone for gas. Worn out by the long drive over the corduroy road, she looked about her and then at Charlie in greasy overalls. “How on earth,” she asked in genuine distress, “do you make a living in this God-forsaken-hole?”

“It’s hard ma’am,” Charlie said gloomily. “But we get a few pennies from tourists, a little flour from mesquite beans, and stay alive one way or another, hoping to get out.”

The gracious lady opened her purse, thrust a five dollar bill into Charlie’s hand and went her way.

“It really made her happy,” Charlie chuckled, “and I just didn’t have the heart to give it back.”

What is it that man wants of these “God-forsaken-holes” on the desert? I sought the answer one day when Shoshone was having a holiday. George Ishmael, as native as an Indian, was chosen to barbecue the steer. A well-to-do tourist begged the job of digging the big pit. “Want to flex my muscles....” Another cut the wood. At a depth of four feet, water was struck and rose a foot over the bottom. “That’s all right” George said. He tossed a dozen railroad ties into the hole, floated them into position, covered them with dirt, built the fire, lowered the carcass of the steer, covered it with green leaves and filled the hole. “An unforgettable feast,” agreed the scores who had come from places 100 miles away.

Sitting beside me was a prominent Los Angeles attorney, eminent 153in the councils of the Democratic party in both state and nation. “Why,” he asked, “will a man wear himself out in the city when he can really live in a little place like this?”

“I thought of suicide at first,” said Patsy, young matron with three healthy little stairsteps. “My husband said ‘for heaven’s sake, go out for a month and have a good time.’ I went. Back in a week.”

A Vermont girl said she had come to escape a straightlaced code that constantly reminded her sin was everywhere. “Here I’ve got an even break with the devil....”

All had found something that clicked with something inside of them which challenged something in civilization. Maybe it was expressed in the dogma of the Tennessee judge reared in the hill country of the Cumberland river. As he stepped from his plane on his annual vacation he was cornered by a reporter: “Judge, you’re 94 years old. What do you think of this modern world?”

“Best one I know about.”

“No criticism?”

“None whatever. Maybe a few minor changes. Just now we are being educated out of common sense into ignorance; lawed out of patriotism; taxed into poverty; doctored to death and preached to hell....”

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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