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Loafing Along Death Valley Trails

Chapter IV

John Searles and His Lake of Ooze

Actually the first discovery of borax in Death Valley was made by Isadore Daunet in 1875, five years before Winters’ discovery. Daunet had left Panamint City when it was apparent that town was through forever and with six of his friends was en route to new diggings in Arizona.

He was a seasoned, hardy adventurer and risked a short cut across Death Valley in mid-summer. Running out of water, his party killed a burro, drank its blood; but the deadly heat beat them down. Indians came across one of the thirst-crazed men and learned that Daunet and others were somewhere about. They found Daunet and two companions. The others perished.

When Daunet heard of the Winters sale five years later, like Rosie Winters he remembered the white stuff about the water, to which the Indians had taken him. He hurried back and in 1880 filed upon mining claims amounting to 260 acres. He started at once a refining plant which he called Eagle Borax Works and began operating one year before Old Harmony began to boil borax in 1881. Daunet’s product however, was of inferior grade and unprofitable and work was soon abandoned. The unpredictable happened and dark days fell upon borax and William T. Coleman.

In 1888 the advocates of free trade had a field day when the bill authored by Roger Q. Mills of Texas became the law of the land and borax went on the free list. The empire of Coleman tumbled in a financial scare—attributed by Coleman to a banker who had falsely undervalued Coleman’s assets after a report by a borax expert who betrayed him. “My assets,” wrote Coleman, “were $4,400,000. My debts $2,000,000.” No person but Coleman lost a penny.

But Borax Smith was never one to surrender without a fight and 31organized the Pacific Coast Borax Company to take over the property and the success of that company justifies the faith and the integrity of Coleman.

Marketing the borax presented a problem in transportation even more difficult than it did in Tibet. At first it was scraped from the flat surface of the valley where it looked like alkali. It was later discovered in ledge form in the foothills of the Funeral Mountains. The sight of this discovery was called Monte Blanco—now almost a forgotten name.

The borax was boiled in tanks and after crystallization was hauled by mule team across one hundred and sixty-five miles of mountainous desert at a pace of fifteen miles per day—if there were no accidents—or an average of twenty days for the round trip. The summer temperatures in the cooler hours of the night were 112 degrees; in the day, 120 to 134 (the highest ever recorded). There were only four water holes on the route. Hence, water had to be hauled for the team.

The borax was hauled to Daggett and Mojave and thence shipped to Alameda, California, to be refined. Charles Bennett, a rancher from Pahrump Valley, was among the first to contract the hauling of the raw product.

In 1883 J. W. S. Perry, superintendent of the borax company, decided the company should own its freighting service and under his direction the famous 20 mule team borax wagons with the enormous wheels were designed. Orders were given for ten wagons. Each weighed 7800 pounds. Two of these wagons formed a train, the load being 40,000 pounds. To the second wagon was attached a smaller one with a tank holding 1200 gallons of water.

“I’d leave around midnight,” Ed Stiles said. “Generally 110 or 112 degrees.”

The first hauls of these wagons were to Mojave, with overnight stations every sixteen miles. Thirty days were required for the round trip.

In the Eighties a prospector in the then booming Calico Mountains, between Barstow and Yermo discovered an ore that puzzled him. He showed it to others and though the bustling town of Calico was filled with miners from all parts of the world, none could identify it. Under the blow torch the crystalline surface crumbled. Out of curiosity he had it assayed. It proved to be calcium borate and was the world’s first knowledge of borax in that form. Previously it had been found in the form of “cotton ball.” The Pacific Coast Borax Company acquired the deposits; named the ore Colemanite in honor of W. T. Coleman.

Operations in Death Valley were suspended and transferred to the new deposit, which saved a ten to fifteen days’ haul besides providing a superior product. The deposit was exhausted however, in the early part 32of the century when Colemanite was discovered in the Black Mountains and the first mine—the Lila C. began operations.

It is a bit ironical that during the depression of the Thirties, two prospectors who neither knew nor cared anything about borax were poking around Kramer in relatively flat country in sight of the paved highway between Barstow and Mojave when they found what is believed to be the world’s largest deposit of borax.

It was a good time for bargain hunters and was acquired by the Pacific Coast Borax Company and there in a town named Boron, all its borax is now produced.

Even before Aaron Winters or Isadore Daunet, John Searles was shipping borax out of Death Valley country. With his brother Dennis, member of the George party of 1861, Searles had returned and was developing gold and silver claims in the Slate Range overlooking a slimy marsh. They had a mill ready for operation when the Indians, then making war on the whites of Inyo county destroyed it with fire. A man of outstanding courage, Searles remained to recuperate his losses. He had read about the Trona deposits first found in the Nile Valley and was reminded of it when he put some of the water from the marsh in a vessel to boil and use for drinking. Later he noticed the formation of crystals and then suspecting borax he went to San Francisco with samples and sought backing. He found a promoter who after examining the samples, told him, “If the claims are what these samples indicate, I can get all the money you need....”

An analysis was made showing borax.

“But where is this stuff located?”

Searles told him as definitely as he could. He was invited to remain in San Francisco while a company could be organized. “It will take but a few days....”

Searles explained that he hadn’t filed on the ground and preferred to go back and protect the claim.

The suave promoter brushed his excuse aside. “Little chance of anybody’s going into that God forsaken hole.” He called an associate. “Take Mr. Searles in charge and show him San Francisco....”

Not a rounder, Searles bored quickly with night life. His funds ran low. He asked the loan of $25.

“Certainly....” His host stepped into an adjacent office, returning after a moment to say the cashier was out but that he had left instructions to give Searles whatever he wished.

Searles made trip after trip to the cashier’s office but never found him in and becoming suspicious, he pawned his watch and hurried home, arriving at midnight four days later.

The next morning a stranger came and something about his attire, his equipment, and his explanation of his presence didn’t ring true and Searles was wary even before the fellow, believing that Searles was still in San Francisco announced that he had been sent to find a man named Searles to look over some borax claims. “Do you know where they are?”

Searles thought quickly. He had not as yet located his monuments nor filed a notice. He pointed down the valley. “They’re about 20 miles ahead....”

The fellow went on his way and before he was out of sight, Searles was staking out the marsh and with one of the most colorful of Death Valley characters, Salty Bill Parkinson, began operations in 1872. Incorporated under the name of San Bernardino Borax Company, the business grew and was later sold to Borax Smith’s Pacific Coast Borax Company.

Once while Searles was away hunting grizzlies, the Indians who had burned his mill, raided his ranch and drove his mules across the range. Suspecting the Piutes, he got his rifle and two pistols.

“They’ll kill you,” he was warned.

“I’m going to get those mules,” Searles snapped and followed their tracks across the Slate Range and Panamint Valley. High in the overlooking mountains he came upon the Indians feasting upon one of the animals and was immediately attacked with bows and arrows. He killed seven bucks and the rest ran, but an Indian’s arrow was buried in his eye. He jerked the arrow out, later losing the eye, pushed on and recovered the rest of his mules. Thereafter the Piutes avoided Searles and his marsh because, they said, he possessed the “evil eye.”

On the same lake where Searles began operations, the town of Trona was established to house the employees and processing plants of the American Potash and Chemical Company. It was British owned, though this ownership was successfully concealed in the intricate corporate structure of the Pacific Coast Borax Company, but later sold for twelve million dollars to Hollanders who left the management as they found it. During World War II Uncle Sam discovered that the Hollanders were stooges for German financiers’ Potash Cartel.

The Alien Property Custodian took over and ordered the sale of the stock to Americans. Today it is what its name implies—an American company.

From the ooze where John Searles first camped to hunt grizzly bears, is being taken more than 100 commercial products and every day of your life you use one or more of them if you eat, bathe, or wear clothes, brush your teeth or deal with druggist, grocer, dentist or doctor.

Fearing exhaustion of the visible supply (the ooze is 70 feet deep) 34tests were made in 1917 to determine what was below. Result, supply one century; value two billion dollars.

Here are a few things containing the product of the ooze. Fertilizer for your flowers, orchards, and fields. Baking soda, dyes, lubricating oils, paper. Ethyl gasoline, porcelain, medicines, fumigants, leathers, solvents, cosmetics, textiles, ceramics, chemical and pharmaceutical preparations.

About 1300 tons of these products are shipped out every day over a company-owned railroad and transshipped at Searles’ Station over the Southern Pacific, to go finally in one form or another into every home in America and most of those in the entire world.

The weird valley meanders southward from the lake through blown-up mountains gorgeously colored and grimly defiant—a trip to thrill the lover of the wild and rugged.

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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These items are historical in scope and are intended for educational purposes only; they are not meant as an aid for travel planning.
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