Men in search of quick fortunes began drifting into Death Valley after the Civil War, hoping to find a lucky strike of gold or silver. In 1881, one such prospector, Aaron Winters, was living with his wife, Rosie, at Ash Meadows, a desolate place near the Funeral Mountain, on the east side of Death Valley.
According to one visitor, the Winters lived in a hovel, “close against a hill, one side half-hewn out of rock, with a thatched roof. The earth served as a floor.”
That visitor was Harry Spiller, who had come riding down from Nevada, looking for a mineral that men were cashing in on big there. “It lays in dry lake bottoms,” he told Winters, “white crystals like cottonball turned into mineral. They call it borax. Big demand for it.”
Spiller indicated that a fortune could be made by anyone lucky enough to find borax beds in Death Valley. Winters questioned the visitor. He learned that when sulphuric acid and alcohol are poured over borax and ignited, the mixture burns with a green flame.
After Spiller left, Winters obtained the chemicals he needed to make the test. He was certain he had seen deposits in Death Valley resembling Spiller’s description of borax. Making camp at Furnace Creek in Death Valley, Winters and his wife went to a nearby marsh and gathered up some deposits.
They then waited for nightfall to make the test. As darkness closed in, Winters placed some of the deposits in a saucer, poured sulphuric acid and alcohol over them and struck a match. It was an anxious moment. For years, the couple had lived like desert Indians, eating mesquite beans and lizards when they had no flour and bacon. Rosie had suffered keenly from the desperation of their situation. Now, in a moment, the color of a flame would tell them whether they could look forward to better things, or only more of the same dreary existence.
A Borax Strike
With trembling hand, Winters held the match to the mixture. “She burns green, Rosie!” he bellowed. “By God, we’re rich!”
Winters sent samples of the material to the William T. Coleman Company in San Francisco. He then quietly filed claims to the water rights at Furnace Creek. A canny fellow, Winters knew that a borax plant couldn’t operate without water.
A Coleman representative soon arrived at Furnace Creek. Winters haggled until he had secured the promise of a check for $20,000 for discovery rights, to be paid immediately after he had shown the Coleman representative where the deposit was located.
The representative may not have been entirely happy when he found out that the borax was located in the middle of nowhere; nevertheless, he handed over a check and began staking claims. Then he discovered that Winters owned the water rights. The Coleman representative had no choice but to reluctantly hand over another check, for $2,500, to secure those rights as well.
With his newfound wealth, Winters treated Rosie to a shopping spree in San Francisco, before settling down with her on a desert ranch outside Pahrump, Nevada, which he had purchased for $20,000.
Rosie bought new dresses and other comforts, but she did not have long to enjoy her newfound luxuries. In 1887, Aaron Winters, owing back taxes, lost all but a small part of the ranch. However, he remained a part of the Death Valley borax story.
Death Valley, with a brutal environment, has been the scene of many tales. Located only 80 miles east of 14,500-foot high Mount Whitney, Death Valley, at a place called “Badwater,” holds title to the lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere – 282 feet below sea level. Death Valley experiences ground temperatures as high as 190 degrees Fahrenheit. Indians called the place Tomesha – “ground afire.” It consistently ranks among the hottest places on earth.
In 1849, William Lewis Manly was accompanying a group of prospectors who wandered into the valley on their way to the Sierra Nevada gold fields. They began to suffer in the Death Valley heat. While others stayed behind, Manly continued on, eventually reached Los Angeles, and, after being gone for 26 days, returned with food and water. When what was left of the group finally left the torrid area, one survivor looked back a final time and exclaimed, according to Manly, “Goodbye, Death Valley.” The name has endured to this day.
Borax, A Valuable Mineral
The value of borax has been known since ancient times. Explorer Marco Polo brought borax back with him from Mongolia, where it had been10 Mule Team Borax used for centuries in the manufacture of stain-resistant porcelain glazes. In modern times, the versatile mineral has been used in the preparation of medicated bandages, antiseptic solutions, cosmetics and enamel. It has traditionally been prized as a cleansing agent. It is used in the coatings of playing cards and most glazed papers. Although Death Valley was reputed to contain every mineral that made California famous (gold, silver, copper and lead), it was the unromantic borax that propelled the valley into prominence.
Borax’s history in Death Valley goes back seven million years, to a time when volcanic activity and flash flooding hammered the land surface. Heavy rains washed large volumes of mud and silt into lakes, forming thick siltstone beds. Volcanic eruptions blew ash into the lakes; these, too, formed layers on the lake bottom. The ash deposits contained boron, a principal element in borate crystals. Ash deposits continued to build up. Over time, evaporation concentrated what had been lakes into a salty solution from which Death Valley’s borate deposits crystallized.
Aaron Winters wasn’t the first person to find borax in Death Valley. A Frenchman named Isadore Daunet beat him to it by six years. Born in the Pyrenees in 1850, Daunet came to San Francisco with his family at age 10. Soon thereafter, he ran away and roamed the West for years, with little to show for it until the summer of 1875, when he wandered into Death Valley. Daunet had left Panamint City, California, with five friends to search for a mine in Arizona, taking a shortcut through Death Valley’s southern tip. That was a mistake. They soon exhausted their water supply.
Daunet and another man set out to try and find help. In time, they met some Indians, who agreed to go back and rescue the men who had stayed behind. Two of Daunet’s party had already died when the Indians arrived at camp. Daunet and his companion pressed on to the town of Darwin, some 30 miles from Panamint City. There, Daunet found no one interested in some strange white crystals he had picked up in Death Valley.
Years later, hearing of Winters’ sale of a borax deposit to the William T. Coleman Company, Daunet remembered that he had picked up something similar near the place where two of his friends had died. Daunet persuaded Gilbert Clemmons, a San Francisco broker, and Myron Harmon, a Darwin storekeeper, to join him in investigating the deposit.
Satisfied that the Death Valley deposit was indeed borax, the men established title to a half section of mineralized land, 22 miles south of Aaron Winters’ find. They founded the Eagle Borax Company, an enterprise entirely independent of the Coleman operation. They hauled a boiling pan and crystallizing tanks in over the mountains. They hired 50 men to gather borax from the desert floor. They began production in the autumn of 1882.
Unfortunately, the men knew little about refining borax. Their first shipment was impure and brought only eight cents a pound – about the cost of production. Moreover, as hotter weather arrived, Daunet discovered that the tanks would not cool enough for borax to crystallize efficiently. That forced him to close down for the summer.
The purity of the end product improved somewhat during the second season, and Eagle began making a little money. Daunet celebrated by marrying a French Canadian divorcée – Clotilde Garraul – in San Francisco. She made it clear from the start that she would not rough it by living in Death Valley.
After the wedding, Daunet returned to his borax operation. He spent a second summer with Clotilde, but when he next returned to San Francisco, a process server greeted him. Learning that his financial situation was bleak, Clotilde had filed for divorce. Convinced there was nothing to live for, Daunet killed himself. The Eagle operation eventually passed to Coleman.