The Historical Mining Towns of the Eastern Mojave Desert
By the late 1880s, discoveries were being made throughout the eastern Mojave Desert. Among the most promising places were the Montgomery and Yellow Pine districts. In the Yellow Pine district, about 40 miles north of the New York Mountains, Samuel S. Godbe was opening up a silver-lead deposit.
Isaac G. Blake, a mining magnate in Denver, was especially interested in the Sagamore Mine, a deposit of lead, silver, copper, and zinc in the New York Mountains, just inside California. He also liked the potential of the Yellow Pine Mining District, which contained veins of silver, lead, and gold. In December of 1892, Blake began work on a branch line from Goffs: the Nevada Southern Railway. (Goffs would be renamed Blake in 1894.) Most of the route passed over a gently sloping plain. In late February, 1893, the grade reached the foot of the New York Mountains, 25 miles north of Goffs.
A construction camp named Purdy, after Warren G. Purdy, one of Blake’s partners, was built there. A post office opened in late April, 1893. It was named after Allen Manvel, the late president of the Santa Fé Railway. Several businesses (probably housed in tents) opened about May. In early September, C. K. Dixon received a license to operate a saloon there.
A camp also arose at the Sagamore, where 80 men worked in early 1893. E. H. Leibey kept a grocery store there. H. Ramsey moved his business from Providence to the Sagamore, where, in early September, he received a liquor license, probably for a store. Leibey soon moved.
The onset of a long depression forced the Nevada Southern to halt most work in June of 1893, but the construction of a grade over the New York Mountains continued. About five miles beyond Purdy, the railroad founded another camp. It was named Summit, which stood on a juniper-covered mesa at 4,800 feet. In early June, the county supervisors granted licenses for two saloons; Virgil W. Earp owned one of them. Scheduled trains began running there about August, when the businesses of Purdy were moved to Summit. The camp supported one store, owned by R. J. Halsey. In early October, the Manvel post office, which had been suspended for two weeks, was re-established at Summit; the postmaster was E. H. Leibey, who had moved his business from the Sagamore.
Manvel served as the nearest railhead for several widely scattered mining camps, including Vanderbilt, Goodsprings, Crescent, and Montgomery. A shipment to the Montgomery mines, 125 miles northwest, for example, totaled 25 tons. The trade increased in the late 1890s, when the Copper World Mine was opened up and gold was discovered 20 miles to the east, at what became Searchlight, Nevada. By early 1898, Manvel supported a flour, grain, and lumber dealer, a general store, a hotel, a blacksmith, the post office, and a stage line running to Montgomery. A school district was organized in January, 1900. In early 1902, the Nevada Southern completed a 15-mile extension into the Ivanpah Valley, to serve as the shipping point for the Copper World Mine. The railhead was named Ivanpah. (Several months later, the Santa Fé Railway bought the Nevada Southern and renamed it the California Eastern Railway.) At Searchlight, meanwhile, the production steadily increased.
As the main shipping point for Searchlight, Manvel was busy. The town contained a depot and telegraph office, a freight-forwarding house, and an agency of Wells, Fargo & Company. The increased business at the post office made it eligible to sell money orders. The Brown-Gosney Company’s store transacted several thousand dollars worth of business a day. T. A. Brown, the co-founder of the store, organized a telephone system; started several freight lines and a stage line; and opened branches in several nearby camps and towns. (To prevent confusion with a town in Texas, Manvel was renamed Barnwell in early 1907.)
As long as Manvel remained the only railhead in that region, its importance remained secure. But in early 1902, the railroad extended its line into the Ivanpah Valley, where it established a shipping point for the Copper World Mine. Then, in early 1905, the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad was completed. The line passed only 20 miles from Searchlight and 15 miles from the Copper World Mine. The management of the Santa Fé opposed building lines into mining districts. But in early 1907, the company finally completed a 23-mile extension to Searchlight: the Barnwell & Searchlight Railway, just as Searchlight’s production plunged. A depression followed in October. In Manvel, blue pieces of scrip were introduced as money; families began to drift away. Several miles away, in the Castle Mountains, Hart boomed in early 1908, but the shipping point was established at Hitt, a siding and freight house on the Barnwell & Searchlight. That September, a fire destroyed most of Barnwell’s business district, including the depot and the Brown-Gosney Company’s store. The company, which had moved its headquarters to Searchlight, closed its store in Barnwell in February, 1910. Another fire followed, in May. The production at Searchlight fell to $23,000 in 1911. T. A. Brown moved his family away in 1912. The railroad closed its agency in 1914; the post office was discontinued in April, 1915; and the school district was abolished about 1918. All train service was discontinued in late 1923, and the rails were torn up.
During the 1890s, as the price of silver was allowed to decline, gold became the preferred metal. In January, 1891, an Indian named Robert Black struck gold ore in the New York Mountains, about 40 miles north of Goffs, on the Santa Fé Railway. An assay made at Providence yielded considerable gold. To protect his interests, Black brought in a trusted rancher, M. M. Beatty, the namesake of the town near Death Valley, to file a claim. Two mining men from Providence, Richard C. Hall and Samuel King, then hurried in and located several veins, which became the Gold Bronze Mine. Two other miners from Providence, Joseph P. Taggart and James H. Patton, joined Hall and King in June of 1891. The four men sank several shafts and took out a few tons of rich gold and silver ore. A camp soon arose at Vanderbilt Spring, in a cove-like gully in the side of a hill. Within a short walk were copious springs and abundant piñons, which made excellent fuel.
A strike made by Taggart in the fall of 1892 finally set off a rush. Allan G. Campbell, a Salt Lake City investor, joined Beatty in developing the Boomerang property; they even sank a 100-foot shaft. Two former lords of the Comstock lode, John L. Mackay and J. L. Flood, studied other nearby properties. By January of 1893, 150 people were living at Vanderbilt camp, which contained 50 tents, two stores, one saloon (unlicensed), three restaurants, a lodging house, a blacksmith shop, and a stable. A stage arrived three times a week from Goffs. A post office was established in February, 1893, although at first, all the businesses except one were housed in tents. In May, the county supervisors appointed W. A. Nash justice of the peace, which also made him a deputy coroner, and granted four liquor licenses. When rail service to Manvel began about August, a stage brought passengers the remaining five miles to Vanderbilt. Meanwhile, Nash established a weekly newspaper, the Nugget, although it lasted only two or three issues. Then, in early December, Ben C. Jordan, a young correspondent for the Los Angeles Evening Express, began issuing a weekly newspaper, the Shaft. The county supervisors established a voting precinct in January of 1894 and belatedly organized a school district in April.
With an estimated population of 400, Vanderbilt probably reached its peak in 1894. The business district contained three saloons, including one owned by Virgil Earp; two barbers; a Chinese restaurant and two other eating houses; two meat markets; a stationery and fruit store; one lodging house; two blacksmiths; and three well-stocked general stores. William McFarlane, one of the pioneers of Ivanpah, owned an interest in one of them, in which he ran the post office, and owned a drugstore, which Dr. E. A. Tuttle managed.
Ten-stamp mills started up at the Gold Bronze and Boomerang mines in March of 1894. The mills used a design from Gilpin County, Colorado, where 1,850-pound stamps would laboriously drop from 25 to 30 times a minute to crush the typically undecomposed granite of the Rocky Mountains. The owners, after all, owned properties in Colorado and Utah. The typical mills in California, however, were designed to crush decomposed rock, using 850-pound stamps, which rose and fell 60 times a minute. (At Ibex Tank, 20 miles west of Needles, a well was sunk and a 10-stamp mill started up in May, 1894. It had a short-lived post office, named Klinefelter.)
As the mines were pushed deeper, accidents became a problem. The first death occurred when a young miner was blown up by a powder explosion in the Boomerang, in May, 1894. He was buried that afternoon. The next month, a miner fell down a shaft in the Gold Bronze after his candle was blown out. All of the mines and businesses closed during the afternoon of the funeral.
The end of 1894, when about 100 men were working at the mines, marked the end of the boom. The Gold Bronze produced $47,000 during its first two years. Its shaft eventually reached 260 feet. The shaft of the Boomerang, which reached nearly 500 feet, once employed 50 men. The St. George group employed only 14 hands.
Even then, shortages of water, parts, or ore forced the mills to shut down often. Finally, in May, 1895, one mill was converted to the California-style batteries. Even so, the Gold Bronze company was placed in receivership in June. Allen Campbell still employed a large force at the St. George group of mines, from which he laid a pipeline to the Boomerang’s mill. But the line failed to provide enough water.
All of the mining companies except the Boomerang began to lease their properties to small, independent miners, such as Frank Williams, a young man from Kansas. The mill of the Gold Bronze lost so much gold—perhaps as much as 20%—that Williams and other small-time miners considered suing. Williams considered the operators of the Klinefelter Mill “mere robbers,” who paid him just enough to cover the costs of milling and freighting. When Williams sent a load of ore to the Boomerang mill, it lost at least $9 a ton in gold. Even after Allen Campbell managed to obtain enough water to mill custom ore, his plant remained in such poor condition that Williams barely made a profit. Finally, in the summer of 1895, a milling there brought Williams and his brother $600, enough to pay off all his debts and enable him to visit his parents.
Signs of decline in the town had appeared early. One merchant closed his store in July of 1894 and moved his stock to Needles. Jordan suspended the Shaft a month later. Several months later, another store closed, and Virgil Earp sold out. The Nevada Southern, which had been placed in receivership, stopped work on its grade to Vanderbilt in 1895. Businesses continued to close throughout the year. The school lost most of its students in 1898, when the district was abolished. The post office was discontinued in March, 1900.
The fall of 1907 was a poor time for mining. A short but severe depression began in October. Banks and mining company were especially hard it.
It remained for three prospectors from Goldfield—James Hart and the brothers Bert and Clark Hitt—to recognize the possibilities of a rhyolite formation that resembled the gold-bearing outcrops of western Nevada. The Castle Mountains, the trio found pockets of rich ore and located several abandoned claims in late December of 1907. Their claims became the Oro Belle and Big Chief mines. Tipped off by the discoverers, George A. Foster, a young broker in Goldfield, snapped up a group of claims and laid out a townsite in a basin below the properties. He named the site Hart. (A siding and freight house on the Barnwell & Searchlight Railroad, about four miles north, would soon be named Hitt.)
In early January of 1908, the district began to boom. Two stores in nearby Searchlight opened branches in Hart; telephone lines were strung to Barnwell; J. B. Flanagan, the publisher of the Searchlight News, began issuing a small, four-page weekly, the Hart Enterprise (although he waited several months before moving the plant); a townsite was surveyed; and a four-mile pipeline from Malapais Springs were completed. A post office opened in late April. By July, Hart had an estimated population of 400. The business district embraced two hotels (both of them two stories), a rooming house, two general stores, one bookstore, a real-estate office, a candy store, two lumberyards, a combination bakery and restaurant, and eight saloons. Among the utilities were the water line, the post office, telephone and telegraph service, and stage and auto lines to Searchlight and Hitt.
But Hart boomed too fast. Claim-jumping and swindling had become common as early as January. In February, three men from Searchlight sued the Foster brothers over the validity of their claims. In response, some of the leading citizens organized a Business Men’s League, which limited the sale of liquor and enforced police and fire regulations. The league’s law-and-order committee discouraged gamblers, toughs, and wildcat promoters from moving into the camp. Finally, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors organized a judicial district in early March and appointed a justice of the peace and a constable. The supervisors then granted nine liquor licenses, created a voting precinct, and, in early April, approved an official townsite.
Milling, however, became a problem. In May, 1908, Hart, the Hitt brother, and Foster shipped in a 10-stamp mill from Goldfield and erected it near the Big Chief Mine. But the heavy machinery shook apart the foundation, which had been poorly laid. The mill had to be modified and didn’t start up again until November. A Searchlight mill ended up processing most of Hart’s best ore.
The leading mines, however, were better developed. The Oro Belle, owned by James Foster and the Hitt brothers, had a 1,000-foot tunnel and a 200-foot shaft. The shaft at the Big Chief, owned by George Foster, extended several hundred feet. Several others, including Harry S. McCallum, who headed the Business Men’s League, owned the Hart Consolidated. The mine owners, however, granted many leases, which accounted for much of the production.
A local of the Western Federation of Miners was organized in early 1908; by July, it numbered 44 members. During the most productive years, laborers and surface workers received $4 a day, underground workers $4.50, and carpenters $6—comfortable wages for the time.
The district began to decline in 1909; the veins at the Big Chief and Oro Belle remained narrow and broken. In November, 1909, Flanagan suspended the Enterprise. Only 40 people remained by early 1910. In January of 1911, a fire destroyed half of the town—mostly vacant buildings. A month after the fire, one merchant restocked and moved his store into a vacant building. Later that year, W. B. Andrews, the manager of the Oro Belle, tried to drill a well, lay a water line, and build a tube mill, which was designed to recover 96% of the gold and silver in the ore. Andrews completed the pipeline, but nothing else materialized. After intermittent production, both the Oro Belle and Big Chief shut down in 1913, and the union local was disbanded. A company in Tonopah, Nevada, worked the Oro Belle for a while, but that was the last hurrah. The post office closed in December of 1915. Up to early 1919, the mill, three furnished saloons, hotels, restaurants, laundry, the office of the Enterprise, and many houses still stood.
Small-scale mining began in the Vontrigger Hills during the 1890s, but larger operations appeared after 1904. One operator, the Pentagon Mining Company, founded a camp about six miles north of Blake (Goffs); it comprised an assay office, bunkhouse, and shafthouse. Nine miles north of Blake was the California Mine. Its owner was Albert H. Cram, a prominent mining-stock promoter in Riverside.
Cram’s promotional activities were somewhat dubious, but he carried out a great deal of development. Organizing the California Gold & Copper Company, Cram sank three deep shafts and installed modern equipment. By the summer of 1906, Cram had 25 men at work. In 1907, he built a large camp, which contained a barn, a well-stocked store, and a reservoir, and laid a nine-mile pipeline to Hackberry Springs. By then, about 40 men were employed. In October, Cram began work on a leaching plant, which turned out 5,400 pounds of copper in 1907.
By June, 1909, the camp had grown to 20 buildings, including the store, a boardinghouse, a rooming house, and cabins. The main shaft had reached 317 feet, and 17,000 gallons of water a day were flowing through the pipeline. Cram also developed an “electro-chemical” system that, he said, could extract gold and copper from the ore. The equipment was housed in a 96x100-foot building.
In 1911, Cram kicked off his final promotional campaign. The electrochemical plant, he claimed, was leaching out copper ore “on a commercial scale.” A fully equipped roller mill, with cyanide tanks, started up about June. Cram visited Goldfield, Nevada, several times to buy additional equipment. In fact, he produced 4,000 pounds of copper that year. The operation probably shut down after 1911.
Meanwhile, a settlement arose two miles away, at Vontrigger, a siding on the California Easter Railway. A post office was established there in May, 1907. In late 1908, Vontrigger consisted of a water tank, a loading platform, and a combination store, post office, and restaurant. A monument made of copper ore greeted travelers. The post office closed in October, 1913. All that remained in 1917 was the side track.
Another camp, also called Vontrigger, grew up at the Getchell Mine, several miles to the west, in the Hackberry Mountains. By May, 1925, the camp contained a store, restaurant, cold-drink resort, and 30 tents, and others were rising “every other day.” A 30-room hotel was reportedly under construction. The work probably was suspended about then.
Index to "The Historical Mining Towns of the Eastern Mojave Desert"