National Geographic : 1970 Jan
National Geographic, January 1970 "These people found a Death Valley quite different from the one you see today," Mrs. Clements continued. "There were trees on the hills, and shrubs and willows grew by the lake. There were mastodons, deer, camels, and a cat bigger than the mountain lion." The drying of lake and climate doomed the plentiful animal life that supported man, but not resilient man himself. Numerous petro glyphs on canyon walls and strange circles of rocks on promontories attest to human pres ence into the time of recorded history. The first pioneers found a small but re sourceful Shoshohe tribe called Panamint. In winter the mesquite trees of the valley pro vided beans, flour, and fuel for their fires. In summer they fled the scorching valley, for which their word was Tomesha, or Ground Afire, and harvested the nutlike seeds of the pifion pine high in the Panamint Range. The Indians achieved a balance with na ture, but it was a balance too delicate to with stand the arrival of the white man. Today only a couple of families-fewer than thirty Indians-remain in a compound of adobe houses near Furnace Creek. On the porch of one of these I met Mrs. Grace Watterson, a Shoshone who works at Furnace Creek Inn. She was plaiting willows into a sturdy basket. "This is my first one," she said. A few of the younger Indians are learning basket-weaving, a tribal art now known only to a few grandmothers. I asked Mrs. Watterson if I might talk to some of the older people about earlier days. "Don't bother," she replied. "The old ones do not want to talk about those times. They say all their troubles and sickness began with the coming of the white man. Besides, the white men never tell our stories right. They make some of them up." Riches Underfoot Go Unnoticed Of course Death Valley gave the 19th century white men their share of troubles, too. Ironically, in their haste to escape this infernal place, some of the forty-niners un knowingly scuffed through dusty white de posits that could have made them rich. Since ancient times man has used borax in pottery glazes and fluxes. In 1881 large beds of a type called "cottonball" were recognized in Death Valley, a development that was to give the area its most famous symbol of adventure the 20-mule team. Our sons David, Steve, and John stood in some awe of the huge wagons these teams hauled. You can see the originals in a museum at Furnace Creek Ranch. Rear wheels stand seven feet high, and 16-foot-long beds each held 24,000 pounds of borax. Each team pulled two wagons, plus a 1,200-gallon water wagon -3 61/2 tons in all! The 120-foot-long mule trains rumbled through desert and canyon to the railhead at Mojave, 165 arid miles away. From 1883 to 1889, the mule trains rolled through heat and sandstorm, summer and winter, until richer discoveries in the moun tains ended borax mining in the valley. Into the Desert for a Crucial Test At the Harmony Borax Works, about two miles north of Furnace Creek, we saw crum bling adobe walls and rusty hulks of boilers. Here the cottonball was scraped from dry lake beds, and refined borax was loaded into the great wagons. "Is this where Aaron Winters made his dis covery?" asked Steve, 12. We had talked about the prospector whose consistently bad luck suddenly turned good. "It must have been close by," I said. Winters had heard that borax was in de mand, and a description of the mineral re minded him of a substance he had seen in Death Valley. With his wife Rosie, who shared his hard life in the desert, he journeyed to the place he remembered, equipped with chemi cals for a test. Kneeling, he poured alcohol and sulphuric acid on the white powder, then set it ablaze. "She burns green, Rosie," he cried. "We're rich!" The uses of versatile borax have since ex panded into a dazzling list: soaps, sizings, starches, adhesives, antifreeze, hydraulic flu ids, fertilizers, face creams and lotions, mouth and eye washes, weed killers, flameproofing Tree surgeon in a palm forest, Salvador Padilla Ramirez swings 40 feet up to prune the giants at Furnace Creek. Until three years ago, the dates sold commercially-as many as 300,000 pounds from the 1,600 trees. But rising labor costs have cut harvesting to only 20 trees; much of the fruit is used to make the Furnace Creek Inn's famed date nut bread. Profitable cultivation requires hand pollenation. KODACHROME © N.G.S.