Member
Your donation supports our high-quality, inspiring and commercial-free programming.
Support Icon
Discover all the ways you can make a difference.
Support Icon
The Leadership, Advancement, Membership and Special Events teams are here to help.

Desert Gold: Part I

The Yellow Aster Mine in Randsburg, CA | Kim Stringfellow. January 2019
Support Provided By

The Mojave Project is an experimental transmedia documentary and curatorial project led by Kim Stringfellow exploring the physical, geological and cultural landscape of the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Project reconsiders and establishes multiple ways in which to interpret this unique and complex landscape, through association and connection of seemingly unrelated sites, themes, and subjects thus creating a speculative and immersive experience for our audience.

Gold is elusive stuff. In fact, so elusive that its earthly genesis has remained a mystery until August 2017 when astrophysicists officially determined what many had already theorized: Gold forms in our universe during the aftermath of neutron star collisions. Within the atomic furnace of these rare events, heavy r-process” elements are forged, including gold and platinum, from highly condensed matter weighing in at 10 million tons per teaspoon. R-elements are produced within seconds during a neutron star’s final death throes only to be cast into the cosmos along with dust and gas that is later reassembled within the core and mantle of planets such as ours. Without question, this process is extremely infrequent, extraordinary and magical.

With all the pandemonium gold has caused over the ages it may come as a surprise that this celebrated metallic element is sought primarily for vanity and greed — about half the gold mined, both historically and presently, is fashioned into jewelry; 40 percent is hoarded for wealth; with the remaining ten percent used for industrial purposes[i]. It has been estimated that 166,000 metric tons have been mined throughout human history. Today, the largest consumer of gold is India. The golden bridal dowry — a practice outlawed in the country since 1961 — continues to be mandatory for traditional weddings. Regardless, the United States remains the world’s largest holder of gold reserves.

Several miners toiling 125 ft below in what is believed to be the Bagdad Mine in Ludlow, CA. | Charles C. Pierce, ca. 1900. Courtesy of USC Libraries and California Historical Society.
Several miners toiling 125 ft below in what is believed to be the Bagdad Mine in Ludlow, CA. | Charles C. Pierce, ca. 1900. Courtesy of USC Libraries and California Historical Society.

Discovery and attainment of gold is inextricably tied to western expansion of the American West — most significantly within California — which lists gold (Au) as its official state mineral. Hence, California’s relationship with gold is both complicated and intimate. Nevada and Arizona have additionally had their share of bedeviled bouts with the stuff although the Silver State is more famous for its Comstock Lode.

Exploration of the Mojave Desert was directly driven by the desire to locate gold — the Spanish began actively mining gold in Alta California as early as 1775 at the Potholes near Yuma, Arizona. After Mexican Independence in 1821, location and extraction of gold remained a priority, but it was gold’s “rediscovery” on January 24, 1848 at Sutter’s Mill that would impel some 300,000 individuals over the next five years to heedlessly travel over land and sea — driven by their heady dreams of “striking it rich.” One infamous group of intransigent, ill-fated immigrants would endure crossing the harsh desert homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone during their 1849 quest to obtain gold further west. Little did they know that the surrounding desert — now known as Death Valley — would eventually host its own roster of gold-driven booms and busts.

"Wanderers of the Wastelands" vintage postcard of an unknown prospector and his burros. | Courtesy of Orange County Archives.
"Wanderers of the Wastelands" vintage postcard of an unknown prospector and his burros. | Courtesy of Orange County Archives.

Those hell-bent in their pursuit of gold would bring about enduring cultural transformations and irreversible environmental legacies within the state of California and other western states. For a lucky few, procurement of gold provided prosperity and the possibility of reinvention. California’s former librarian Dr. Kevin Starr stated, “The discovery of gold and the Gold Rush of 1849 are internationally-recognized events that changed the course of history. Not only did the Gold Rush give California its strong economic foundation, it created unprecedented cultural diversity as people from all corners of the world came in search of fortune. Then, as now, California represented enchantment, diversity, innovation and leadership to the rest of the world.” From the mid-19th-century through the 1970s, California would produce over a million ounces of gold representing 35 percent of all gold produced during this span in the U.S[ii].

Four men at the Pitaluma Mine with the Yellow Aster and Rand Gulch in the background. | C. W. Tucker in 1897. California State Library collection.
Four men at the Pitaluma Mine with the Yellow Aster and Rand Gulch in the background. | C. W. Tucker in 1897. California State Library collection.

The earliest recorded discovery of gold in the Mojave Desert region by non-Indigenous people occurred during the mid-1820s at Rio Salitroso (or Salt Spring) along the Spanish Trail, just south of the Dumont Dunes, near the southern end of Death Valley[iii]. Mexican horse traders, along with their nemesis, the horse-thieving Las Chaguanosos — were said to have first panned for gold here while moving stock to and from southern California and Santa Fe, New Mexico[iv]. Towards the end of the 1850s, as Sierra Nevada’s easy placer pickings (gold nuggets accessible in sand, gravel or on the land’s surface) began to dwindle, exploratory parties of determinedly-driven souls traveled east and southward into the state’s arid nether regions lured by the purported legendary riches of the Gunsight, Breyfogle, Pegleg and other mythical “lost” mines.

Photograph of an unknown miner at his stone dugout near Randsburg, CA, ca. 1900 -1920. | Courtesy of USC Libraries and California Historical Society.
Photograph of an unknown miner at his stone dugout near Randsburg, CA, ca. 1900 -1920. | Courtesy of USC Libraries and California Historical Society.

Gold would be sought and located throughout the Mojave Desert with most of the major discoveries occurring during the sixty-year period after the original Mother Lode strike was discovered in 1848. The earliest desert prospectors and miners would toil alone or together in small groups at remote, hardscrabble camps, relying primarily on dry wash methods aided by pickaxe, shovel, sledgehammer, rocker, riffle box and a handcranked windlass in their effort to glean riches from rubble.

Four men at the Hard Cash Mine in Randsburg, CA photographed by Charles C. Pierce, ca. 1900. The man at the right is working a windlass. | Courtesy of USC Libraries and California Historical Society.
Four men at the Hard Cash Mine in Randsburg, CA photographed by Charles C. Pierce, ca. 1900. The man at the right is working a windlass. | Courtesy of USC Libraries and California Historical Society.

Once located, gold-bearing ore could be primitively milled on site using a burro- or mule-drawn arrastra or later, with a small, steam-powered stamp mill. When available, mercury sourced from cinnabar was used to “attract” and dissolve the gold creating a crude, gray alloy or amalgam[v]. The gold that was then recovered by heating the amalgam at a high temperature in a retort, furnace or even a shovel over an open fire until the mercury vaporized thus resulting in a “sponge of gold” that would be further processed to form bars for transport. Large-scale smelting was fueled with locally collected wood and charcoal, which was produced in beautifully constructed stone beehive-shaped kilns such as those found at Wildrose Canyon in the Panamint Range. Some forested areas in higher desert elevations were so completely exploited for this purpose, along with mine timbering and other construction, that some of these areas have, to this day, remained treeless.

Randsburg’s Yellow Aster 100-stamp mill worked 24/7 crushing ore which is shown here spilling down onto mercury-coated plates in the lower left corner of the image. | Charles C. Pierce, ca. 1900. Image courtesy of Huntington Library Collection.
Randsburg’s Yellow Aster 100-stamp mill worked 24/7 crushing ore which is shown here spilling down onto mercury-coated plates in the lower left corner of the image. | Charles C. Pierce, ca. 1900. Image courtesy of Huntington Library Collection.

By the end of the 19th century, large mechanized stamp mill operations with 100 stamps or more would work around the clock pulverizing ore. The finely rendered material was washed down onto mercury-coated copper plates that bonded with the gold as it passed over but could only recover about 60 percent of the metal. The plates were then roasted thus releasing the gold. Although the cyanidation process would begin to replace the use of toxic mercury for gold recovery during the 1890s, the amalgamation method remained in continual use through the 1960s when it was banned for such purposes through the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act[vi][vii].

Other technological innovations would shift placer and hard rock or underground mining from a largely individualized pursuit to a heavily capitalized and corporatized industry. Dynamite, developed by Alfred Nobel, would replace black powder for blasting and come into widespread use by the 1890s. Compressed air for driving tools and machinery, along with carbide lamps, powered hoists, tramways and the invention of the pneumatic drill or “widow maker” (due to the copious amounts of silica-laden dust the drill produced) were some of the many inventions that industrialized mining practices over the mid- to late 19th-century.

With the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1883 — along with subsequent railway lines connecting major extraction shipping hubs of Mojave, Barstow and Needles — formerly “inhospitable” desert regions were now open for transport of people, supplies and raw materials thus allowing larger, more technically efficient, mining operations to proliferate along with the settlements that supported them.

Even with this improved access, most of the Mojave’s mining camps were short-lived, episodic at best with the majority left abandoned within a historical heartbeat. The biggest threats to these burgeoning boomtowns were the many capricious prospectors, miners and capitalists — opportunists ready to bail ship at the drop of a hat after news of a spectacular claim had been staked elsewhere. Over time, this scenario would play out in Ballarat, Calico, Cerro Gordo, Chloride, Dale, Darwin, Goldfield, Harrisburg, Hart, Hornsilver, Lida, Oatman, Panamint City, Rhyolite, Skidoo, Searchlight, Tonopah, Tule Canyon, Vanderbuilt and many other camps.

A wintery view of Randsburg, CA, photographed by Charles C. Pierce, ca. 1900. | Courtesy of Huntington Library Collection.
A wintery view of Randsburg, CA, photographed by Charles C. Pierce, ca. 1900. | Courtesy of Huntington Library Collection.
Randsburg, CA in January 2019 | Kim Stringfellow.
Randsburg, CA in January 2019 | Kim Stringfellow.

One mining camp to survive to this day, albeit transformed, is Randsburg, California, originally established in April 1895. The camp’s founders included Brooklyn journalist Frederick Mooers, who had ironically come out to this remote northwestern edge of the Mojave to write a story on dying mining camps but caught gold fever instead[viii], Charles Burcham, a butcher by trade and part-time prospector financed by his wife, Dr. Rose Burcham[ix], and John Singleton, a carpenter with little prospecting experience. Mooers had previously explored the area but it had yielded nothing worthwhile to mine. Still he had a hunch. Determined to revisit the region, he secured his aforementioned partners, supplies and equipment to properly prospect the area located in the soon-to-be-named Rand Mountains.

The greenhorn Singleton would be the first to stumble upon the protruding rock outcrop that sealed The Rand’s fate[x]. This “cabbage-sized” specimen was said to assay for $950 in Los Angeles — equivalent to about $28,000 in today’s dollars[xi]. Mooers, Burcham and Singleton kept their bonanza under wraps for nearly a year as they located, staked and recorded additional claims, including one that would become the Yellow Aster Mine, named after a pulp novel that would soon become the crown jewel of The Rand.

Once the word got out, all hell broke loose. A stampede ensued. People of all backgrounds and professions across the country stormed into the area. By October 1896, 800 claims had been filed and by February of 1897 the number had exploded to 4,300 although only 500 were officially recorded[xii]. Reports stated that by spring of 1897 over 5,000 newcomers had arrived, although no official census had been taken that year[xiii].

By 1898, at least fifty mines would be operational including the Baltic, Big Dyke, Butte Lode, Consolidated, Gold Coin, Hard Cash, Kenyon, King Solomon, Little Butte, Minnehaha, Monkey Wrench, Olympus, One-Two-Three, St. Elmo, Wedge, Yellow Aster and Yucca Tree among others. Ore was shipped and processed at the nearby Garlock mill until 1898 when most was then freighted to Barstow. The Yellow Aster’s owners would build their own 30-stamp mill in 1899 and, two years later, a 100-stamp mill thus processing ore on site.

Like many of the West’s bustling mining towns, Randsburg’s rapid growth was not exaggerated in the least. “Rag houses,” constructed of canvas and wood popped up overnight punctuating the scrubby hillsides. Although lumber was scarce, more permanent wooden buildings soon followed. With no time for remodeling, many of the existing structures’ canvas walls were entombed while business continued as usual. One enterprising hotel temporarily lodged its guests with no roof as it was being built. When the floor was laid, an unmovable boulder was simply blasted out in place — with no damage to the existing structure. Water was shipped twelve miles away from Garlock via private entrepreneurs. End users paid dearly for this convenience.

The Yellow Aster Saloon, Randsburg, CA, photographed by Charles C. Pierce, ca. 1900. | Courtesy of USC Libraries and California Historical Society.
The Yellow Aster Saloon, Randsburg, CA, photographed by Charles C. Pierce, ca. 1900. | Courtesy of USC Libraries and California Historical Society.

Rand, and later, Butte Avenues evolved into the central hubs of social life. By spring of 1897, fifty buildings had been erected including an opera house and twenty-four saloons with the Elite, Oriole, White Fawn and the Steam Beer Club considered to be the most exclusive of the lot. Along with the saloons and gambling dens came dance halls and brothels, providing income for the 250 “sporting women” known to frequent them. A handful of these ladies — Mexican Nell, Big Ella and French Marguerite — owned and operated their own establishments. Saloons and dance halls were required by law to be discreetly separated so ingenious proprietors built them as adjacent structures sometimes adding a walkway between them.

Lou V. Chapin, a gutsy female correspondent for the Los Angeles Times traveling alone on assignment vividly, and rather wickedly, describes The Rand’s nightlife at its decadent height in 1897.[xiv].

“A photographic view of one of the gambling halls would furnish a representation of the various types of the region. There is the rough miner just in from the outlying camp, dressed in blouse, overalls, and hob-nailed shoes, explaining with drunken gravity some “proposition” to one of his kind, who, equally maudlin, is talking at the same time, neither heeding what the other is saying. Tilted back on a chair against the wall is a prospector “down on his luck,” fast asleep under the combined influence of his potations and the heat of the stove. The mining expert, the capitalist, the tenderfoot all are here “picking up pointers,” and sprinkled about are the flotsam and jetsam of humanity that naturally drifts to a mining camp. Crowds of men stand about “talking ore” and interlarding their conversations with profanity. Half way down the hall a sodden-face boy saws away at a fiddle with the expression of a sleep-walker, and by his side a murderous-looking Mexican toys with a guitar. If they make any sound it is audible only a few feet away, so great is the general hubbub. At many of the tables professional gamblers, cool, calm and silent, handle the chips; and roulette, faro and every other known game of chance is in full swing. From its platform in the rear of the hall comes now and then the notes of a piano, played by a muscular, black-eyed woman with puffy eyelids and unnatural complexion, and then a bedizened creature, with a voice like a fish-wife’s, leers at her audience and sings some concert-hall ditty which they appreciate and greet with more or less enthusiastic applause. She comes down and moves among the men, drinking and exchanging ribald jests. The barkeeper, with his sleeves rolled up above his elbows, serves liquid refreshments, and day and night these places are never closed, although they are seen at their busiest from nightfall till daylight."

Chapin would go on to describe a barefooted and bearded wizard, who in all of his “sockless majesty,” divined for gold, silver, water, gas or oil for $20 down — equivalent to $500 in today’s dollars. The bellicose wizard insisted to Chapin how he had “located” fifty claims but none actually paid out as promised. When the author suggested that he’d be better off locating mines for his own benefit he declared, “his love for mankind so great that he would rather be its benefactor than the owner of the wealth.”

One of several fires that would ravage Randsburg, CA. Photographed by C.W. Tucker in 1898. | Courtesy of the Covina Historical Society.
One of several fires that would ravage Randsburg, CA. Photographed by C.W. Tucker in 1898. | Courtesy of the Covina Historical Society.

By the end of 1898, two major fires, occurring less than four months apart, destroyed Randsburg’s main business district along with the high life it sustained[xv]. Town conservatives insisted that establishments of ill repute were the root cause of the fires and grossly underplayed the fact that the region’s arid climate had dried the settlement’s wooden structures to mere kindling. Others, such as the Order of Citizens of Randsburg, posted flyers in November of 1898 claiming that, “All ex-convicts, masquereaus, disreputable loafers without visible means of support and bad characters are hereby ordered to leave Randsburg forthwith.” Paranoia ensued and more threats to publicly whip, or even lynch, those suspected of arson were posted. The fires turned out to be the least of the town fathers’ concerns. After considerable strikes of silver and gold were discovered at the turn of the century across the state line in Nevada, the once robust population of The Rand quickly dwindled.

The Yellow Aster Mine would continue to operate until 1942 when President Roosevelt executed Limitation Order L-208 banning the extraction of non-strategic metals including gold during World War II. Between 1895 and 1939, more than 3,400,000 tons of ore had been milled here yielding 500,000 ounces of gold[xvi]. The mine would remain dormant until the 1980s when contemporary heap leach extraction methods using cyanide became widely used for industrial scale gold mining. Nearby, Osdick (now named Red Mountain) and Atolia would later spawn profitable mines of silver and tungsten, essential for steel manufacturing during the 1940s, which kept the area actively mining over most of the 20th-century.

When Jim Butler discovered a spectacular strike on May 19, 1900, in a remote central Nevada location that would soon become Tonopah — hordes of miners, prospectors, speculators, capitalists, shopkeepers and other opportunists hurriedly set off for the Silver State, launching a migratory event the West had not witnessed since the discovery of the Comstock Lode in 1859. Tonopah technically lies just outside Mojave Desert’s geographical purview — being positioned within the Great Basin — but the mining camp, along with the city it begat remained an important mining hub of the region for most of the 20th-century.

Between 1901 and 1910, Tonopah would mature into a modernized, electrified city boasting a population between 5,000 and 10,000 people — many hailing from diverse ethnic backgrounds and countries of origin including African Americans, Native Americans, Chinese, Cornish, Italians and Slavs. Although peak ore production would peter out by 1920, Tonopah’s mines would continue to produce over the next forty years yielding a total gross between 1901 and 1941 of nearly $148 million[xvii] — even while the silica-laden “death dust” found to be so prevalent in Tonopah’s underground mines was causing miners to drop like flies from silicosis[xviii].

Just as Tonopah began to prosper, treasure seekers were busying themselves twenty-seven miles to the south where the Great Basin begins its transition into the northern Mojave Desert. At a dormant volcanic site punctuated with Joshua Trees largely ignored by earlier prospectors, news would begin to circulate about a monumental strike discovered here in December 1902 that would completely blindside Tonopah.

Although renowned Shoshone prospector Tom Fisherman deserves credit for the mine’s actual discovery — a handsome Tonopah roustabout named Harry Stimler (himself half Shoshone) along with his childhood friend and partner William Marsh — received the public acclaim for staking it[xix]. As it turns out, Stimler and Marsh, both in their early twenties, had discreetly followed Fisherman from Tonopah, during a sandstorm, to his camp where they would stake a number of claims at the same location that Fisherman had been working. There were rumors that the two men had strong-armed Fisherman into submission but it is more likely that familial ties between Stimler and Fisherman aided them in obtaining access[xx]. In any case, these claims would later prove extremely profitable. The duo had the nerve to name their first producing mine “Grandpa,” poking fun at the proud boosters of Tonopah[xxi].

Fisherman, considered by historian Sally Zanjani to be “the most gifted prospector Nevada ever produced, perhaps the finest in the West” would reap no great wealth from his numerous discoveries but managed to stay in the game by occasionally stringing along gullible greenhorns that he had lured into “grubstaking” or funding him — promising a portion or even half of the strike’s profit if he indeed discovered one. It should be noted this tactic was practiced by many disingenuous white prospectors as well, the most infamous being Death Valley Scotty a.k.a. Walter E. Scott, who peddled an elaborate promotional scam over the years that ultimately financed the construction and furnishings for his opulent Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley[xxii]. Stilmer and Marsh, themselves greenhorns and rather unskilled in the art of mining, had, in the end, let the fortune slip right through their hands.

Main Street of Goldfield, NV on September 18, 1908. | E.W. Smith. Courtesy of the Nevada Historical Society.
Main Street of Goldfield, NV on September 18, 1908. | E.W. Smith. Courtesy of the Nevada Historical Society.

Goldfield, like other antecedent gold strikes, would boom quickly yielding magnificent wealth. Within two short years, Goldfield would generate 30 percent of Nevada’s overall gold yield. To comprehend the immense value of Goldfield’s ore, consider that Tonopah’s silver to gold ratio was about 86 to 1. Compare that figure to Goldfield’s 3 to 1 gold to silver ratio[xxiii]. Indeed, Goldfield’s ore was so rich that it didn’t require milling so it was shipped directly to a smelter in Oakland, California without prior processing. But, like a short-lived evanescent Fourth of July sparkler, Goldfield shined ever so briefly. At its peak in 1906, the town had attracted some 18,000 to 20,000 individuals to its golden gates but by 1910, the head count would precipitously drop to 5,400 souls. During its brief run notable Western personalities would reside here, including Wyatt Earp and his doomed brother Virgil, who not long after arriving in 1905, caught pneumonia and succumbed after six months at age 62, during one of the deadly influenza epidemics that raged through the city from 1904 through 1907.

Fourth of July Celebration in Goldfield, Nevada, 1907 (photographer unknown). The Northern Saloon is seen in the center of the image. | Courtesy of University of Nevada, Reno, Special Collections.
Fourth of July Celebration in Goldfield, Nevada, 1907 (photographer unknown). The Northern Saloon is seen in the center of the image. | Courtesy of University of Nevada, Reno, Special Collections.
The Northern Saloon, Goldfield, NV (date unknown). | C.C. Goodwin. Courtesy of University of Nevada, Reno, Special Collections.
The Northern Saloon, Goldfield, NV (date unknown). | C.C. Goodwin. Courtesy of University of Nevada, Reno, Special Collections.

While Goldfield’s party lasted, culture, both modern and archaic, collided at this 20th-century crossroad. Under Main Street’s crisscrossed canopy of Edison incandescent bulbs, newly arrived automobiles and motorbikes markedly stood out against the backdrop of dusty packed burros and horse drawn wagons. Goldfield’s freshly-monied residents would flagrantly partake in a wanton subculture brimming with airs of sophistication and unbridled decadence. Bartenders of the Northern Saloon, one of forty-nine operating in 1907, served up 500 gallons of whiskey daily from their sixty-foot bar[xxiv]. Five hundred women were said to work at Goldfield’s numerous red light district saloons, brothels and cribs. The more adventurous nightcrawlers could saunter down to Hop Fiends’ Gulch to satiate themselves at fourteen smoke-filled opium dens where prominent Goldfielders often slummed shoulder-to-shoulder alongside the town’s more “down and out” citizenry.