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February 18, 2005

The town that Zane Grey helped build

DEATH VALLEY JUNCTION'S HISTORY IS RICH AND STILL BEING WRITTEN IN 2005

By DENNIS W. BOSTWICK
SPECIAL TO THE PVT



SPECIAL TO THE PVT
Death Valley Junction as it looked in its heyday.

See 'Masquerade' at junction's Amargosa Opera House

The Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction - head west on Bell Vista Avenue until the road ends about 30 minutes later - will be the venue for performances of "Masquerade," an experience into the world of illusion.

Written by Marta Becket and performed by Becket and Thomas "Wilget" Willet, the shows will be held each Saturday through mid-May. Doors open at 7:45 p.m. and the curtains are raised promptly at 8:15. Admission is $15 per person. Children 5-12 are $12. It is suggested children under 5 not attend. Reservations are recommended. Call 760 852-4441 for more information.

Death Valley Junction is the town Zane Grey built.

The hell you say!

Believe it. In a very real sense, the famous Western novelist actually did.

Long before the existing town of Death Valley Junction was built between 1923 and 1925 there already was an older Death Valley Junction, originally named Amargosa. It was located directly across Highway 127 from today's complex.

It wasn't much of a town. It huddled helter-skelter around the Tonopah and Tidewater railroad tracks and a borax processing mill owned by Pacific Coast Borax, of 20 Mule Team Borax fame (actually, there never was a 20 mule team, it was 18 mules and two horses).

The junction wasn't a junction because of today's confluence of highways 190, 127 and Stateline Road (a continuation of Bell Vista in Pahrump. Death Valley Junction is only 30 minutes from Pahrump.)

There weren't any roads to speak of. It was a junction because of the railroads, both the standard gauge Tonopah and Tidewater (also known as "The Nevada Shortline," which neither reached Tonopah nor Tidewater) and Death Valley Railroad, a narrow three-foot gauge line that ran east from the Greenwater Mountain mines, such as the Lida C. Ryan, Biddy McCarthy, Grand View and Widow, to deliver ore to be processed at Death Valley Junction.

Borax was king. White gold.

Men such as Francis Marion "Borax" Smith, W. T. Coleman, F. M. Jenifer, F. W. Corkill, U. S. Miller, W. W. Cahill, Senator Clark, C. B. Zabriskie and Ryan, controlled or were directors of the mines, railroads, processing plants and farms.

They risked millions, made millions and lost millions. Borax Smith, probably the central character, started off as a woodcutter, then discovered borax at Teel's Marsh. He bought Pacific Coast Borax from Coleman, had a borax processing plant in Bayonne, N.J., and by buying a British borax refinery he formed Pacific Borax and Redwood Chemical Works, Ltd. In 1899, he combined his worldwide holdings into Borax Consolidated, Ltd., one of the world's first multi-national corporations.

Death Valley Junction was a very large piece of the corporate pie. A tent and a hovel city was what it really was, with a processing mill covering acres and rising in places to six stories high in the middle of the mess. Piped water was scarce as hell (except at the mill) and outhouses were the rule. Shade, if you could find it, was your only bet for cooling the hellacious heat of summer, and many a tent or wooden shack burned to the ground in the surprisingly cold winter while the occupants desperately sought warmth from an open fire, tiny pot belly or boxwood stove.

And, of course, you shared your living quarters with rats, snakes, black widows and scorpions. For entertainment, try a bottle of bad whiskey from a pumpkin flask or risking a bout of venereal disease at Tubb's Saloon and Whorehouse, just across the tracks to the west.

While living conditions were harsh, working conditions were brutal, dangerous and the hours seemed never-ending. Get sick? No problem, as long as you showed up for work and didn't slack off. Get hurt, maimed or crippled? Well, you knew the risks when you accepted the job.

A line borrowed from the critically acclaimed and Oscar nominated documentary "Amargosa," said it all: "It was a time of hard men, and harder gods."

But what has Zane Grey, the very popular Western novelist at the time and for decades later, have to do with building Death Valley Junction?

He came through on the train. Ever searching for color, stories and ideas for his novels, he stepped off the Tonopah and Tidewater at Death Valley Junction. He talked to Orville, a brakeman on the T&T; Cecil, a kiln operator at the mill; Jackson, an engineer on the Death Valley Railroad; Don, who jockeyed waste cars over the trailing dump; and Clyde, a deep shaft miner at the Lida C.

He got the same story.

Conditions were so harsh that a man could work there for only a few months before giving up and heading out, hopefully in no worse shape than when he arrived.

Zane Grey paid attention.

Returning home to New York City, he wrote a scathing editorial about Pacific Coast Borax's operations at Death Valley Junction in one of the leading magazines at the time, "Harper's Bazaar." He shamed the company into cleaning up its act.

And build a town.

The new Death Valley Junction was constructed across the railroad tracks to the west. The land was purchased (168 acres) from R. Tubb, and the saloon and red light district had to be moved.

The architect was Alexander Hamilton McCulloch, and the resulting U-shaped complex was modern and beautiful. There was hot and cold running water, a sewer system, heating and ventilation, electricity (provided by generators at the time), all surrounding paved streets, sidewalks and two rectangular parks. There was even a swimming pool.

The one-foot thick adobe walls were covered with one inch of plaster on each side, tinted the color of cornbread. The trim on the doors and windows was hunter green and the interior stucco walls were tinted icy blue.

Looking at the complex from Highway 127, the still beautiful and imposing colonnade is flanked on both ends by bell towers and long wings, connected to and running out of right angles back to the street.

Rising over the underground Amargosa River was the most modern, classiest point of destination within hundreds of miles.

There was a train depot at the end of the south wing. It was said that you could catch a train in New York City and arrive in DVJ on the same train, but this is doubtful. Next were the mill's superintendent's office, a grocery store, post office, bank (or exchange), a barbershop and a dormitory for the hotel and kitchen workers. And that's just the southern wing.

Behind the arches of the colonnade were the hotel with a huge kitchen, bakery, multiple walk-in freezers, a posh dining room, coffee shop, hotel lobby with office, and 20 hotel rooms with individual bathrooms. That's half of the structure along the colonnade.

The other half was a dormitory for the mill workers. The rooms were nice but small and provided a bed, sink, mirror and closet. The dormitory had community showers and toilets. Behind the dormitory was the hotel/dormitory manager's relatively spacious apartment.

Most of the north wing was a hospital, and between two hidden open courtyards was the doctor's residence. At the end of the wing was Corkill Hall, the social center of the town, where dances took place, church was attended, social events were held and an occasional movie was shown.

Directly behind the north wing were seven individual houses with private yards and garages. These were for the mill foremen and their families. Hovering above the foremen's houses was the two-story mansion where the superintendent and his family lived.

Behind the u-shaped complex of the town was a boiler room. Here steam was generated and pipes fanned out to heat the entire town. Behind it was an ice plant and next to them was a laundry with washers, spinners, dryers and a steam press.

Death Valley Junction was an amazingly beautiful and functional company town, a rock of stability and safety for the workers, and a posh destination for the well-heeled traveler. It was constructed at a cost of $300,000.

But for good or bad, change is the only thing you can count on. Change rules. It always has.

The Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad was "abandoned in place" in 1940 and on June 14, 1940, the "Last Train" special ran the tracks. By 1943, the last rail between Beatty and Ludlow in the south was removed for the war effort. The rails of the Death Valley Railroad had long before been relocated to Boron, Calif.

And what happened to the Pacific Coast Borax Mill? Only two years after the new town was built, borax was no longer milled there. In more than two decades of mining around Death Valley and in the Greenwater Mountains, $30 million in borax had been extracted.

But the mill's life, in 1927, wasn't over. Instead it was converted to milling Zeolite (hydrated aluminosilicate) a filtering clay or molecular sieves, mined all around Death Valley Junction and used, at the time, to crack oil into gasoline. It was shipped all over the world, and 5,000 tons were processed a month, at a value of $200,000. Today, Zeolite is still mined and processed in the area, but today it's used for kitty litter and as a filtering agent.

In 1948, abandoned for some time, the mill was completely dismantled and moved to Boron, Calif., where a rich load of borax had long before been discovered. Only the foundations, water towers, fuel tanks and tailing dump remain. Not to mention rubble. Lots and lots of rubble.

The town? It still remains.

The train depot saw years of use as a coffee shop, the Lida C Café, named after the mine, which was itself named for W. C. Coleman's daughter. Today it's empty, awaiting rebirth. The mill superintendent's office is empty. The grocery store and post office were operating into the 1980s, but now they're used for storage. The bank is in shambles, but two huge safes are still there, one locked and unopened for untold decades. The barbershop will never again have hair swept from its floor, but it's there, sans the hydraulic, leather barber chair. The kitchen help dormitory is empty, crumbling and in sore need of a new roof. The boiler room equipment was mostly removed, as was all the ice plant equipment, but the laundry still has the original machinery inside, and is now used to store alfalfa to feed the small herd of wild horses, happy for a handout.

The dormitory for the mill workers, which was half the colonnade, has been unoccupied for more than half a century. It is referred to as Spooky Hollow, where spirits roam the corridors and rooms, and ghost busters set up cameras and other curious devices in the wee hours of the night.

The hospital wing, now known as Homer's, the music room and the art gallery, has a new roof, but is still in sad repair.

Amazingly, the hotel is still open with 12 rooms on line. The dining room and hotel lobby, while needing work, are still open, though the dining room kitchen needs to be completely restored. The café has been converted into a quaint gift shop.

And then there's Corkill Hall.

Abandoned and in ruins for decades, like the phoenix, it was resurrected by Marta Becket in 1967 and is now the Amargosa Opera House. Every Saturday evening the season of October through May, performances are held in a magical setting. People from all over the world come to see the show while surrounded by 16th century Spanish murals. Even the ceiling has been painted by Marta and it is spectacular.

A world-renowned artist and performer, Marta Becket has given new life and purpose to Death Valley Junction. She and her close friend and fellow performer, Thomas "Wilget" Willett, also known as "the man in the tutu," own the town and the 168 acres outright. Through incredible odds and Marta's ironclad will, the town survives as a nonprofit corporation and nationally registered historic site.

Someday it may become a shining beacon that even surpasses its glorious past. Zane Grey would be proud.

Bostwick is the Director of Restoration at Death Valley Junction. He writes from Pahrump.



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