Our Journey to Death Valley
Our journey from Arizona into Nevada and California brought us to the area of Death Valley, where we found ghost towns, quirky stories and absolutely gorgeous views. Glad we went in February, as I'm pretty sure we wouldn't want to be here in the Summer months.
Click on the photos below to go to the appropriate gallery. Links in the text will take you to related stories about that subject.
One of our first big stops on the path to the National Park was Death Valley Junction, California. We had stayed in Pahrump for a couple of nights to catch up on work, then headed out for a stay in Amargosa Valley to do some northern area's of Death Valley.
Pahrump was an interesting place, with a few casinos scattered around, sprinkled with Brothels on the outer edges for additional color. We paid a visit to the Pahrump Valley Museum, which includes both indoor and outdoor exhibits. If you're in the area, it's free, though they ask for donation, and worth the stop.
They have some wonderful bronze sculptures out in front of their tan tin building. Kathy took our photos of the sculptures and combined them with other photos we took from the museum of the landscape, which I thought was a pretty crafty idea.
Traveling out of Pahrump it's pretty much desert, hills and more desert. Then in the distance, amidst nothing, you start to see a clump of trees and the outline of an historic building (Amargosa Opera House).
First called Amargosa, meaning "bitter water" in the Paiute language, Death Valley Junction is home to less than a half dozen people today. Getting its start as a borax mining community, several historic buildings continue to stand including the Amargosa Hotel and Opera House, which still cater to visitors.
Long used by area Indians, in the 19th century, this site began to be utilized by prospectors and area settlers. In 1907, when a post office was established, the name was changed to Death Valley Junction. However, there was very little here until 1914 when the Pacific Coast Borax Company built the Death Valley Railroad, a narrow-gauge line which operated from Ryan, California to Death Valley Junction, carrying borax. After a small boom in population, the town became a shell of its former self, but still shines in the desert sun due to one colorful character.
From an early age, Marta Becket showed amazing creative talents, including dancing, playing the piano, and artistic qualities. As a young woman, she danced at Radio City Music Hall, and on Broadway in New York City, appearing in Showboat, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and A Wonderful Town. In 1962, she was married and soon began to tour the country.
In 1967, after months of touring, she and her husband decided to take a vacation camping in Death Valley. However, one morning, they awoke to find a flat tire on their trailer. Directed to Death Valley Junction by a park ranger to have the tire repaired, Marta began to explore the old adobe buildings while it was being fixed. Fascinated with the old buildings, she discovered the old theater and was enthralled. Peering through a small hole in the door at the back of the building, she immediately knew this place was meant for her. Later she would say, "Peering through the tiny hole, I had the distinct feeling that I was looking at the other half of myself. The building seemed to be saying.....Take me.....do something with me...I offer you life." And, that’s exactly what she did.
Having always wanted to design her own costumes, choreograph her own dances, and create her own show, she and her husband located the town manager. The very next day, they agreed to rent the abandoned theater for $45.00 a month and assume responsibility for repairs. Originally called Corkhill Hall, she renamed the theater the Amargosa Opera House and almost a year later, on February 10th, 1968; she gave her first performance to an audience of just 12 adults.
In the early years of the theater, there were few visitors, sometimes, none at all so she soon began to paint an audience on the wall. From 1968 to 1972, characters from the past including kings and queens, Native Americans, bullfighters, gypsies, and more took shape. After four years of painstaking work, she then began painting the ceiling with cherubs, billowing clouds and ladies playing antique musical instruments. It was completed in 1974.
With help and legal advice from friends, and through the Trust for Public Land based in San Francisco, the Amargosa Opera House, Inc. bought the town of Death Valley Junction. On December 10th, 1981, it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1983, the Opera House bought 120 theater seats from the Boulder City Theater in Boulder City, Nevada to replace the charming but old garden chairs needing retirement. That same year, Marta’s husband left for other interests, but, before long, in walked Thomas J. Willett, a comedian who stepped in as stage manager and M.C. He also co-starred with Marta playing other parts in the production. Unfortunately, Willett died in 2005. Marta still lives behind the Opera House, and guests are entertained with shows that continue to this day.
We pushed out of Death Valley Junction for a brief RV Park stay at Amargosa Valley. This is a spot in the road, complete with the RV Park and across the highway, a fireworks stand, convenience store/burger joint/brothel. It was fine for us though as we planned a couple of trips just up the road to do the northern parts of Death Valley.
Our next adventure was Rhyolite, Nevada. This true ghost town, just outside of Beatty on your way into Death Valley, is a must stop for folks like us. Kathy was here back in 2005 or so, but we really needed to do it again, and it was worth it.
Rhyolite began when Frank "Shorty" Harris and Ernest L. Cross discovered gold on August 4, 1904. Calling their claim the Bullfrog, it was located few miles south of where Rhyolite would soon sprout up.
Soon, several men by the names of A.G. Cushman, Percy Stanley, C.H. Elliot, and Frank J. Busch began promoting the town site of Rhyolite, named for the silica-rich ore that most of the gold was being found in. By November, the town was staked and lots were offered for sale for $50 each in February, 1905. One of the first buildings constructed was the two-story Southern Hotel. Water was a rare commodity in the area and was carted in at a cost of $2 to $5 a barrel.
Just months later in April, H.D. and L.D. Porter crossed Death Valley bringing along supplies from their store at Randsburg. By that time the rush to Rhyolite was so great that the Porters had to pay $1,200 for their lot. Constructing a story and a half stone building, they quickly became the district’s leading merchants.
In no time at all, there were over 2000 claims covering a 30 mile area surrounding the Bullfrog Mining District. The most promising was the Montgomery-Shoshone mine, which prompted everyone to move to the Rhyolite town site. The town immediately boomed with buildings springing up everywhere, including saloons, restaurants and boarding houses.
In January, 1908 the John S. Cook Bank building was completed, the ruins of which are today the most photographed site of all Nevada ghost towns. Also a large mercantile store was built and an impressive train station. The post office soon outgrew the tent and was reestablished in a frame building on Broadway. In July 1908, it moved to the 30 x 70 basement of the Cook Bank Building. But all of this was a little too late for Rhyolite.
After the 1907 Panic, more and more mines began to close and banks started to fail. At about the same time the gold started to pan out in the area mines. Soon, the trains were mostly filled with people leaving town.
When gold was discovered at the Pioneer Mine in 1909, several miles away, half of the population moved to Pioneer. It was at this time that the new two-story brick schoolhouse was completed which included both classrooms and an auditorium; however, it was used only briefly and was never filled. By the end of 1909, the population was well below 1,000, as the town continued to struggle to stay alive hoping for a new boom that never came.
By 1915, the town had only 20 people and the next year the power and lights were turned off. By 1920, Rhyolite's population was just 14 and its last resident died in 1924.
Today you can find several remnants of Rhyolite's glory days. Some of the walls of the three story bank building are still standing, as is part of the old jail. The train depot, which is owned by the Bureau of Land Management, is one of the few complete buildings left in the town, as is the Bottle House, and a small stone cabin, which have been rehabilitated.
The Rhyolite Mercantile building was hit by lightning on September 20, 2014 and burned to the ground. The photo (above right) shows the old Mercantile when Kathy visited Rhyolite in 2005.
In addition to the ruins at Rhyolite, you will find the Goldwell Outdoor Museum. Created by a group of Belgian Artists, lead by the late Albert Szukalski, this stop features several large outdoor sculptures. The museum's website says "Goldwell exists because artists from afar chose the Mojave Desert as a place to make work freely, in contrast with their practice in Europe. Those experiences led several of them to create the large scale, on-site sculptures that define Goldwell as a destination. There are few other places where such art-making activities could have taken place; the desert is integral to their work."
Still active after several decades, artists from around the world continue work here, with an artist residency and workspace programs available in the nearby Red Barn Art Center.
As you enter Rhyolite, you will come across the failed ghost town of Bullfrog, which competed and lost against it's more prosperous neighbor. Some ruins are still there, and you will also find the road to the Rhyolite cemetery in the same area.
Our visit to the Beatty Museum was nice, and they had old maps that really give you an idea of where things were, including all the old mines and ghost towns in the area. Between that and Rhyolite, it was pretty much a full day for us, so after another night at Amargosa Valley, across from the Brothel/Convenience Store/Burger Joint, we headed back through Beatty, this time on our way into one of Death Valley's big attractions, Scotty's Castle.
Along the way, and not too far before entering the National Park, you will run into the ghost town of Bonnie Claire. Also known by several other names including Clare, Clair, Thorp's Wells, Thorp, Montana Station, Summerville and Gold Mountain, mining began in the area in the 1880's and a small stamp mill was built at a site then known as Thorp's Wells. Serving several mines located near Gold Mountain some six miles to the northwest. It operated into the early 1900's when the Bonnie Claire Bullfrog Mining Company purchased it. A small camp formed and a stage line from Bullfrog to Goldfield ran through the camp, which was then called Thorp. Another small camp called Summerville also developed about a mile northwest, but it was short lived. In 1904, the company built a larger mill called the Bonnie Claire, which treated ore from all over the district. A post office called Thorp was established in June, 1905.
The camp grew slowly until September, 1906 when the Bullfrog-Goldfield Railroad reached the settlement. The new station was called Montana Station, but, when a townsite was platted the following month, it was called Bonnie Claire. However, the post office wouldn't be renamed from thorp to Bonnie Claire until 1909, due to issues with the government. The vintage photo (above right) is of Bonnie Claire in 1908 with a 20 mule team on the road toward Death Valley.
A number of properties began to produce on Gold Mountain and the Bonnie Claire Bullfrog Mining company built a 20-stamp mill at about which time the community peaked with a population of about 100 people. However, the Panic of 1907 scared investors, which caused a suspension in mining operations and dashed the dreams to town promoters. The town limped along with a few residents, but continued only because the railroad passed through the small community.
In 1925, the town was boosted by the building of Scotty's Castle, a fantasy house in the green oasis of Grapevine Canyon some 20 miles to the southwest. For the next three years, nearly all the items required in the difficult construction of the elaborate castle arrived at the Bonnie Claire station over the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad. From there, the supplies were hauled by mule-drawn wagons and four-wheel drive trucks to the site. More on Scotty's castle in a moment.
In 1928, when the railroad pulled out of Bonnie Claire, the town quickly died. Its post office closed and the railroad tracks removed in 1931. Later, the area was revived by the Lippincott Smelter which processed lead ore from the Lippincott Mine from 1935-1953. The last known operations at Bonnie Claire were in 1952. The primary mining operation is now on private property, however across the highway to the east, where more of the town would have been, there are a few, what appear to be later, wood structures, including a small mining building, that caught our lens.
The grave markers found a little further east where interesting, if nothing more than to make us wonder about the women buried there. Two graves, one Dora C. Bla?? (grave marker has bullet hole over last name and death year), 1898-?, and Dorothy Patnoc 1907-1911. Dorothy was born just as the mining boom in Bonnie Claire was starting to dwindle.
After Bonnie Claire we went on into Death Valley National Park, and quickly into a beautiful drive in the mountains toward the famous, and quirky, Scotty's Castle.
There's an interesting story behind why it's "Scotty's Castle", and not known for it's original owners name. Located in Grapevine Canyon, Death Valley Ranch (the Castle), was the desert hideaway mansion of Chicago insurance magnate Albert Johnson. Serious construction started in 1925, and continued into the early 1930's. However, Johnson's insurance company went into receivership in 1933, a victim of the Depression, and work on the 8,000 square foot house was never completed.
While Johnson financed the mansion, the site is more closely associated with Walter Scott, who was locally known as "Death Valley Scotty." Scott was a bit of a con-man, convincing area folks that he had found Gold, and getting them to buy into his operation. That's how Johnson met Scott, and even though Johnson would later find out about the con, they actually became close friends. We'll be expanding our information on Death Valley Scotty and will link it here when done. Scott often stayed at the ranch and after the Johnsons died, he lived there for the rest of his life. Today, it is administered by Death Valley National Park and the mansion and various out buildings can be toured. Plan on a couple of hours or more at Scotty's Castle. The tour runs about an hour, and there is a lot of things to see around the complex, which includes picnic tables on the front grounds to enjoy the views.
After our visit at Scotty's Castle we took in the views of the desert and made a leisurely drive back toward the Beatty Cut Off. On the way you begin to see the white sands of Desert Valley. We found a great side road that took us out to Old Stovepipe Wells closer to the dunes. Old Stovepipe Wells was the only water hole in the sand dunes area of Death Valley and was the junction of two Native American trails. During the mining booms of Rhyolite and Skidoo, it was the only known water source on the cross-valley road. But winds would obscure the spot with sand, so miners placed a length of stovepipe as a marker.
With the mountains as a backdrop, the desert provides some spectacular views along the road. We ended this portion of our journey with a couple of shots of Corkscrew Peak from two different views along two different paths.
After making our way back, we headed back to Pahrump, where we would venture out and explore some of the southern sections of Death Valley National Park. There is plenty more to see and do in the area we wrote about in this blog. Read more about the park and visit links to related material via our Death Valley story here. You will also find our material on Death Valley Ghost Towns and Mines useful.
Coming up in the next blog, more Death Valley National Park, including Furnace Creek Ranch and Badwater, then on through the Mojave Preserve, a little bit of Route 66 in California, quick pass through Joshua Tree National Park, the Salton Sea and more.
About the RV Parks we stayed at during this portion of our journey:
We stayed a couple of nights at the Preferred RV Resort in Pahrump. Just behind a Casino (but not associated), this is a very large gated park with over 1,000 spaces. Includes an "indoor" pool and recreation activities. We found the park to be more like a home association though, with rules upon rules, including no furry children on the grass. WIFI never worked well for us here as their set up didn't support the amount of RV'ers.
We stayed at Amargosa Valley RV Park for a few nights to explore parts of the Death Valley area. This is really a spot in the road that I'm sure was better in past years. The onsite store and gas station is closed, so the only gas and food are available across the highway. The same store also has a burger joint toward the back, and a brothel off to the back side. Not a huge park, and the WIFI was alright for our needs. Closest grocery shopping is Pahrump or Beatty, but choose Pahrump. Beatty's lacking in that arena. In hindsight, we would have stayed at an RV Park closer or in Beatty, but it was adequate.
We stayed at Lakeside Casino and RV Park back in Pahrump for a few days of rest and more exploring of Death Valley. This was our favorite RV stop during this portion of our journey. Great staff and beautiful park with plenty of trees, small pond/lake, plenty of facilities, etc. Grass for our furry children, concrete slabs to park on, and good WIFI during our stay, although you can tell when someone turns on their Netflix. Would stay here again if we were to come back to this area. It's outside of the hustle and bustle of town.
Keywords: Amargosa Hotel and Opera House, Bonnie Claire, Death Valley, Death Valley Junction, Old Stovepipe Wells, Pahrump, Rhyolite, Scotty's Castle
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