At Mirror Lake, Yosemite Valley, 1911
California Historical Society, CHS2016_2088
This summer, on August 25, the National Park Service turns 100 years old. Over the course of this Centennial year, the California Historical Society will celebrate the state’s significant contribution to “America’s best idea” by digging into our collections and sharing what we find with you.
From Redwood National Park in the north to Joshua Tree in the south, California’s parks are as varied and diverse as the population of the Golden State itself. The oldest, Yosemite, was established in 1880; the youngest, Pinnacles, graduated from monument to park just three years ago, on January 10, 2013.
Each California park has its own kind of beauty and all are a reflection of the society into which they were born.
In other words, both literally—as in the photo above—and figuratively, they are a mirror of us. We hope you enjoy the reflection.
DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK
The Hottest, Driest, Lowest Place in America
Death Valley, c. 1940
California Historical Society, CHS2016_2081
“In this below-sea-level basin, steady drought and record summer heat make Death Valley a land of extremes. Yet, each extreme has a striking contrast. Towering peaks are frosted with winter snow. Rare rainstorms bring vast fields of wildflowers. Lush oases harbor tiny fish and refuge for wildlife and humans. Despite its morbid name, a great diversity of life survives in Death Valley.”
—National Park Service
What’s in a name? As the story goes, Death Valley’s name derived from a group of lost pioneers who were journeying to California’s gold fields during the winter of 1849–50. When one man died, the others assumed that “this valley would be their grave.” Instead the Lost ’49ers made it over the Panamint Mountains. One of the group, William Lewis Manly, recalled, “we took off our hats, and then overlooking the scene of so much trial, suffering and death spoke the thought uppermost saying:—‘Good bye Death Valley.’”
Below Sea Level, Death Valley, date unknown
California Historical Society, CHS2016_2085
Death Valley’s rugged topography is one aspect of its long geological history, along with lakes, volcanos, valleys, mountain ranges, and an ancient sea. From its highest mountain, the 11,049-foot Telescope Peak, to Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below seawater the lowest place in North America, Death Valley presents a diverse landscape. For about a millennium, the Timbisha Shoshone—the park’s native inhabitants—thrived here. This photograph of a lone hiker (left), perhaps abandoning his car, suggests the sense of discovery that likely drove early prospectors here in search of gold and later silver, borax, uranium, talc, and other minerals.
Photographer unknown, Death Valley, c. 1937
California Historical Society, CHS2016_2082
President Herbert Hoover established Death Valley as a national monument in February 1933. A month later, the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corp was founded to provide employment to a depleted nation. By October, 400 previously unemployed men began work in Death Valley, earning $25 a month, to make the monument accessible to visitors. They graded roads, installed water and telephone lines, and built mountain trails, camp grounds, and picnic facilities, among other projects. Death Valley was incorporated into the National Park Service on October 31, 1994.
Challiss Gore (Photographer), Harmony Borax Works, Death Valley, c. 1951
California Historical Society, CHS2016_2084
In 1881 borax (borate ore) was discovered by Aaron Winters near Furnace Creek (the future site of a 40-acre village erected in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Core for the region’s native Timbisha Shoshone tribe). There San Francisco businessman William T. Coleman built a borax plant to process the ore in 1883–84. Coleman’s Harmony Borax Works produced about three tons of borax a day during the non-summer months. This image depicts the remnants of the plant. When in 2005, the Billie Mine—the valley’s last borax mine along the road to Dante’s view—closed, over 100 years of Death Valley mining ended.
Borax 20-Mule Team, Death Valley, date unknown
California Historical Society, CHS2016_2083
To transport the borax Harmony Borax Works used large mule teams and double wagons—the famous Twenty Mule Team. From 1883 to 1889, the teams hauled the borax to the nearest railroad at Mojave. In 1890, Coleman sold his interest to Frank M. “Borax” Smith, who kept the Twenty Mule Team brand for his Pacific Coast Borax Company. Today the image of the famous Twenty Mule Teams remains as a symbol of the Old West.
Stephan Willard, Death Valley, California, and the High Sierra from Dante’s View Reached via Union Pacific System, date unknown
California Historical Society, CHS2016_2087
Union Pacific Railroad was an early promoter of Death Valley during the late 1920s. With the Tonopah and Tidewater Rail Road, it ran combination rail and bus tours to the valley. Particularly successful was its “Weirdly Strange and Thrilling!” Death Valley tours, which invited tourists to “view the dire and dreadful Death Valley—with all danger removed and all thrills retained” at a cost of $40 for two days. Promoting geographical diversity, some of the railroad’s ads invited tourists to “stand at the lowest point on the continent . . . and look up the country’s highest peak, lofty Mt. Whitney!”
Frasher’s, Inc. (Publisher), Scotty's Castle and Guest House, Death Valley, date unknown
California Historical Society, CHS2016_2086
In the northern reaches of Death Valley is the Death Valley Ranch, more popularly known as Scotty’s Castle. Built in 1927 by Albert Mussey Johnson as a vacation home, the Spanish villa is named for Walter Scott (Death Valley Scotty), Johnson’s friend and a gold prospector. In 1970, the NPS acquired the property. In July 1970, the National Park Service purchased Scotty's Castle for $850,000. It has since become one of the most popular features of Death Valley National Park. Recently, in October 2015 Scotty’s Castle was the site of flash floods and was temporarily closed.
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager
Strategic Initiatives Liaison
- Death Valley: Historic Resource Study, A History of Mining; http://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/deva/section3d3.htm
- Jay Jones, “Still Reeling from Flash Floods in Death Valley, Scotty’s Castle May Be Closed a Year or More,” Los Angeles Times, October 28, 2015
- Bob Katz, “Death Valley Scotty,” DesertUSA, http://www.desertusa.com/desert-people/death-valley-scotty.html
- David Kelly, “A Treacherous Legacy,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 6, 2008
- Richard E. Lingenfelter, Death Valley and the Amargosa: A Land of Illusion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986)
- National Parks & American Indians, Death Valley Native American Netroots, http://nativeamericannetroots.net/diary/662
- NPS: Death Valley and the Civilian Conservation Corps, http://www.nps.gov/deva/learn/historyculture/civilian-conservation-corps.htm
- NPS: Harmony Borax Works, http://www.nps.gov/deva/historyculture/harmony.htm
- NPS: History of the Twenty Mule Teams, http://www.nps.gov/deva/learn/historyculture/twenty-mule-teams.htm
- NPS: Mining in Death Valley, http://www.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/death_valley/mining_ranching.html
- NPS: Official Death Valley National Park, http://www.nps.gov/deva/index.htm
- NPS: Twenty Mule Teams, http://www.nps.gov/deva/historyculture/twenty-mule-teams.htm
- NPS: Weather and Climate: Death Valley National Park, www.nps.gov
Learn more about the NPS Centennial Initiative