Monday, September 12, 2016

My Summer Vacation: Dennis Searles in the Mohave Desert

Dennis Searles, Searles Marsh, San Bernardino Co., 1890
California Historical Society

For many California youths, summer ends with regret: it’s time to go back to school. For some, “What did you do on your summer vacation?” is a familiar question. In recognition of summers gone by, we offer this account of the months between May 21 and July 4, 1890, when the young Dennis Searles, son of a borax industrialist, was sent to work on his father’s borax works in the Mohave Desert.

Inspired by the image above and Searles’ journal, this account originally appeared as the Spotlight feature in the Fall issue of California History (vol. 93, no. 3). The author has further illustrated it to give a visual sense of the time and place in the life history of Dennis Searles and his family.

Detail, Map of California Saline Deposits, 1902
From Gilbert E. Bailey, The Saline Deposits of California (Sacramento: California State Mining Bureau, 1902)
By Shelly Kale
“I took off my city clothes and put on my desert duds,” wrote sixteen-year-old Dennis Searles in his journal on May 24, 1890 (1), the fourth day of his journey from San Francisco to the hot, dry desert in northwestern San Bernardino County. It was an unconventional destination for a teenager of a wealthy family on summer vacation from boarding school, but Dennis Searles had been summoned by his father John to help at the family borax works at Borax Lake.
Searles Lake, San Bernardino County, California
Courtesy California Department of Fish and Wildlife
May 22, 1890—I went to my father’s office [in San Francisco] and was there informed of the fact that my father wanted me to leave that evening for home [Searles Lake]. Of course I was glad to go as I wished to see my father.
In his journal Searles (1874–1916) described ferrying across the bay to Oakland and taking the Southern Pacific Railroad south through the San Joaquin Valley, the Tehachapi Mountains, and, finally, to Mojave.

Railway Depot, Mojave, 1927
Courtesy of Pomona Public Library
May 23, 1890—Mojave is a town of about one hundred population situated in Southern California at the juncture of the S.P. and A. P. railroads. . . . The railroad buildings comprise about half of the town. Of the rest of the town very near every other house is a saloon combined with some other business. My father owns here a large barn, a warehouse and a half of a dozen other houses. The town contains a schoolhouse but the pupils are few and the teachers poor.
At this town on the intersection of the Southern Pacific and Atlantic & Pacific Railroads, Searles learned to his relief that he would be escorted through the Mojave Desert by Robert R. Charlton, manager of John Searles’ Mojave office (Charlton, who was an avid photographer, may have taken the image of Searles “picnicking” in the desert) (2). “Instead of having a wearisome ride of four days [on a 20-mule-team borax wagon],” Searles wrote, “I am going to have a pleasant ride of a day and a half.”

 Twenty-mule Team Hauling Borax out of Death Valley to the Railroad, c. 1900
California Historical Society at University of Southern California
May 24, 1890—These wagons come into Mojave in the morning, load and then go out in the afternoon. These big freight teams are made up of two large wagons, the hind wheels of which are seven or more feet high. There is an oil wagon also connected with the team. It takes about twenty-two animals to draw one of these wagons. The average load is about thirty thousand of Borax.
On May 25 Searles and Charlton began the 75-mile ride to Borax Lake “behind a light team” and on “a very good road.” The travelers arrived three days later at Borax Lake (later Searles Lake), “a large dry lake, as white as snow. . . . On all sides, high mountains rise, completely walling it in, the few large canyons forming its gates.”

Looking towards the Slate Range and Searles Valley, 1947
Courtesy of Searles Valley Historical Society
June 24, 1890—On our right the tall barren mountains rise, at their summits you can see dense beds of sand, someof these beds are hundreds of feet deep. On our left a dry lake shows itself, on its shore salt grass is growing in the sand.
Located at the upper end of the lake was the borax works, established in 1873 by John Searles, a gold rush pioneer and hard-rock miner whose daring feats included a skirmish with a Grizzly bear in 1872 (3).

John W. Searles (1828–1897)
The May 8, 1955 issue of the San Bernardino County Sun called John Searles a “Pioneer among Industrialists” for his discovery and mining of rich borax deposits at Searles Lake.

In 1878 Searles relocated to a new site and named it Borax. There he established the San Bernardino Borax Mining Company, eventually covering 2,000 acres (4). It was the start of a new industry in the county.

(Left) John Searles’ Borax Plant, Searles Lake, c. 1900
(Right) Searles Dwelling at Borax Works, Searles Lake, 1880
California Historical Society
May 28, 1890—The works for manufacturing the Borax are at the North Western end of the lake. There is somewhere near 30 buildings forming in itself a small town in the heart of the desert.
John Searles was the first to recognize the lake’s potential, but he certainly was not the last. In time, the lake’s saline mineral beds provided a continuing supply of minerals, including borax, sodium sulfate, and soda ash. In 1912, potash—a nutrient form of potassium—was discovered in the lake brine. Among its many uses, the Sausalito News noted, was “the making of glass, soap, bleaches, dyes, photographic chemicals, medicine, explosives, fertilizer,” and in “gold mining and many other industrial processes.” (5)  By 1979, the value of the lake’s mineral deposits was regarded as worth “billions of dollars.” (6)

Collecting from Searles Lake
Courtesy Searles Valley Historical Society
May 30, 1890—Now the regular routine of vacation has commenced, which I get very tired of within a month or so. It is get up in time for breakfast at half past five and then for the rest of the day there is plenty to do but one misses the company somewhat of young me as very near all the men are near onto 60.
Like the eponymous lake, Dennis Searles developed his potential over time. In 1895 he graduated with the first class of Stanford University (along with future president Herbert Hoover), majoring in engineering. He “made a brilliant record,” the San Francisco Call observed. “He had the reputation of being one of the ablest students there. He was probably the wealthiest . . . . Mr. Searles’ friends look to see him make a record in the days to come.” (7)  

His friends would not be disappointed. In addition to playing an active role as a Stanford alumni, Dennis Searles pursued a mining career, serving as vice president of Frank M. Smith’s (“the Borax King”) Pacific Coast Borax Company from 1909 to 1914 (8). He was Smith’s personal assistant in his numerous enterprises and director of the United Properties Company, which, when it was incorporated in 1911, was recognized as the “West’s Biggest Corporation” and “the most powerful corporation ever organized for the development of California, excepting that of the Southern Pacific Company.” (9)

Caroline Stetson Ayres and Dennis Searles, 1903
“Betrothal of Three Young Prominent Society Couples,” San Francisco Call, Sept. 23, 1903
“The engagement of Miss Ayres and Mr. Searles is without doubt one of the cleverest summer coups of Cupid,” wrote the San Francisco Call.
In 1904, Searles married Caroline Stetson Ayres (10). The couple, whose activities filled the society pages of the local newspapers, lived in Piedmont. On November 25, 1916, Dennis Searles, the “Oakland financier, real estate broker and clubman, and former secretary for F. M. Smith” died in an automobile accident when his car skidded off a road and over a 75-foot precipice near Saratoga, California (11).  

Nearly a year later, on September 21, 1917, Caroline Ayres Searles wrote a letter to her daughter, Mary, which she added to the last page of her husband’s journal from that summer of 1890: “Dear Little Mary, Mother is putting this safely away for you, hoping that someday, when you are old enough, you will read it and appreciate what a very fine little boy your dear Daddy was.”

On that “someday,” Mary would ignore her father’s “Hands off! Private” warning and open the cover of his journal. Inside she would learn what the Mojave Desert and borax mining were like in 1890. She would read about shooting coyotes, taking care of animals, sawing borax sacks and other chores, even a description of how to make healing ointment from horn-toads drowned in whiskey—all the features of desert life that filled young Dennis Searles’ days and nights at Borax Lake.

(Left) Dennis Searles with a Chinese worker; (right) Title page
Journal of Dennis Searles, 1890
California Historical Society, MSP 1933
May 25, 1890—As we are walking along I see a coyote standing looking at us about eighty yards away. I jump out of the wagon to get a shot at him but he disappears amongst the brush. He has been shot at before and knows what a man with a gun is.
Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager
  1. All quotes are from the Journal of Dennis Searles, May 21–July 4, 1890, MS 1933, California Historical Society.
  2.  James L. Fairchild, Russell L. Kaldenberg, Searles Valley Historical Society, Around Trona and Searles Valley (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2015), 63. A caption in “20-Mule Team Era Recalled,” San Bernardino County Sun, Dec. 2, 1962, reads “Time for Lunch: Dennis Searles is shown having a noon meal on the desert while he rests his horses. Such was desert travel in his day.”
  3.  James Fairchild and Russell Kaldenberg, Lecture on the History of Trona and Searles Valley, Maturango Museum,; Fairchild and Kaldenberg, Around Trona and Searles Valley, 9, 23, 24. In the early 1860s the Slate Range Stage Company brought prospectors and business people on a weekly basis from Los Angeles to this region originally inhabited by the Panamint Shoshone. In 1862 John, his brother (also named Dennis), and two other miners etched their initials on rocks in the Slate Range, a soda-salt marsh where they were mining gold and silver. The next year, having earlier suspected that there was borax in the soda, John attempted to test the mineral’s content in samples he brought to San Francisco. However, tests of the mineral’s existence in the samples were negative. Discouraged, the brothers returned to hard-rock mining, eventually moving to Los Angeles. In 1873, however, they were shown a borax crystal from the Slate Range area and renewed their interest. Claiming land on the salt marsh, they began extracting the mineral from the surface mud along the lake’s western edge.
  4.  George I. Smith, “Subsurface Stratigraphy and Geochemistry of Late Quaternary Evaporites, Searles Lake, California,” Geological Survey Professional Paper 1043 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1979), 4.
  5. “Concerning San Bernardino Potash Discovery,” San Francisco Call, Apr. 9, 1912; “Extensive Use of Postash,” Sausalito News, January 6, 1912. In March that year President William Howard Taft urged Congress to enact a law protecting the region from private exploitation and five years later, in 1917, with America’s entry into World War I, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill reserving the Searles Lake district for potash production and use. As the Los Angeles Herald explained the year before, “A famine in potash fertilizer is threatened by the European war.” “Taft Would Protect Potash,” Sacramento Union, Mar. 27, 1912; “Wilson Signs Potash Bill,” Red Bluff Daily News, Oct. 3, 1917; “Experts to Work Calif. Kelp Beds,” Los Angeles Herald, Jan. 4, 1916
  6. Smith, “Subsurface Stratigraphy and Geochemistry,”4
  7. “California Bachelors Are Interesting: Who They Are, How They Live and What They Do,” San Francisco Call, Oct. 15, 1899
  8. “Borax in Death Valley,” Los Angeles Herald, January 20, 1901. Smith’s company, founded in 1890, had absorbed the San Bernardino Borax Co. in 1895, five years after Dennis Searles’ visit, and shortly discontinued its operations; W. D. Hamman, “Potash Solutions in the Searles Lake Region—II,” Mining Science (May 2, 1912), 391.
  9. “Great Enterprises in Merger: West’s Biggest Corporation,” San Francisco Call, Jan. 1, 1911; “Gigantic Financial Concern Plans Big Things: United Properties Company Will Expend Millions in Oakland and Vicinity,” in Evarts Blake, Greater Oakland (Oakland: Pacific Publishing Co., 1911), 50–51
  10. “Betrothal of Three Young Prominent Society Couples,” San Francisco Call, Sept. 23, 1903
  11. “Dennis Searles: Funeral of Dennis Searles to Be Tomorrow,” Oakland Tribune, Nov. 27, 1916
This article originally appeared as the Spotlight feature in the California History journal (Vol. 93, #3), published by the University of California Press in association with the California Historical Society. California History, Vol. 93, Number 3, pp. 101–103, ISSN 0162-2897, electronic ISSN 2327-1485. © 2016 by the Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.
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