Death Valley People

March, 2005

— Scotty's Castle

Scotty's Castle (photo #1) was built as a vacation retreat by Albert Johnson, a Chicago millionaire. It was designed to be rustic and fit in with its surroundings, but it included many state of the art luxuries of the 1920's. Scotty was Walter Scott, an ex-cowboy, prospector, and performer who was a friend of the Johnson family. He told fanciful tales to visitors, claimed to have built the Castle with the profits from a hidden gold mine, and seems to have greatly entertained Mr. Johnson in the process.

We took two tours of the Castle during the early morning, before the crowds and long lines at the ticket counter. The "Living History" tour shows the living quarters of the Castle. The "Underground Mysteries" tour explores the utilities that supplied power and water to the residents.

The Castle was equipped with an up to date water powered electrical generator and other modern equipment. It was interesting to see how the rich lived 75 years ago. Many of their technological luxuries would be considered rather unimpressive today. Now even the middle class can afford conveniences that were simply not available in the 1920's. On the other hand, the size and grandeur of the Castle is most impressive.

Here are three photos of architectural details at Scotty's Castle:

staircase   |   gargoyle   |   lamp

— Harmony Borax Works

William Coleman built the Harmony Borax Works (photo #2) in 1883. It was used to extract borax from the area and ship it to the railhead in the town of Mojave, about 165 miles away. We took a ranger-led tour of the site, and learned all about the processing of the ore to produce borax. Coleman employed about 40 men and produced about 3 tons of borax per day. His business failed after 5 years, and the Borax Works have been rusting and eroding away ever since.

The Borax Works are located on the edge of the flat central plain of the valley, near the deposits of borax. The scenery is both bleak and beautiful at the same time. When the wind blows hard, as it did during our visit, the air is filled with dust and fine salt particles. They get into everything.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the borax story was the use of "20-mule teams" that pulled wagons filled with borax through the desert to Mojave. In reality, the teams were often mixed horse and mule, but could be all horse or all mule, depending on the preferences of the teamster (driver). And the teams did not all have 20 animals. The idea of 20-mule teams became part of American folklore largely as a result of an advertising campaign that was designed to increase the sales of borax. The television show "Death Valley Days" was a part of that advertising effort.

We attended an evening lecture about the handling of these big teams. It turns out that driving a large team of draft animals was a very complicated skill. All of the animals in the team were attached to a long chain which pulled the wagons. Each animal had a name, and was trained to respond to their name. The teamster had to know each of the animals, including their individual personalities, in order to negotiate the trail safely. For example, when turning a corner, the chain would try to form a straight line between the lead mules and the wagon. To keep the wagon going around the curve, and on the trail, some of the mules would need to pull in the opposite direction from the curve.

Each position within the team had its own special skills. The leaders (the front pair of animals) were usually the smartest, as they had to follow directions and lead the others. The wheelers (the last pair of animals) were usually the biggest and strongest. They had to keep the wagon moving forward on the desired path. In addition, the pointers (in front of the wheelers) needed to pull opposite to the direction of a turn. To do this, they had to be trained to step over the chain, pull against the force of the other animals, side-step around the corner, then step back over the chain into their normal position, all in response to commands given to them by name. On these big teams there were additional pairs, called the sixes and eights, that worked with the pointers. Without all this complicated activity, the wagons could be pulled into a bank, or off a cliff, on the inside of a curve.

— return to the 2005 Journal Archive.