Furnace Creek Inn
Death Valley National Park
by Joe Zentner
“Goodbye, Death Valley,” were the parting words of a weary pioneer woman, a survivor of an 1849 trek through one of the most inhospitable places an emigrant wagon ever crossed.
By the mid-1920s, tourism was becoming a national industry in the United States, encompassing even the infamous Death Valley, where, earlier, only borax mining employees were aware of its spectacular beauty.
Across the West, trains were taking tourists to destinations such as Glacier National Park, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone. The National Park Service was actively promoting tourism in America’s parks and public lands.
Surrounded by mountain ranges, Death Valley features a startling variety of desert environments: pristine sand dunes, huge alluvial fans, eerie salt formations and painted canyons. Its mountainsides and rock formations are a geologist’s fantasy come true. The clear desert air highlights nature’s art at every turn, from the glittering saltpan basin to the snow-capped Panamint Range high above Death Valley’s floor. Ancient peoples inhabited the area when the valley floor was a huge lake. The passage of time has turned this lake into the lowest, saltiest place in the Northern Hemisphere. To some, the newly named Death Valley was an obstacle in the path toward the California gold fields. To others, it promised riches beyond belief in ore and minerals. In 1933, in recognition of its striking wild beauty, this unique desert wilderness was designated a National Monument. Today it is a National Park.
From the beginning, it had “tourist attraction” written all over it. Even before the turn of the century, promoters were thinking about Death Valley as a destination for vacationers. That hope, however, became a local joke. In 1907, a local newspaper, the Death Valley Chuck-Walla, lampooned promotion efforts with a mock pitch that bragged: ALL THE ADVANTAGES OF HELL WITHOUT THE INCONVENIENCES.
Surprisingly, much of Death Valley’s history is tied to the movie industry. The extraordinarily clear air makes colors more vivid and alive on film. Add the awe-inspiring beauty of the towering mountains and wrinkled canyons and it’s easy to see why filmmakers have been attracted to the Valley since the early days of motion pictures. More than 40 films and many television shows, including Star Wars and Death Valley Days (hosted by Ronald Reagan), have used this unique setting as a backdrop.
Furnace Creek Inn
In a land where a place called Dante’s View looks out over a place called Badwater, Death Valley is seemingly the last place to look for heaven on earth. Then again, America’s deserts are about nothing if not extremes, provoking volatile reactions from those who visit them. People either hightail it at the first glimpse of sand and scrub, or they put down roots, finding inspiration rather than dread in the apparent desolation laid out before them.
Some of the most notable examples of desert architecture are the hotels and inns that opened up the terrain to travelers looking for creature comforts where heretofore there had only been creatures. These desert oases were instant classics that set the standard for their time, and continue to do so today.
The Furnace Creek Inn opened its doors on February 1, 1927, which happened to be Clark Gable’s 26th birthday. Los Angeles architect Albert C. Martin designed the mission-style structure set into a low ridge overlooking Furnace Creek Wash. Paiute and Shoshone Indian laborers made the adobe bricks by hand. A Spanish stonemason named Steve Esteves created the Moorish-influenced stonework.
That first season, 2,252 guests stayed at the Inn. The second year saw 3,100 guests. From 1928 to 1930, 20 additional rooms were added and a swimming pool was built. And what a pool it was! Water from Travertine Springs, up the wash, was piped down, into and through the pool into the inn’s gardens and finally down to a date grove. The water was a constant 85 degrees, naturally filtered and was (and is today) a delightful desert phenomenon.
By the 1928 season, black-uniformed attendants provided the ultimate in service. The inn was a truly European luxury hostelry in the opulent, pre-depression period of American history. It was especially intriguing to the public because of its quiet and desolate surroundings.
Since highway conditions were not good, it was decided to promote use of the Tonopah & Tidewater and Death Valley Railroads as the best transportation available. Two transcontinental railroads the Union Pacific and the Santa Fe agreed to promote package tours and tourist travel to Death Valley. Travelers would transfer from transcontinental trains to the Tonopah & Tidewater, riding to Death Valley Junction, where they would board the Death Valley Railroad’s gas-powered railcar to Ryan and travel on to the Furnace Creek Inn in open touring cars.
Every room in the Furnace Creek Inn was heated by its own fireplace until 1935, when a central tower was built along with an additional 21 rooms and central steam heat. Continued additions to the inn took place every year until 1940.
Even during the Great Depression, from 1935 to 1941, the number of visitors to the inn averaged 11,000 per year. The 1937 construction of a downstairs bar was a technological feat accomplished by former mining superintendent Harry Gower and a man named Jimmy Gill. Gill was in charge of tunneling under the Inn’s dining room to construct the bar. However, he used too much dynamite in one instance and blew a hole clear through the dining room floor. Though Gower wasn’t pleased, Jimmy Gill always told the story as one of the funniest moments in the building of the Furnace Creek Inn.
During the late 1930s, many celebrities, including William Powell, Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis, John Barrymore, Jimmy Stewart and many others, stayed at the spectacular luxury oasis. Guests also included honeymooners, including one especially well-known pair.
Clark Gable and his second wife, Ria Langham, had by that time been separated for so long that the exact duration of their marriage was debatable. Nearly 12 years had passed since Gable first became involved with Ria in 1927.
Gossip columnist Louella Parsons phoned actress Carole Lombard, Gable’s new romantic interest, when divorce news finally broke. Before then Lombard had never gone public about her relationship with Gable or their plans to marry. “When Clark gets a few days off, perhaps we’ll sneak away and have the ceremony performed,” Lombard told Parsons.
Lombard’s hint of an elopement caused newspaper reporters to establish a 24-hour watch on her home in Bel Air, California. In the next few days she and Gable received many telegrams and letters from resort hotels, chambers of commerce, and justices of the peace with suggested times and places for the wedding.
Gable asked Otto Winkler, the MGM staff publicist who handled all of the actor’s dealings with the press, to find some remote spot that was somewhat nearer to Hollywood than Timbuktu. Winkler hit on Kingman, Arizona, a small town located 400 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
On March 25, Gable learned that he would have six days off from filming. Otto Winkler urged him and Lombard to get married then. Due to a lucky coincidence, most of the Hollywood press corps would be away on a junket to San Francisco to attend the world premiere of the movie The Story of Alexander Graham Bell.
Winkler’s boss, Howard Strickling, wanted the newlyweds to be available for a press conference in Los Angeles the morning after the elopement. To accomplish that, they would have to make the 800-mile round trip to Kingman by car in one day.
Gable and Lombard left Los Angeles at dawn on March 29, 1939, with their wedding clothes packed in a suitcase. They traveled with Otto Winkler in his blue DeSoto coupe. Gable took turns driving with Winkler, who would serve as best man. Whenever they stopped for gas, they first pulled off to the side of the road so that Gable could hide under a blanket and not be spotted.
Reaching Kingman in the late afternoon, they drove straight to the town hall. The clerk on duty in the marriage bureau recognized Gable and became so flustered that she couldn’t speak when she handed him the license application forms. Gable gave his age as 38 and his occupation as “actor.” Lombard subtracted a year from her age and claimed to be 29.
Without revealing the couple’s names, Otto Winkler had arranged for the minister of the First Methodist-Episcopal Church to perform the ceremony. When Gable and Lombard arrived at the rectory, neither the minister nor his wife showed any signs of recognition. They escorted the couple to separate rooms so they could change into their wedding clothes.
Had the wedding taken place in Hollywood, it would have been another MGM spectacular, but in Kingman, not even the local newspaper knew about it. After the ceremony, Lombard phoned her mother in Los Angeles. Gable got on the line and said, “This is your new son-in-law, Mom.” After returning to Los Angeles, the two left for a honeymoon at the Furnace Creek Inn.
Three years later, the Furnace Creek Inn closed its doors for World War II, from the spring of 1942 until the fall of 1945. The only visitors were soldiers from nearby army camps who came to swim in the pool. After the war, the inn would reopen, as elegant as ever.
Built in the late 1920’s by the Pacific Coast Borax Company to accommodate an increasing number of visitors to “the hottest place on earth,” the Furnace Creek Inn forever changed the image of Death Valley from that of a desolate inferno to a stylish winter resort. Beautifully constructed of colorful local stone, including travertine, the wings of the luxury hotel enclose a palm garden with clear, bubbling streams.
One of the best reviews the Inn ever received was its first, in 1927, published in the trade magazine, The Chain Store Manager. “To think that miles away from civilization, in the heart of a wilderness of mountains and desert,” said the magazine, “one could find the luxury accommodations provided here is no less than remarkable.” A visit to the Furnace Creek Inn is soothing, informative and inspirational. I can’t wait to return.
If You Go
The inn clings against the Funeral Mountains and overlooks the barren belly of Death Valley. I paid dearly enough $300 a night in high season but my room opened onto a stone terrace above the tennis courts, pool and garden. There was a border of vintage Malibu tile in the bath, Empire-style lamps by the bed, and a (nonworking) fireplace in the corner.
The rambling inn seems a faithfully maintained piece of historic California, like San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado and Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel. Dinner in the formal restaurant spinach salad with dates, pork loin and chocolate bread pudding, with a Napa Ridge Pinot Noir was excellent.
The Furnace Creek Inn is available to guests from mid-October through mid-May. From mid-May through mid-October all operations are consolidated at the Furnace Creek Ranch. Click Here
Furnace Creek is served by the lowest airstrip in the United States, at 211 feet below sea level. The runway is 3,065 x 70 feet and more than adequate for most light aircraft.
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