Ghost Towns of the Mojave
Part 2 Page 3
Text and photos by David A. Wright
"It's twenty after six, Sunday, April 11. 1999 That's the sound of frying bacon. Standing here at the back of the truck. Tailgate open. Coleman on the tailgate. Standing next to a rock wall here in Lee. Where we camped last night. Cooking my breakfast and getting my coffee ready."
So were my first recorded words of the day, spoken from the ghost town of Lee, California; situated at the eastern foot of the Funeral Range east of Death Valley. I was up before the others, greeting the morning with relish. As opposed to the previous night of tossing, turning and freezing at the Capricorn Mine, I slept well at Lee ghost town. The calm air of dawn in a ghost town made my first cup of hot coffee special.
A slight cloud cover indicated an approaching weather front that was forecast to be passing through, although I doubted it would have much impact on us by the time the vast deserts, the Sierra Nevada and the Panamint Ranges sucked out their ample share of whatever moisture those clouds contained. It was cool but not uncomfortably so.
My camping partners, George Huxtable, president of the Death Valley Hikers Association, and Alan Patera, publisher of WESTERN PLACES Magazine, awoke and got their systems jump started. We then all scattered about the ghost town of Lee in a morning of exploration and discovery. Lee was a wonderland of stone foundations, stair steps, cellars, tailing piles and desert isolation.
In 1904, brothers Richard and Gus Lee left their ranch at Resting Spring and decided to try prospecting. In November, with the help of Henry F. Finney, they found two gold ledges that they named the Hayseed and the State Line, located at the eastern foot of the Funeral Range, 30 miles south of Rhyolite. These were situated just inside the California State line, west of Amargosa Valley.
A stampede began, and the Lee Mining District was formed in March 1905. The rush created the townsites of Lee, California and Lee, Nevada, each within sight of the other. In between, straddling the state line, was Lee Annex, sometimes referred to as North Addition. In May 1905, the Lee brothers optioned the Hayseed Mine to W.F. Patrick, a Goldfield speculator, for the sum of $75,000, with $7,500 down. Patrick died two months later, and the mine returned to the Lee brothers, who kept the $7,500 cash. They schemed that they could make some serious ready assets by optioning and re-optioning the Hayseed, but they soon found themselves and the mine wrapped up in litigation.
The Lee boom reached its zenith in 1907, with a population of about 600 for the entire district. By February of that year, the fracas over the Hayseed was cleared and production began. Further zeal was added when the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad, then under construction, passed within a few miles of the district and within sight, on its way to Rhyolite. A townsite rivalry began, Lee, California becoming the favorite. Of the 600 people in the district, Lee, California grabbed more than half -- 300 men plus 20 women populated the townsite.
There were many saloons, and a red light district flourished in the location dutifully delineated by the Lee Board of Trade. Lee also had a post office, which opened March 7, 1907 with John H. Lawrence as the first postmaster. A large union hall was erected by the Death Valley Miners Union, Local No. 258 of the Western Federation of Miners.
The Lee Herald began publication October 15, 1907 by Earl Clemens to compliment his other newspapers, the Rhyolite Herald and Skidoo News. A telephone line was run to the camp from Rhyolite. At first, auto and horse-drawn stages ran to the camp from Rhyolite, later to run 6 miles to and from Leeland Station on the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad in the valley below. These stages connected with the two trains each day. Inyo County recognized the swelling population and appointed a justice of the peace, who also served as the tax collector. None of the towns in the Lee region had their own water. That had to be hauled in by Adolph Nevares from Rose Well at $5 a barrel. This price prompted most to travel to Rhyolite for their baths.
The financial panic of 1907 caused dull times in 1908, leading to the eventual death of all the Lee family. Lee, California hung on the longest. At the beginning of the year, the Hayseed shipped its first load of paydirt, 18 tons worth, brining in an income of $1,314. However, that load was to be its last. Nothing less than $50 per ton ore could pay costs, even though the railroad was running by, literally at the foot of Lee.
Saleable ore was found only in small pockets that already had been exhausted, and so the superintendent closed down the Hayseed by summer. The Lee Herald suspended publication in February. By summer, there was only one saloon left. Not everyone left Lee. Enough miners and prospectors stuck around for a few more years that William H. Lillard kept a store open until 1912. There were enough people around for the post office to keep its door open until April 1, 1912.
Today at Lee, Alan, George and I found an abundance of stone ruins scattered around a townsite about a third of a mile square, along with a nearly solid ground covering of cans and broken glass. There were countless stone cairns standing watch about the region on both sides of the state line, empty mine tunnels and shafts are found on the floor of the canyon and on the hillsides. The largest tailings pile belong to Hayseed. A tranquil calm over the ghost town assisted by soft coloration given by the light overcast was a prominent quality of our experience at Lee townsite.
At 10:00 a.m., it was time to move on. We all wanted to explore the other Lee's that placed their names on this landscape where the Funeral and Amargosa, California and Nevada meet. Backtracking 0.8 miles eastward, we came to the footings of a large stone corral that marked the Lee Annex, sometimes called North Addition. Though the ruins are not as condensed as at the main Lee townsite, there are still enough building sites to make exploration interesting. About 200 yards north of the present route into Lee, I found what appeared to have been the primary thoroughfare during Lee's heyday, and there were rows of building remains on each side of it. As at the primary townsite, cans and broken glass littered the ground.
A dim road traced its way through the creosote northeastward; mine tailings on the slope of the eastern hills indicated Lee, Nevada. Our 4x4 vehicles were among the first in many a moon to pass this way. At 0.2 miles we passed out of California and Death Valley National Park (the state line and park boundary is marked on every pathway and road by small plastic posts), driving through Lee Annex. We were so busy trying to find the road, we didn't notice anything interesting. Our sights were on the hills ahead, the site of Lee, Nevada.
Coming to a vertical shaft with a medium-size tailing pile, we stopped our vehicles to get out and explore. Unlike those mine shafts and tunnels within Death Valley National Park, this shaft didn't have the safety of a cable net that would keep anyone or anything larger than a music CD from plunging to a likely death. Scattered nearby was more evidence that the Tin Age climaxed in Death Valley: tin was everywhere in the form of square, tin 1-gallon cans, tin sardine cans, round tin cans, oblong tin cans, rectangular tin cans, flattened tin cans. If there is a common denominator in Death Valley ghost towns and mining camps, it is tin, analogous to most every historic site in the region linked to man other than the Indians.
Retracing our route back to the main road from Amargosa Valley, we noticed this time more ruins on the Nevada side of Lee Annex. The stone cairn army stationed granite troops up to and upon the state line, indicating prospectors didn't care one wit for political lines drawn upon a once-empty desert. Stone ruins dotted the flat plain, tin and glass were found hither and yon. A brief stop to examine a couple of these delayed our trip a bit, then we rejoined the main road just inside California again, and immediately turned back into Nevada. Our next goal was the Longstreet Casino so that George Huxtable could return to Las Vegas for his flight for home.
Our two-vehicle caravan dropped back down into the ranching community of Amargosa Valley. Once we hit the bladed dirt road at the edge of the populated area, I recorded this statement: "Boy! Frontier Road, I was complaining about it yesterday, but it's like a freeway now, compared to what we've been driving on for the last two days!"
We continued eastward a short distance, then turned onto another dirt road indistinguishable from the others, other than direction. In a short distance, a raised mound running parallel to the road indicated that we once again crossed paths with the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad, this time at what was once a whistle stop called Leeland.
Leeland was established when the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad reached the northern Amargosa Valley in 1906. Leeland derived its revenues from the mining going on at the Lee camps to the west. Facilities for service were established by the railroad due to the abundant water in the lower Amargosa Valley. A post office was established November 23, 1911 and discontinued November 14, 1914. The Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad was abandoned during WWII and its tracks pulled up.
Today, there is scant evidence of Leeland. The most obvious remnants are the concrete foundations of the water tower and pump house. The concrete footing pads for the water tower can be found within the gradient of the dirt road. Scattered debris, broken cement slabs, and dead trees and live salt cedars are found across the street from an occupied home. A few ties remain on the grade as it makes a westward turn to clear Big Dune, looming to the north.
I also found a few spikes and a boxcar seal that bore the stamping "T&T RR #35027." A boxcar seal is a thin, soft metal (usually aluminum) strip with a clasp on one end. It is run through a looped bracket on the doors of a boxcar, bottom dump on a gondola car, or doors of a semi trailer; they are still in common use today. The Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad seal is now on display at the Beatty Museum.
When we completed our windy tour of Leeland, our caravan continued back to the Longstreet Casino to pick up George's car. George had to leave our exploration party so he could return to the San Francisco Bay area and his job in the banking industry. As I drove to the Longstreet, I noted that the incoming storm front was making itself known -- a brisk wind was picking up and Mount Charleston in the Spring Mountains to our east was becoming veiled in descending precipitation. Since the calendar read April, that precipitation meant snow.
Back at the Longstreet, we bid George goodbye, and he raced out of the parking lot in his shiny Nissan rental car. Alan and I decided it was lunch time and sampled the food inside, admiring the views of the looming Funeral Mountains through the huge picture windows, the scene freshened up with a verdant golf course within the view.
Leaving the Longstreet behind, Alan, driving his Ford Explorer, and myself driving my Chevrolet S-10 4x4 truck, turned north a short distance on Nevada 373, then swiftly turned east on Spring Meadows Road. This road would take us on a shortcut to Pahrump. The road was a fine dirt highway, cutting across the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, blue ponds filled with the rare desert pupfish and Jack Longstreet country.
Jack Longstreet lived in this region during the late 1800s when the nearby camps of Chispa (Spanish for "nugget"), Johnnie and Montgomery briefly boomed. Longstreet was well known for his bravado, prowess with a Colt .44 long barrel pistol and his acute sense of right and wrong in this land far from civilization. Today, a spring three miles north of the roadway still bears his name and remains of a stone hovel that he and his Indian wife once called home.
Leaving Ash Meadows, past Devil's Hole and over a low pass through a range of hills bordering the east side of the Meadows, we dropped down into Amargosa Flat. The well-bladed road we were traveling became prohibitive when we came across a sign in the road indicating it was a private hauling road for a local mining outfit somewhere up ahead. A line of telephone poles crossed the playa, so Alan led us on a real adventure along the dim track that ran alongside the pole line.
Wet and greasy from the recent rain, both the Ford and Chevy that served as our modern day wagons slithered crazily through the playa mud; large clumps of sticky mud slinging off churning front wheels as they clawed for traction where there was little. Large lumps of doughy slush hit my windshield, developing into an oozing slime with my windshield wipers and washer working to keep my vision clear. After a couple of miles of vehicular frolicking Alan and I returned to pavement at a collection of mobile homes and permanent structures. Thinking it was an RV park, I wondered why Alan suddenly sprung from his Explorer with his 35mm camera in hand to capture this collection of humanity until I realized we were parked in front of the Cherry Patch brothel. He completed his candid photography around the corner at Mabel's.
End of page 3 part 2
All photos are copyright David A. Wright
Death Valley National Park
4-Wheeling the Lippincott Mine Road - Death Valley
The Racetrack Playa of Death Valley National Park
4-Wheel Trail Driving Tips
Ballarat Ghost Town - Death Valley
Share this page on Facebook:
DesertUSA Newsletter -- We send articles on hiking, camping and places to explore, as well as animals, wildflower reports, plant information and much more. Sign up below or read more about the DesertUSA newsletter here. (It's Free.)