Look at this, Magellan says more frequently during COVID, calling me to his computer screen to see the latest camping equipment he’s discovered. Not a better shower or a brighter lantern. It’s big-ticket items. Like a Defender. Pulling a Conqueror UEV-490 trailer, engineered and built in Australia. It is the Swiss Army Knife of off-road trailers. Pretty wow all right. I remind him how well Rove-Inn (mostly) performed on our two-month trip to the southwestern United States. Remember that night in Monarch Canyon Magellan asks, reminding me of being startled awake by Death Valley’s ferocious winds slapping at our canvas Airtop bed in the Funeral Mountains near Hell’s Gate. For half an hour we held down the slats to prevent the wind from whipping our bedroom off to the land of oz. Diverting his dream of a new unit, I remind him we haven’t posted a story on Monarch Canyon and its engineering marvel, an abandoned gold mine.
You won’t find the Indian Mine stamp mill in guidebooks or Death valley’s National Park brochures. What is advertised is a hike that begins at the mouth of the Monarch Canyon to a desert waterfall.
Magellan and I arrived late afternoon, passing Jeep Wranglers and Toyota Tundras parked by the side of the dirt road while we bumped further along into the canyon in search of a place to camp.
It was March, plenty of sunlight remaining in the day, so we laced up our hiking boots. Not seeing any trail signs, we started up a canyon path, only to be met by a chokehold neither of us wanted to tackle. Turning back, we followed another unmarked trail into the rocky ravine, arriving to the same fate.
We were alone in the canyon but walking the dirt road back to our campsite, dusk absorbing the desert light, we met a couple from Germany. Ah yes, they said, agreeing with us on the difficulty of climbing up and down the giant boulders blocking the trails. But, they asked, had we not seen the old mine site, the best reason to come to Monarch Canyon, a place they’d visited in previous years that’s reached by an easy walk? Yeah! to the kindness of well-travelled strangers.
After our sleep-deprived night and a hearty breakfast, we set off, following their directions down the south side of the canyon to the mill, a one-mile hike along the open wash that’s not overly strenuous.
In 1903 a member of the Shoshone Indian tribe, Johnny Hughes, discovered a gold ledge while hunting mountain sheep. A year later Johnny showed his find to the prospector A. K. Ishmael who named it Indian mine and found backers to bond the claim for $20,000 ($568,000 in today’s dollars).
Between January and April of 1906, workers tunneled sixty feet into the mountainside. The disastrous earthquake that year in San Francisco, gold central, put a hold on most everything, and Ishmael sold the claim to a mining company.
When preliminary assays showed the mine had $20/ton ore, Ishmael secured new financial backing in 1909 and procured a 21-year lease from the mining company. He found a partner with money and enthusiasm, Richard E. Clapp, and the pair set to work.
Remember the waterfall we tried to hike to? Ishmael and Clapp decided there was enough water to supply a small mill. Building it would save them the labour of packing out raw ore. They hired four men and by August 1910 they had completed a one-quarter-mile pipeline from the local spring, bought a Nissen one-stamp mill and began operating their reduction plant.
Alas, only one shipment of ore ever left Monarch canyon—the small bar of crude bullion they sent to a smelter assayed negative for gold. Ishmael gave up and left the country. Site evidence indicates that if Clapp worked the mine after 1910, it was not for long.
Were they hapless dreamers, greedy gold-seekers or skilled entrepreneurs? Let us judge gently, as William Butler Yeats suggest:
I have spread my dreams beneath your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Fascinated with how well the operation has withstood the ravage forces of Death Valley, Magellan and I lingered in the cool, refreshing air until, permeated by the heat from the furnace of the sun, the desert morning disappeared.
Daring to dream of a new-normal after COVID…
The National Park Service has a thorough history of the Indian Mill stamp mine.