Archive for the ‘history’ Category
Late afternoon on April 4th, and I’m making my way northward out of Utah. It’s the easter weekend. Just over the line into Idaho, I stop at a busy gas bar and find my van among cars and SUVs with out-of-state licence plates, crammed with parents and children on their way to or from family gatherings. I seem to be the only lone driver. The dogs peer through the van windows, puzzled by the frantic activity as people run back and forth between their cars at the pumps, and the convenience store where they are loading up on pop, chocolate bars and bags of chips. We depart and soon turn off the interstate, heading cross country to our destination – City of Rocks National Reserve in the Albion Mountains near Almo, Idaho.
Arriving at the visitor center too late to speak with anyone about the campgrounds, I study the brochures and find my way to the Smoky Mountain campground set among the tree clad slopes at the entrance to City of Rocks. The signboard lists winter rates and informs that there is power at the sites, but the water won’t be turned on for a few more weeks. I drive up and cruise around, looking for a good site. There are several horse camping sites with the best shelter among the juniper on the high side of the campground. Apparently, I’m the only one crazy enough to be up on this snowy mountainside, so decide that no one will object if I choose a site with a corral.
I plug in the extension cord and set up the small heater fan which can occasionally be turned on to warm up the van if it gets too cold during the night. Surprisingly, my blackberry is able to send and receive email notes if I position it just right at a particular spot against a metal strip in the back window frame – a discovery which I made while camped at other more remote areas in northern Ontario. I send a message to my mom that the dogs and I have a nice campsite up in the mountains, and are comfortable, lying in our bed, listening to the first evening calls of a Great Horned Owl. I soon doze off and awake at some point during the night, feeling as though someone may have just driven by on the nearby lane. I check the time and then lie looking out the van window at the million dollar view of the valley and mountains beyond, wondering if I was dreaming, or if someone actually did drive by this lonely place at around 3 a.m. I’m pretty sure it was just one of the odd dreams I have when camped off on my own.
Just before dawn, I awake to the whispering of wind as snow flakes whirl through the juniper. I decide to get us on the move as I’m not sure of the weather. The clouds feel ominous and heavy with precipitation as they scrape over the mountains, trailing a broad veil of snow behind. I want enough time to visit City of Rocks before continuing northward and am not sure if the roads will begin to ice up. On this day, I’m not feeling much like getting stuck or sliding off the shoulder. I follow the roadway to the peculiar granite formations, but stop to photograph the stone ruins of an old house on the bend as the first formations loom into view. It feels particularly forlorn in this place – but that has more to do with my state of mind this morning.
I stop periodically to photograph the granite crags and monolithic boulders rising up out of the silvery sagebrush.
I’ve read enough about this place to know that there are inscriptions on the rocks – many made by those who traveled the California Trail by oxcart in the 1800s. City of Rocks lay at a point where those who traveled west either continued northwest on the Oregon Trail, or turned to the southwest and passed through City of Rocks to follow the California Trail. As many as 200,000 people passed through this region, stopping to camp by springs among the formations. Those who passed through this range sometimes left their mark on the granite, painting their names in tar or wheel grease. Perhaps this inscription on Camp Rock was made by one of these visitors long ago.
On an interpretive sign, I find this little sketchbook entry. For some reason, it speaks to me on this day – here in this snowy landscape surrounded by frozen granite that seems to sap every bit of warmth out of me. My hands are becoming increasingly numb as I fumble with the settings on my camera. J. Goldsborough Bruff wrote:
Night very cold, hardly slept, – on ground, – sick, took laudanum.
No sign yet of my train. Left card in sarcoph cave rock.
Bruff is, no doubt, referring to a cave beneath Sarcophus Rock which was used as a place for travelers to leave mail and messages. See this page for further information on messages and inscriptions.
After spending about an hour alone, listening to the sound of snow sifting between these great rocks, I turn the van around to follow my own tracks back out to the highway. There was plenty more driving to do before we would make that night’s destination in Montana. Before leaving, I altered my campsite receipt to mark the date – April 5th – Don’s 58th birthday. I hope that, in some form or another, his spirit was able to spend a little time at City of Rocks. I know he would have loved being there with us.
After leaving Lone Pine, a photographer friend and I followed 136 south past Owens Lake – a vast dry lake bed lying between the Inyo Mountains to the east, and the Sierras to the west. Stopping to tour the small town of Keeler, we shot a few photos of older buildings, then continued on our way to the junction with 190. From there, we made our way east, stopping numerous times to photograph the landscape, building ruins, and quite a few rocks (one of my favourite subjects). Deciding to knock off early, we spent the night at the small RV park and campground at Panamint Springs. Once again, we were the only campers, but just before dusk, a lone motorcyclist pulled in to set up his tent. It was a cool but tolerable night. Splurging on an RV spot, we spent the evening recharging batteries for cameras and other gear, and used the wifi connection to catch up on email to those back home. In the morning, I filled the tank on the van, then turned us south onto Panamint Valley Road. At the Trona-Wildrose Road junction, we turned northeast and began the slow climb into the Panamint Range where the highest peaks in Death Valley are located. I’ve decided to spare you my collection of rock photos and limit this post to the main highlight of our small foray into the Death Valley region.
At around 6,800 feet, the Wildrose charcoal kilns are considered to be the best preserved of their kind in the western states. No doubt, their survival probably has a lot to do with their remote location. They are accessible by car as the road is paved most of the way up, but turns to somewhat bumpy gravel a couple of miles before arriving at the parking lot. From that point onwards, it’s recommended that only higher clearance vehicles should attempt the road on up to the Thorndike and Mahogany Flat campgrounds, and the trail head for Telescope Peak (elev. 11,049 ft). We did drive up to Thorndike (7,400 feet) to take a look around at the campsites, but decided that it was too cold and windy on that day, so spent the night down at the Wildrose campground (4,100 feet).
Although I’d seen photographs of these kilns, I must admit that, as they came into view, I was entirely blown away by their size, shape and state of preservation. Regardless of how one may feel about their significance as industrial artifacts, they are really quite beautiful in a very organic sense – seeming almost like over-sized bee skeps set within a wash of sage and rabbitbrush. Ten in number, they sit arrayed equidistant in a line between the road and the base of the mountain slope. They are made of local rock which has been mortared together. Remnants of the lime kiln, used to make cement for the mortar, may be found a short distance behind the charcoal kilns.
I spent a good hour shooting many photos of the exterior and interior of the kilns from many angles, all the while marveling over the incredible precision of the workmanship. The interpretive signage in the parking lot states that the kilns were designed by Swiss engineers and built by Chinese laborers. They were constructed in the mid-eighteen-seventies in order to produce charcoal which was then used to fuel the silver-lead bullion smelters operated by the Modoc Consolidated Mining Company, located approximately twenty-five miles west in the Argus range.
After some searching around on the net to find further information on the kilns, I believe that much of what I’ve read must originate with a booklet entitled Wildrose Charcoal Kilns by Robert J. Murphy, former superintendent of Death Valley Monument (Death Valley Natural History Association, 1972). Here’s a little of what I’ve learned:
The kilns are approximately 25 1/2 feet high, and 32 feet in diameter. The walls are about 24 inches thick at the bottom, thinning to 12 inches near the top. There have been two major restorations of the kilns – the first by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s, and the second in the early 1970s, when Navajo masons with expertise in working on ruins, came from Arizona to fully restore the stonework. It took 42 cords of wood to fill each of the ten kilns. After a week of burning and a few more days of cooling, each cord would have produced about 45 to 50 bushels of charcoal – or about 2,000 bushels of charcoal per kiln. The charcoal was then moved by wagon by the Cerro Gordo Freighting Company owned by Remi Nadeau. Just a bit of trivia, but from a 2004 newsletter of the Historical Society of the Upper Mojave Desert, I found that Remi Nadeau was a French-Canadian, born in Quebec in 1821. After working in the eastern U.S., he traveled west in 1860 in an attempt to cash in on the gold rush. He started up his Cerro Gordo Freighting Company and became one of the principal operators in eastern California, one reference stating that he operated 80 freight teams. I’ve always found it interesting how much people got around the continent in spite of the slowness of travel in those days.
According to this page from the Remote Nevada website, the ten kilns averaged 3,000 bushels of charcoal per day. This was transported to the above-mentioned Modoc Consolidated Mining Company smelters owned by George Hearst, father of the newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst. At the smelters, the charcoal was used to fire furnaces to produce silver-lead bullion. The kilns appear to have been active between 1876 and 1879, at which time the mines began to run out and became unprofitable. It barely needs to be stated that it required a massive supply of wood to produce charcoal for the mines. It took a team of about 40 woodcutters to keep the kilns supplied with pinyon pine and juniper, cut and carried or skidded from the surrounding area. Talk about environmental impact. It never ceases to amaze what lengths mankind will go to when there’s a buck to be made.
Well, enough about the history. As artifacts, the kilns are beautiful structures. There’s something about them that seems almost monastic. It might be the vaulted ceilings and the acoustics when one is standing inside. It could be the way the golden desert sunlight glows in the arched doorways and the single high opening to the back. It could also have much to do with the secluded location. Somehow, it’s difficult to imagine them jammed full of smouldering pinyon logs. When active, it must have been a busy place, with people loading and unloading wood and charcoal. Now, there is just the sound of wind circulating through the kilns and the occasional echo of a voice or footstep. I must admit to being a somewhat surprised at how little time the visitors who trickled in and out would spend examining the kilns. Most drove up, snapped a few photos of themselves by the front door of a couple of domes closest to the parking lot, jumped back in their vehicles and drove away. While several groups came and went, I wandered slowly in and out of each kiln, examining the workmanship, finding many wonderful stones laid in the mortar, and thoroughly fascinated at how often the air vents along the bottom lined up with a vent on the opposite side of the dome. I have no idea if the pointed stones protruding near the peaks of the domes have any practical purpose, but they add just a touch of whimsy to the overall appearance.
I should make mention of the Wildrose Peak Trail which departs from the parking area for the kilns. It is 4.2 miles one way to the 9,064 foot summit. We didn’t do the hike as dogs are not allowed on trails within Death Valley Monument. On our return from the kilns to the campground, we stopped at the section of pipe mounted next to a sign describing the Skidoo water pipeline. It reads: The Skidoo Pipeline can be seen either north or south of this location. The pipeline, which ran from Birch Spring in Jail Canyon, to the Skidoo millsite 23 miles away, was completed in 1907 at a cost of $250,000. There is some speculation that the slang phrase 23 skidoo may have had its origin in Death Valley:
Death Valley National Park Service interpreters have sometimes given as an explanation that the early 1900s mining town of Skidoo, California required that a water line be dug from the source of water on Telescope Peak to the town – a distance of 23 miles. Most thought it would be easy, but the immensely hard rock along the course made it very difficult; it was eventually accomplished by a determined engineer. The term “23 Skidoo” was then used as a statement of irony, something like “duck soup”: a reference to something ‘apparently easy,’ but actually very difficult.
Whatever, the view down Wildrose Canyon with the Panamint Range beyond is really pretty stunning.