Located near the border of California and Nevada, Death Valley constitutes much of Death Valley National Park and is the principal feature of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts Biosphere Reserve. It has an area of about 3,000 square miles. In 1994 Death Valley National Park was established and covers over 3 million acres.
Death Valley's Badwater Basin is the point of the lowest elevation in North America, at 282 feet below sea level and it lies 84.6 miles east-southeast of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States. The highest point in Death Valley is Telescope Peak which has an elevation of 11,043 feet.
In spite of the extreme conditions, Native Americans lived in Death Valley and rock art has been found there dating back over 9000 years. Death Valley is home to the Timbisha tribe of Native Americans, formerly known as the Panamint Shoshone, who have inhabited the valley for at least the past millennium.
The valley received its English name in 1849 during the California Gold Rush. It was called Death Valley by those who sought to cross the valley on their way to the gold fields after 13 pioneers perished from one early expedition of wagon trains. During the 1850s, gold and silver were extracted in the valley.
In the 1880s, borax was discovered and extracted by mule-drawn wagons. A variety of mines and way-stations have come and gone since the mid-1800’s. Most have disappeared to time, but a few ghost towns still exist.
Borax is a component of many detergents, cosmetics, and enamel glazes. It is used to make buffer solutions in biochemistry, as a fire retardant, as an anti-fungal compound, in the manufacture of fiberglass, as a flux in metallurgy, neutron-capture shields for radioactive sources, a texturing agent in cooking.
|20 Mule Team hauling borax out of Death Valley|
Borax was first produced commercially in the United States north of San Francisco from about 1864 to 1868, at which place the industry flourished until the early 1870’s when borax began to turn up in large and purer quantities in several of the alkaline marshes of eastern California and western Nevada.
The discovery of borax north of the mouth of Furnace Creek was made in 1881 by Aaron and Rose Winters, whose holdings were immediately bought by William T. Coleman and Company for $20,000. He subsequently formed the Greenland Salt and Borax Mining Company (later the Harmony Borax Mining Company), which in 1882 began operating the Harmony Borax Works, a small settlement of adobe and stone buildings plus a refinery. The homestead was later known as the Furnace Creek Ranch, a supply point.
Several small mining enterprises were attempted, but didn't last long. It is amazing that any of these works experienced half the success they did because their distance from main transportation systems and the daily hardships involved in working under uncomfortable desert conditions were severe obstacles to their economic success.
A railroad was needed in order to open up these deposits, and this resulted in the construction of the Death Valley Narrow-gauge Railroad operating from Death Valley Junction to the newly-opened mines.
When the Death Valley Junction plant shut down in 1928, a significant era in borax production and processing in the Death Valley region came to an end. From then until 1956 mining all but ceased, with mines being kept on a standby basis and furnishing only small tonnages to fill special orders. This lull continued until Tenneco, Inc., started open-pit operations at the Boraxo Mine near Ryan in 1971. Borax mining continues in the area today.
Life is actually quite abundant in the Park, which is home to more than 300 species of birds including red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, LeConte's thrasher, Townsend's solitaire and the house finch. Also living there are mammals such as bighorn sheep and coyotes, as well as small mammals, amphibians and reptiles such as the desert banded gecko, the Pacific treefrog and a variety of lizards and snakes. The sidewinder is one of the more unusual snakes.
A number of movies have been shot partially on location within the confines of Death Valley National Park and at least a dozen movies and TV shows with the words "Death Valley" in the title actually were filmed in or near Death Valley.