Death Valley has always been a land steeped in legend. Many factors have combined to make it so. The valley is extremely remote and incredibly barren. The westbound 49'ers who used the Death Valley trail had to cross the arid Basin and Range province of southern Nevada and then the Amargosa Desert before they even reached the eastern ramparts of Death Valley. When the emaciated Argonauts stumbled out of the Amargosa Desert and dragged themselves to Furnace Creek Wash, they realized that the worst lay ahead of them as they gazed down at the inferno of Death Valley.
The valley has also attained legendary status in the mining world by virtue of its many mines. These include those that were found and developed (such as the mines at Panamint City, Ballarat, Harrisburg, Greenwater, Skidoo, and Chloride City), and those that were found and then lost. The list of Death Valley lost mines is indeed impressive. Some of the most famous lost mines of the Old West reside in the Death Valley area. These include the Lost Dutch Oven Mine, John Galler's Lost Mine, the Lost Chinaman Mine, the Lost Breyfogle, and the most famous all, the Lost Gunsight Mine.
The 49'ers who chose the untested Death Valley route were divided into a number of companies. These included the Manly-Bennett party, the Jayhawker party, a group of southerners from Georgia and Mississippi, the Towne-Martin party, the Wade party, and a small group of Argonauts led by J.W. Brier. The various parties split up and made their way westward across the Death Valley depression, through the forbidding Panamint Range, and then across the Panamint Valley to the Argus Range beyond. When the 49'ers emerged from the cauldron of Death Valley, they carried away with them the memory of a hellish and unforgiving land.
Something else was carried out of the valley that winter of 1849. It was fixed to the end of a rifle barrel owned by one of the Argonauts. Some accounts mention a member of the Jayhawker party as the owner of the rifle; other accounts claim that the rifle was owned by Captain Towne of the Towne-Martin party. All accounts agree on one thing. The homemade rifle sight was fashioned out of pure silver.
During the passage from Furnace Creek Wash to the Panamints, the owner of the rifle was out hunting when he stumbled on a low-lying hillock or mound of pure native silver! The owner used some of the silver to mold a primitive gunsight for his rifle. This rifle with its silver sight created quite a stir in the mining camps of the Mother Lode. Indeed, within a year one of the prospectors returned to Death Valley to search for the hill of silver.
The Lost Gunsight Mine generated a flurry of prospecting that lasted through the 1850's and 1860's. Many gold and silver strikes were made in the Death Valley area as a consequence of this prospecting frenzy. While searching for the Lost Gunsight Mine in 1860, a prospector named Alvord found gold in the Panamint Range. Dr. Darwin French, who named many of Death Valley's features, discovered silver veins in Wildrose Canyon and in the Coso Range while searching for the Lost Gunsight Mine. Prospectors found silver in the Panamint Range and the Slate Range, but none of these deposits matched the fabulous Gunsight Mine. Many of the original members of the Jayhawker party and the Manly-Bennett party returned to the Death Valley area to search for the hill of silver, but all in vain. It was never found.
The history of mining in the Death Valley region of California really begins with the discovery of incredibly rich silver deposits in the Panamint Range, near the head of Surprise Canyon. The discovery occurred in January of 1873; by the following year a horde of prospectors had descended on the Panamints. A rough and tumble mining camp called Panamint City sprang up near the silver mines.
The new silver camp quickly acquired a bad reputation for lawlessness and hell-raising. And no wonder. The canyon had long been used as a hideout for local outlaws. Indeed, the first silver strikes in Surprise Canyon had been made by outlaws hiding out in the canyon! The Panamint City silver mines began to play out after only 3 years of operation. By 1877, Panamint City was a dead camp.
In spite of the legendary Gunsight Mine and the great silver discoveries of the 1870's, the Death Valley region would ultimately be famous for its gold deposits. The great Death Valley gold strikes occurred late in the mining history of California. Not until 1897 did the first of the big discoveries take place. It was during that year that extremely rich gold deposits were located only 7 miles south of the old site of Panamint City, in the heart of the Panamints. A mining camp called Ballarat sprang up on the western edge of the mountains, near the mouth of Pleasant Canyon. The gold mines at Ballarat yielded nearly 50,000 ounces of the yellow metal before the veins gave out. In 1903,
prospectors stumbled on equally rich gold deposits in a small basin in the Funeral Range, near Chloride Cliff. A mining town known as Chloride City sprouted up near the mines in 1905. The district produced some 60,000 ounces of gold, most of which came from the famous Keane Wonder and Chloride Cliff mines.
1905 was a watershed year in the mining history of the Death Valley country. It was during that year that the Harrisburg gold deposits, the Leadfield copper and lead bodies, and the Greenwater copper deposits were all discovered. Unfortunately, all three were extremely short-lived. Greenwater lasted but 4 years, Harrisburg 3, and Leadfield barely 2 short years.
But the biggest strike of all was still left to be made. In 1906, massive lode deposits of gold were discovered only 6 miles northwest of Harrisburg, near Emigrant Canyon. The mining town of Skidoo sprang up nearby. Named for the popular aphorism "23-Skidoo", the mining camp of Skidoo was one of the last of the old-time boom towns. The "Skidoovian" gold deposits poured out a river of the yellow metal; nearly 200,000 ounces of it! But like most mining towns, Skidoo's days were numbered. By 1917, most of the mines had closed down and the town faded away.