The Death Valley area is dotted with the remains of man's folly, but one of the most audacious failures has to be the old Epsom salts mine and monorail. This morning we're standing at the trailhead in the Owlshead Mountains checking over our gear. We're finally going to get a chance to hike down to the site and do some exploring. It's a difficult area to get to. First of all, just to get to the trailhead involves a day of driving into this remote area and an overnight camp in order to get an early start the next day. The other difficulty is that although the site of the mine in the Crystal Hills Wash is actually in Death Valley National Park, it's surrounded on three sides by the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake. This makes the hike a bit more interesting. Be sure that you don't stray onto the base and get annihilated by a rocket. We're glad that we have our GPS. One of the biggest draws for us is that we've seen very few photos of this area. So if you join us today we'll get a chance to do some detailed exploring and find out what's down there.
We hope to not only check out the mine but also the remains of the 28 mile long monorail that was built to haul out the Epsomite. Calling it a mine is a bit of a stretch. Actually, it was a surface deposit and at its peak in 1924 to 1925 around fifteen "miners" were employed to scrape up the salts using garden hoes. Thomas Wright, the Los Angeles florist who owned and started the venture in 1922, added to the Rube Goldberg atmosphere by deciding on a monorail to transport the salts across two mountain ranges to Magnesia Siding near Trona. Wright's American Magnesium Company decided to support the single rail on wooden trestles that marched across the desert like a demented centipede. Unfortunately, the wood for the trestles was green Douglas fir and almost immediately began to warp and splinter. Cloudbursts washed out sections of the trestles. The tractors that hauled the ore were underpowered and had primitive braking systems, even though one epic run covered the twenty eight miles in one hour flat, gaining the title of "The Fastest Monorail in the World." Added to these problems was the fact that the pure hydrated magnesium sulfate was quickly exhausted and further scraping produced poor quality material that was composed of almost 50% sand, debris and other salts. In 1926 the mine shut down and in the 1930's the single rail was taken up for scrap and most of the large wooden "riding beams" that sat atop the A-frame trestles and supported the rail were also removed.
We have a couple of questions that we hope this hike will answer. First of all, what's left at the mine site in the Crystal Hills Wash? The fact that so many men were employed over several years would seem to indicate that there should be remains of some structures and some historic debris. Secondly, what's left of the monorail? We've heard that some of the A-frame trestles still survive, but could we find some with the wooden riding beam still intact? We won't find any answers standing around here, so let's get going! Click on the link below to join us in the virtual version of our hike. You'd better bring some extra virtual water 'cause it's going to be hot today and we've got a long way to go!