JANUARY 18, 19, 20, 2002













            Although the town of Barstow is well-known to anyone who has ever driven in or through the Mojave Desert, even if only on the way to Las Vegas, the surrounding territory is often unfamiliar to the casual traveler. Most are aware of the outlet malls and the commercialized ghost town of Calico, but there is much more to be seen and experienced by those who venture off the beaten path. The area north of Barstow boasts large fossil beds (near Rainbow Basin), vanished mining camps, and a profusion of ancient Indian petroglyphs. There are abandoned opal mines, expansive lake beds and desert valleys, and there is history in abundance. To the north lie the restricted areas of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center, the Goldstone Deep Space Tracking Station, and the U.S. Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin. This particular portion of the California desert is the location of our Vituscan Missionaries historical trek.

          A short distance from our Clampsite are the active mining claims that are the remnants of the mining camp of Coolgardie, about 18 miles northwest of Barstow. Coolgardie was a series of dry-washing camps, and one of the few placer districts in the desert. The first gold discoveries here date to 1896. The Yucca Claim Company was formed and mining began. Because of a general lack of water in the vicinity, various types of dry-washers and concentrators were used to recover the gold, Water was hauled in by wagon, and sold for as much as $1 a barrel. The chief claim in the vicinity, the Black Nugget, was discovered in 1900. Miners typically made from $5 to $25 a day. One rich claim is said to have yielded $100 a day. At the height of the boom, as many as 600 people were living in Coolgardie.

        The lack of water, however, made living difficult and mining a chancy proposition. The only business that Coolgardie supported was a short-lived liquor store or saloon. As late as 1910 there was a small settlement here, with a few cabins scattered over several square miles of desert. By then, the district is said to have produced about $100,000 in gold. Around World War I, a mining syndicate bought the land and kept a watchman on the scene, but the mines remained idle. During the 1920s and 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, individual miners worked the area, finding enough gold to "make wages", and several miners lived here well into the 1930s. Recreational dry-washing of placer gold remains popular in the area up to the present day.

          Three other locations in the vicinity are worth mentioning here. A little north of Coolgardie is the site of Crutts Well. There was a post office here from 1916 to 1922. The old well is now dry, though a stone water tank lined with concrete is still present. Just south of the boundary of the Deep Space Tracking Station is the site of Goldstone, where gold was first discovered in 1881. The period of peak activity here began in 1915, and the district was soon covered with claims. In the 1920s, mining interests using modem machinery developed the Goldstone, Red Bridge, and Belmont mines, with some of the ore assaying at $200 a ton. Mining ceased just before World War II, and the remains of a few buildings are still evident. At Copper City, now within the boundaries of China Lake, copper and gold were discovered as early as 1898. Several shafts were sunk, but activity here was mostly speculative in nature. Copper City's lasting contribution was its wells, one of which produced 3,000 gallons a day. Mining waned after a short time, but the wells kept Copper City on the maps for many years.

          As stated previously, this region is also noted for its extensive collection of petroglyphs. Among the finest are those found in Inscription Canyon, a short, narrow ravine at the extreme western edge of Superior Valley and close to the entrance to Black Canyon, which is also rich in prehistoric rock art. Inscription Canyon contains a vast array of many types of petroglyphs, including impressive panels of bighorn sheep. There are also pictographs (or paintings) at the extreme western end of the canyon.

          After leaving Inscription Canyon, we enter Black Canyon, where the edge of ancient lava flows create a perfect canvas for rock art. A unique example is one known as the Birdman Petroglyph. It has been selected by the American Institute of Archaeology as its logo, and is widely used in their literature. Directly beneath it lies a bedrock metate (a flat stone used for grinding seeds into meal) that bears the name "Tillman" and is dated 1874. (More on this later.) Another unusual find is the Spiderman or Bugman Petroglyph. It appears to be quite ancient, since there is a patina of desert varnish over the petroglyph. There are literally thousands of pieces of rock art in the vicinity, which boasts a huge concentration of intriguing designs. The Black Canyon petroglyphs are a treasure trove of these ancient drawings, the meaning of which has been lost in antiquity.

          Further into Black Canyon are a series of small caves known as the Indian Caves. All of them show evidence of human habitation, most noticeably the smoke stains on the ceilings, and many ancient artifacts have been recovered here. Black Canyon narrows in this area into a true canyon, which drains the Superior Valley area into Water Valley and Harper Dry Lake to the south.

          After the Indian Caves, we encounter an interesting area called Scouts Cove. How it got its name is lost to history. The white outcroppings here that look almost like mud hills are actually deposits of tufa. Tufa is a type of mineral that occurs when fresh water springs enter salty or brackish water, causing the tufa to precipitate out. The famous Trona Pinnacles are tufa deposits, as are the strange formations found at Mono Lake. Scouts Cove was the site of a fire opal mining camp around the turn of the 20th century. The mine is an open, unfenced shaft which goes straight down. The Tiffany Jewelry Company of New York financed the mining. Some of the miners carved themselves a comfortable dwelling in one of the soft tufa domes. There are two holes in the ceiling, which evidently served as chimney and ventilation shaft. Opal Mountain is a prominent landmark nearby. The flanks of this tufa mountain are scarred with the remnants of other opal mining ventures.

          As we travel further along Black Canyon, there is further evidence of the passing of the mysterious Mr. Tillman alluded to earlier. He evidently traveled through Black Canyon in 1874. He is reported to have signed his name in stone in four places; three of them have been found and will be viewed during our trek. Two of them are signed "A. Tillman" and the third is signed "A. & J. Tillman, Sep. 30, 1874, San Francisco, Cal." This third signature is found at the site of Black Canyon Well, which has also been known as Dove Springs and Pigeon Springs, even though the water here is a hand-dug well and not a spring. The well, still containing water, and a rock storage tank in very good condition are located right next to the road.

          No one knows for sure when the well was dug. It first appears on a map published in 1915, but almost certainly dates to the 1870s when this was an important wagon route. There was once a windmill here to pump the water, but nothing remains of this today.

          When silver was discovered at Panamint City in 1873, it set off a huge mining boom in the Death Valley region. This also created a demand for stage and wagon routes to get miners, supplies, and bullion to and from the mines. In 1874, the nearest railhead from the Los Angeles area was Spadra, near modern-day Pomona. Here, freight and passengers set out for Panamint City. There were several routes to the mines, but one of the most direct was through Black Canyon. Aaron Lane, proprietor of a trading post on the Mojave River near today's Victorville, contracted with the mine owners to build a road through Black Canyon to carry both passengers and freight. Whether coming or going, there was usually an overnight stop at Black Canyon Well. These facts fit nicely with the 1874 dates on the Tillman signatures. There is speculation that Tillman was a teamster, but there is no concrete evidence of this.

          A short distance from the well site are the remains of what may have been the first stagecoach stop in Black Canyon. It consists of a small rectangular stone structure with low walls. Bill Mann, in his Guide to 50 Interesting and Mysterious Sites in the Mojave: Volume I, states that this probably served as the habitation for the person running the way station. The lack of fallen stones around the rectangular outline indicates that the structure probably had walls and roof of thatched brush. Mann suggests that it was abandoned after Black Canyon Well was dug and a way station developed there. The ruins here are puzzling, since there is no known water source within a mile in any direction. It would be difficult indeed to run a stage station without a ready supply of water for both passengers and animals. Perhaps there was a spring or well here in the 1870s, but there is no evidence of this today. When the Panamint boom turned to bust in about 1875, traffic through Black Canyon diminished greatly.

        Although there was sporadic mining in the region on into the 20th century, as at Scouts Cove, the 1870s were undoubtedly the busiest period of human activity in Black Canyon. Although the local Indians had lived in the area for centuries, as evidenced by the huge number of petroglyphs hereabout, their settlements were never large and other evidence of their presence is faint. Mining here is now a recreational activity rather than a way to make one's livelihood, and the Indians are long gone. Stagecoaches and freight wagons have been replaced by 4-wheelers and caravans of Clampers. The sense of solitude, the immense desert vistas, and the history, however, remain for those who are willing to get off the paved roads and experience this portion of the West Mojave at close range.




Mann, Bill. Guide to 50 Interesting and Mysterious Sites in the Mojave: Volume l          

            Shortfuse Publishing Co., Barstow, 2000.

            This was the major source for this article.


Hensher, Alan. Ghost Towns of the Mojave Desert: A Concise and Illustrated Guide.

            California Classics BOOKS, Los Angeles, 1991.


Leadabrand, Russ. A Guidebook to the Mojave Desert of California. Ward Ritchie          

            Press, Los Angeles, 1966.


Miller, Ron and Peggy. Mines of the Mojave. La Siesta Press, Glendale, CA, 1976.          

            The late Ron Miller was a Noble Grand Humbug of Billy Holcomb Chapter.