(Note: Expressions of gratitude are in order for a handful of contemporary wild women of the Death Valley region: Judy Palmer, Robin Flinchum, Ann Powell, and Susan Sorrells have provided valuable assistance in gathering material for this story. Thank you ladies for keeping history alive for all. Without your expert guidance, the following tales would likely not have seen the light of day on the DVJ.)
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A Celebration Of Those Who Dare
by The Old Trailmaster
“The valley seemed to be alive. It breathed, yet invisibly and silently. Indeed, there was a mighty being awake out there in the black void. Adam could not believe any man and woman lived up this canyon. Dismukes had dreamed. Had not Adam heard from many prospectors how no white woman could live in Death Valley? He had been there only a day, yet he felt that he could understand why it must be fatal to women. But it was not so because of heat and poison wind and cataclysms of nature, for women could endure those as well as men. But no woman could stand the alternations of terror and sublimity, of beauty and horror. That which was feminine in Adam shuddered at a solitude that seemed fitting to a burned-out world.”
Those words are found in chapter 14 of a book called Wanderer Of The Wasteland, written in 1923 by famous western author Zane Grey. From that book, a 1924 silent movie of the same title was introduced to the public by Paramount. Zane’s novel was about two brothers. Adam was a cowboy, and his brother Guerd was a gambler. Dismukes was a prospector who saved Adam’s life in Death Valley, after Adam had gone crazy with the heat. The novel certainly portrayed a foreboding image of this remote region for the general public, with other graphic descriptions such as this one: “Over the Funeral range the sun was rising, a coalescing globule of molten fire, enormous and red, surrounded by a sky-broad yellow flare.”
Many folks of the time were influenced by Zane’s powerful words, believing that the Death Valley territory would never be popular with men, and likely fatal to women. Yet, what does a man know? Did Zane Grey realize that women had lived here for about ten-thousand years prior to his novel? Could he have predicted that thousands of women would visit and work here long after his death in 1939? Was he just injecting a melodramatic punch into his book, knowing that such verbiage would increase readership, or did he actually think that female humans could not survive or thrive here? Whatever Zane Grey’s personal beliefs, he left a nearly indelible blemish on this countryside that would further serve to reinforce and intensify popular conviction, in the minds of both men and women.
Death Valley is an extraordinarily wild place, and those who come for whatever reason also have a serious touch of the wild within. Traditionally, social foundations expect a certain number of men to take chances, venture into the unknown, and essentially challenge life as part of their intrinsic need of proving self value and bravado. The established status quo, founded or not, holds a dissimilar expectation for women however. Despite this accepted civilized model of human behavior in contemporary times, women have been a part of this remote and legendary land for thousands of years, when the first people to step foot here migrated from the northern reaches of the continent and took up a primitive form of housekeeping.
Wild women, whether in spirit, action, or both, have kept company with this wild land long before Mr. Grey ever took up a pen, and will continue to do so as the centuries unfold before us. When we think of women in Death Valley, it is a safe bet that most of us initially consider the rugged female souls who must have taken an active hand during the mining heydays, from the first white women to cross the valley in 1849, to those who were part of the blossoming tourist trade in the 1920s. In this span of about 84 years, we will find women who left a unique mark, but it does not stop there. The inevitable presence of rugged and wild women continued through the mid twentieth century, and persists even now, as new women write history in their own personal ways.
The objective of this story is to embark on a cursory examination of how a few women have interacted with this untamed expanse commonly referred to now as Death Valley, and take a quick look into the highlights of some from different time periods. From mild to wild, women are as much a part of these environs as men, despite the typical societal tendency to fixate on the pioneering men folk. Some women were real characters right out of a rough-n-ready novel, while others dutifully supported the men in their traditionally masculine endeavors. However these women made it here, and whatever they did here, they all deserve the honor of being called wild women, and that goes for today’s history-makers. Women are another key component in Death Valley’s limited human existence. Women who make it here are those who dare to be different. Let us now celebrate their existence in our continuing quest for knowledge.
Due to the fact that people first appeared in the eastern California area prior to written word, only scant discussion of the earliest women can be offered, and the information is general at best, with few accountings of any particular native female, unless it be in the context of the prospecting era when the two dissimilar cultures reluctantly came together. This is perhaps one reason why accounts of women seem to center primarily on the sparsely-documented mining women of the 1800s and 1900s.
One light-hearted rationalization may be in order before we get into these tales: This story about women is being written by a man, admittedly not the most fitting arrangement, yet that is how things came to pass. Several Death Valley women of notable regional renown were queried about the task, however it seems the wild women of today are indeed heavily burdened with the multiple tasks of contemporary life. Hence, it is upon this footing that I now tread, and accept responsibility in the event that anyone or anything important is left out, or it becomes obvious that an author with a man’s perspective of life is trying to express things from a woman’s point of view. After all, and perhaps like the witty comment previously made about Zane Grey, what does a man know? Well, keep in mind that the particular man writing these words has also read the book Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a Jungian analyst, so perhaps that may enhance credibility somewhat. Onward …
How have women been getting to Death Valley anyway? Well, in the old days (the real old days) they walked. Not too many do that anymore, unless her name happens to be Helen Thayer. When we say “old days” here is the idea: It is thought that 4.5 billion years BC, the Earth came into being, and about 800 million years later, life first appeared. Birds hit the stage around 205 million years BC, flowering plants about 70 million years later, and then approximately 38 million years BC, the first ancestors of humans stepped onto the scene (anthropoid apes). Four million years BC saw the first protohumans in Africa, as the split from apes continued, and a couple million years later, the homo erectus branch began migrating out of the area. Slightly more than 100,000 years BC, the first humans with anatomy of our modern type trekked across Asia, and around 70,000 years later, they found their way into North America. Ten-thousand years BC, the most recent ice age came to a close, and a couple thousand years after, the first wild women finally made it all the way to Death Valley. Of course, it was not known by such a name back then.
It was a long walk, and took a mighty long time, but they were here to stay. The original women did not behold the territory quite like we see it today, as it was a wetter region with lakes. No immense salt flat existed yet. With their male counterparts and children, these women existed in small bands of people who lived nomadically. They spent the hotter months in the cool mountains and the colder months in the warm valleys. As the landscape dried even more, heading towards the evolutionary transformation into how we currently perceive Death Valley, the women and their people lived in close proximity to springs and pinyon trees, for the water and nuts they needed for survival in the primordial land. These folks were hunters and gatherers.
As often continues to be the case even today, women took a secondary role to that of the men. In the bead-bartering system used by regional tribes here prior to the appearance of the white people, it is reported by historians that a hundred strings of beads allowed for the purchase of a wife (one string of beads was that which could be wrapped around the hand once). That was twenty strings more than the cost of two pair of shoes, so the man could have two sets of foot protectors and some left-over beads to barter, or one woman to serve him and produce children. These first women of Death Valley certainly knew the wild spirit well, yet folks today might consider them oppressed in relation to the men. Later women definitely changed that image.
As the white folks continued to enter the region, conflicts arose from radically divergent lifestyle models, but as these tensions abated through the years of the latter 1800s, love sometimes found an answer, with the marriages of white men to Shoshone and other indigenous women. Many of the first people of this area discovered that the path of least resistance led to working with the determined and ever-increasing numbers of late-comers rather than fighting them, and that it was possible to earn the white man’s money by showing the wealth seeking frontiersmen where precious minerals might be found. The Shoshone bead-bartering system was certainly falling by the wayside.
According to accounts in regional newspapers of the very early 1900s, gold mining multi-millionaire Bob Montgomery paid a Shoshone woman generously when she led a handful of potential mining entrepreneurs to safety out of the jaws of the arid and hot valley. This is one of the first written historical accounts of an intrepid woman who lived on the wild side, a woman who used her knowledge of the land to save the very people who were displacing her own people and changing their simpler ways of life. This woman had no car to transport her around Death Valley as we do today … her feet and a primal determination led the way. Is she the territory’s first wild woman of written record? Well, at least in this story she is.
In the southern portion of Death Valley, an Ash Meadows Paiute woman named Mary Scott created quite a stir in 1895, after having located some rocks containing gold on the slopes of the Black Mountains. After showing the gold-laden stones to her cousin Bob, Mary’s part of this written history quickly faded, as he reportedly bartered some liquor in exchange for the rock and knowledge of the location where it was found so that he could turn this to his personal advantage. Bob shrewdly brokered a nice sum of money for himself by disclosing the gold find to local mining entrepreneurs. This story that began with Mary ended with the creation of the Confidence Mining Company, an enterprise that ultimately did not do well since the ore was of a very rebellious nature, causing extraction costs to make profitability potential far less than expected. In fact, even cousin Bob was ultimately not paid when the enterprise failed financially.
Another Paiute woman named Jane Moore Beatty came to center stage for a while in the 1890s, during a time when prejudice among white folks ran high against the early tribal inhabitants of this territory. The reason she is relatively well remembered along with the men of history is because of the man she married in the early 1890s. It is thought that Jane was born at Ash Meadows in the late 1870s. Her Paiute family assumed the last name of Moore. When she became the wife of Montillious Beatty, the man after whom present-day Beatty, Nevada is named, her presence necessarily became known. During her years living in Beatty, it is believed that she was the only full-time resident of native blood. Accounts handed down orally by descendants indicate she was a gracious hostess when company came calling to her ranch. Jane had three children, one of which was a girl named Maude May, born in 1893. One of her sons explained later in life that his mother spoke only the Paiute language in the home, raising the children as Paiute. Jane passed away in 1910 as a result of typhoid fever, a disease transmitted through the ingestion of food contaminated with the Salmonella enterica bacterium, just two years after the death of her husband. She was buried in the Beatty cemetery.
Back in the mid 1800s, white women from the existing regions of the fledgling United States also came to this territory, but in those days, no aberrant appellation enshrouded the valley as it does today. In fact, or according to popular lore at the very least, it was perhaps one of these first women who unwittingly bestowed the Death Valley naming upon this wild countryside. Who were these wild women, and why were they here? They accompanied their men folk, who loaded up family and belongings and headed west in hopes of becoming incredibly wealthy in the California gold fields. It was a long trip by wagon, but the trail was becoming well worn and relatively easy to follow with guides, as countless rugged families were doing the same thing. It is estimated that more than 25,000 people crossed the plains for California during this time. For a tiny few of these families however, things went horribly awry when they attempted a shortcut that landed them squarely in the Shoshone’s Valley of the Red Ochre. At nearly 300 feet below sea level, and seemingly trapped by imposing mountains, these women were in for a bizarre and otherworldly experience.
Sarah Bennett, Abigail Arcan, and Juliet Brier are three names well remembered, wives of rugged pioneers seeking a new life out west. Sarah was born in Ohio in 1825, was the wife of Asabel Bennett, and was only 24 years old when she found herself in Death Valley. Abigail was born in Massachusetts around 1811, was the wife of John Arcan, and was 13 years older than Sarah. Their last names form the moniker for the well-known Bennett-Arcan wagon train of lost argonauts, and their deeds set the stage for a new era in an old land. Juliet was born in 1813, was the wife of Reverend James Brier, and 35 years old during these ordeals.
All three ladies landed in circumstances that were to test their bravery and determination beyond imagined limits. Juliet’s husband became weakened by this daunting trek and demanding passage across the valley, so she came to shoulder much of the burden of sustaining their family, which included three small children. At one point in the trip, it was suggested to Juliet that she and the kids remain behind while others scouted ahead, an idea that apparently did not set too well with her, as she reportedly responded: “I knew what was in his mind. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I have never been a hindrance, I have never kept the company waiting, neither have my children, and every step I take will be toward California.’ Give up! I knew what that meant: a shallow grave in the sand.”
In reference to her eldest child Kirk, who was suffering during a severe lack of water, Juliet went on to account: “The child would murmur occasionally, ‘Oh, father, where’s the water?’ His pitiful, delirious wails were worse than the killing thirst. It was terrible. I seem to see it all over again. I staggered and struggled wearily behind with the other two boys and the oxen. The little fellows bore up bravely and hardly complained, though they could barely talk, so dry and swollen were their lips and tongue. John would try to cheer up his brother Kirk by telling him of the wonderful water we would find and all the good things we could get to eat. Every step I expected to sink down and die.” Here was a woman who did not expect to ever find herself in such wild and worrisome circumstances, yet she earned the respect of all those in her company through the days of near-death life.
Sarah Bennett had her three children with her during this passage out west. She had one boy, age 7, and two daughters, Melissa who was only 4, and Martha who was but one year of age. The two girls would likely not recall their frightening times in the valley due to their ages, yet they too are clearly women with a powerful connection to this territory. Abigail Arcan is reported to have kept a special tablecloth with her during her unhappy time in Death Valley, refusing to leave it behind as she eventually escaped with the others to more hospitable environs.
In his fascinating book Death Valley in ’49,William Manly, one of the men in the Bennett-Arcan pioneer party, is quoted as saying about Sarah and Abigail at one point in the journey west: “Mrs. Bennett and Mrs. Arcane were in heart-rending distress. The four children were crying for water but there was not a drop to give them, and none could be reached before some time next day. The mothers were nearly crazy, for they expected the children would choke with thirst and die in their arms, and would rather perish themselves than suffer the agony of seeing their little ones gasp and slowly die. They reproached themselves as being the cause of all this trouble. For the love of gold they had left homes where hunger had never come, and often in sleep dreamed of the bounteous tables of their old homes only to be woefully disappointed in the morning.”
These women are remembered for their devotion to family, and their stamina in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds that nearly cost them their lives. Had this been during the summer months, circumstances would have been far different of course. First and foremost, these gold-seeking pioneers would not have even been in Death Valley, for they would have probably taken the route through central California over the Sierra Nevada Mountains instead. It was only due to the snow in the Sierras, and potential for death like the Donner Party had experienced in 1847, that they took the southern route. Another interesting point of consideration is this: Had these people not ventured through the region and left their highly publicized legacy, knowledge of this valley and potential mineral riches likely would not have come forth as it did, thereby affecting the cascading waves of prospectors, entrepreneurs, and additional women who continued to paint a dramatic picture of the times.
Once out of Death Valley and safely settled in Santa Cruz, California, John Arcan yet sought to find riches in the minerals of the nearby lands. His wife Abigail, taken by the beautiful new country and towering redwoods, had other desires however, and history reports that she told him: “You can go to the mines if you want to. I have seen all the godforsaken country I am going to see, and I’m going to stay right here as long as I live.” Juliet Brier passed away at Lodi, California in May 1913, at age 99. Sarah Bennett reportedly died at San Jose, California, of a disease called consumption in 1857. Today, this is known as tuberculosis, but it was named consumption in days of yore because it consumed people from within their own bodies, a long relentless wasting of the lungs or nervous system.
Melissa and Martha Bennett spent a portion of their younger years at an orphanage in Los Angeles. Melissa later married a San Bernardino judge, but unfortunately died at age 23 in 1868 after giving birth to a son, who also did not survive the process. Martha Bennett married a fellow who had come from Denmark, and they spent time on Catalina Island off southern California in the sheep business. Her husband eventually became a judge in Wilmington, California, an interesting turn of events as we realize that both women were first ladies to judges. Martha eventually passed away in Los Angeles in 1910, surviving her older sister by 42 years.
Gold and silver miners were often times a rather rough bunch, and once word had spread far and wide across the country that there was supposedly lots of money to be made in the Death Valley territory, prospectors, miners, and creative entrepreneurs began arriving to get a piece of the proverbial pie. The second half of the nineteenth century saw plenty of rip-roaring activity in this region, with camps and towns popping up wherever folks thought they could get rich from exploiting the land. A few women saw a unique opportunity in all this excitement, and offered a recreational option frowned upon by conservative society, but happily accepted by many of the men in the camps. Of course, this type of service was risky business in more ways than one, but money was to be made by red-light women. Regional author Robin Flinchum has written a series of booklets about a few of these often-forgotten gals called Death Valley Red Light Chronicles. Here we shall take a quick look at four of these wild women attempting to take charge of their own destiny.
After leaving her home in Chihuahua, Mexico at age 13, Delores Treviso found her way to the newly booming gold towns in 1850. She brought along her two small brothers, and supported the three of them by working at dance halls. By the time the 1870s rolled around, and the likes of Panamint City were in full swing, Delores was launching brothels and dance halls in a few of Death Valley’s boom camps. From mid-century poverty to incredible entrepreneurial success, this untamed lady of the night reportedly became one of the region’s wealthiest single women. Learn more in Robin’s book The Life and Times of Cerro Gordo’s Lola Travis.
Katie Fialla, more popularly known as Diamond Tooth Lil, was born in 1885 in Hungary. She came to the United States at age 21, and landed in Goldfield, Nevada, not far from the present-day DVNP boundary. She also spent a fair amount of time working her trade in the gold-rich town of Rhyolite, and the copper frenzy camps of Greenwater. Not surprisingly perhaps, she became a territorial legend in the minds of quite a few people involved in the hard work of making money from mining. For additional details, read Robin’s book The Life and Times of Death Valley’s Diamond Tooth Lil.
From 1872 through 1877, the wild silver mining town of Panamint City flourished high in the Panamint Range. Taking advantage of this geographically remote situation was a crafty woman by the name of Martha Camp, who operated the town’s most fashionable house of prostitution on Maiden Lane. As you may have read elsewhere, Panamint City was known for its lawlessness, so offering a service such as Martha did was risky business to say the least. At one point in her career, Martha’s ties to the populace of Virginia City even provided her the necessary knowledge to bring a murderer to justice. Get the rest of the story in Robin’s book Murder, Mayhem and Martha Camp.
At age 20, Mona Bell came to the thriving gold city of Rhyolite, Nevada in the very early 1900s. While this town provided great opportunity for many of its citizens, Mona was not to realize it herself. Unfortunately, she was accompanied by Fred Skinner, a cruel and alcoholic man who loved to gamble. Like a few other women in this questionable profession, Mona worked diligently in an attempt to eventually open her own brothel, but in January of 1908, Fred ended her life while experiencing a severe anger management episode. This occurrence was highly unusual for Rhyolite, the most sophisticated mining town around these parts, and the murder found its way into the records of history. The sad tale is found in Robin’s book The Life and Death of Mona Bell in Rhyolite.
Moving on from the red light arena …
During the early 1900s, a strong-willed Winnie Aubrey played a part in some of the grandest gold mining efforts ever seen in the Death Valley territory. Wife of famous mining entrepreneur Earnest “Bob” Montgomery, who earned millions from his exploits in Pleasant Canyon, Rhyolite, and Skidoo, Winnie apparently exerted a consequential influence on his decisions. Bob was the king of the era’s multi-tasking giants, and his wife’s advice paved the way to further increasing the family’s wealth. Bob owned the Montgomery-Shoshone gold mine during the Bullfrog-Rhyolite boom times. When it came time to sell the golden egg, Winnie urged him to wait for a better offer, and it is this urging that reportedly led to the sale to steel magnate Charles Schwab for a considerably larger chunk of change. Because of the added revenue, Bob and Winnie realized greater options in the next venture, commonly known as Skidoo. Accounts of the era also credit Winnie for the naming of their new gold boomtown, when she called it 23-skidoo due to the 23 claims that Bob had purchased. So Skidoo it was … and remains.
Around 1917, an interesting female made her way onto the grand stage of life, a descendant of a pioneering Nevada family by the name of Fairbanks. Celesta Lisle Lowe grew up in the Death Valley region, and later wrote about that life in the publications Old West and Desert Magazine. A portion of her childhood was spent in Shoshone, California, in a dwelling made of tent canvas and gasoline cans filled with sand. Celesta attended grammar school there in the early 1920s. Her father was a prospector and copper miner, and her husband was an agent for the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad. It is said that Celesta loved to write about not only the history that she personally lived, but also of the significant aspects of the region in general, authoring articles about people like Death Valley Scotty, who was a guest at her wedding. For seven years, she wrote a Sunday column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Word has it that Shorty Harris, famous Death Valley prospector, stayed with the family for a short time during Celesta’s childhood, a man of which she is quoted as saying: “I thought he was just an old windbag,” according to Pahrump Valley Times reporter Bob McCracken. She was also a founding member of the Southern Nevada Historical Society. This wild lady passed away in 2004, at the age of 87, survived by four children, nine grandchildren, ten great grandchildren, and even one great-great grandchild.
One thing we find while studying the women of this region is the great diversity in what they did and do here. In 1937, a woman named Agnes Reid and her husband built the quaint roadside destination called the Panamint Springs Resort, a wayside motel and restaurant that continues to exist today in the northern parts of the Panamint Valley. She was one of the early innkeepers of this wild territory, beginning back in the days when her resort was not within the boundaries of the national park system. Of the Reid establishment, Desert Magazine writer Randall Henderson wrote in 1952: “But the pioneers of Death Valley are not all of the past. Many of them are living today – men and women who have been willing to forego the luxuries of urban life for the freedom, and the problems, of frontier living. One of them is Agnes Reid, a kindly, competent woman whose Panamint Springs Resort in upper Panamint Valley along the Towne Pass entrance road to Death Valley is so clean and orderly it is a delight to stop there. Her little wayside hostelry nestles among the trees of a lovely oasis – and her nearest post office is Lone Pine, 55 miles away.”
The Reid’s operated the resort together until the early 1940s, when her husband passed away. In the spirit of the territory’s wild women, Agnes continued alone to run the business until 1959, a testament to the rugged essence alive and well in so many minds of those who inhabit these vast and remote stretches of countryside. Of course, considering her beginnings, this is not too surprising. She was originally a runaway who frequented the gold camps of the Nevada territory, where she eventually met her future husband. Agnes was also a cousin of William Frederick Cody, popularly known as Buffalo Bill, the legendary soldier and showman who started Buffalo Bill’s Wild West performances. Agnes is remembered by many regional travelers for her warm hospitality, good cooking, and love of the wide open spaces.
Another resort entrepreneur was Helene Eichbaum, wife of Herman “Bob” Eichbaum of Stovepipe Wells fame. Helene and Bob began their new life and business in the mid 1920s, immediately north of Mosaic Canyon, about eight years prior to the formation of Death Valley National Monument. Construction financing for the road to their resort did a fair job of lessening their monetary holdings, leading to the practice of collecting a toll from motorists who wished to visit the Death Valley dunal destination. The original resort consisted of tent cabins, and acquired the name of Bungalette City, called Bungalow City by some. Helene and her husband were true pioneers of the regional tourist trade, eventually building a road to Aguereberry Point, and initiating religious Easter sunrise services for their guests. Helene was an integral part of the enterprise’s success, and partly through her diligent efforts, this remote region was opened to the average motorist by the introduction of good roads, needed sleeping facilities, and inviting meals. In a 1961 article for Desert Magazine, Lucile Weight wrote: “Helene is no longer at Stove Pipe. She sold the place sometime after Bob died. But another charming hostess presides there today. Margaret Putnam, a past president of the Death Valley ‘49ers Inc., who with her late husband George Palmer Putnam took over Stove Pipe in the 1940s.”
Born in 1908, Margaret, also known as Peg, was by all accounts another dedicated innkeeper of this unique and secluded resort that was so successful at pulling in tourists from Los Angeles and other relatively nearby metropolitan areas during the winter months. Here is what Randall Henderson had to say about the woman in 1952: “At stovepipe wells we met another courageous person, Peg Putnam, who, since the death of her husband in 1949, has been carrying on the responsibilities of the stovepipe wells hotel alone. She maintains a power plant for lights and air-cooling, hauls spring water in tank trucks for her guests – and despite the problems of maintaining guest cottages and a dining room in this remote place, is a gracious hostess to all who come.” Peg remarried in 1965, to a man named Willard Lewis. An interesting side-note here is that George Putnam, her late husband (of Putnam & Sons Publishers), was married to aviatrix Amelia Earhart when she mysteriously disappeared in 1937 while circumnavigating the Earth in her Lockheed L-10E Electra aircraft. Peg Putnam passed away not long ago, in 2002. Clearly, these determined and independent women played a unique role in the early tourist history. Other noted innkeepers of the territory included the likes of Beulah Brown, Pauline Gower, and Kathryn Ronan.
Wilder still, in exploits at least, are the women who actually took an active part in the rugged mining activities, and while very few in number, perhaps around 100, they left a powerful legacy that has continued to fascinate all those area enthusiasts who want to know all that really happened here. As mining gradually continued to slow into the mid 1900s, some fiercely independent gals wrote regional history unlike any other. Contrasting to the innkeepers just discussed, these tough prospecting females were not participants in opulence and popular acceptance. No discussion of local women would be complete without the likes of Eliza Hart, Mary Thompson, Mary Madison, Louise Grantham, Lillian Malcolm, and Kathryn Marbaker. The wild Death Valley territory hosted quite a fascinating array of gals.
Eliza had a nickname of Grandma Two-Gun, which might serve to set the stage with all kinds of vibrant mental images that could differentiate her from more traditional entrepreneurial women. She was born in Ohio during the second half of the nineteenth century. Her husband George passed away in 1898, after seventeen years of marriage. Forty year old Eliza began taking in boarders to keep the family financially solvent. Eventually, she and her children and moved west to the small mining town of Ballarat in the Panamint Valley in 1919, and thus ensured a spot in Death Valley regional history. The family had a rather fancy house there, and it was not too long before Eliza experienced a conflict or two, one of which was with another resident named Chris Wicht. As her moniker of Grandma Two-Gun might suggest, her manner of handling things was perhaps somewhat overbearing as she ran Chris off his own property. In retaliation, he decided to put a match to her house while she was away from town. Of course, all these nasty neighborhood occurrences were being witnessed by Eliza’s offspring, one of which was Mary Thompson, who had earlier married Harry Thompson.
Around about 1920, Mary, her husband Harry, and her sister Orpha, began registering mining claims up Surprise Canyon. Seemingly in keeping with the familial discord, by 1925 Harry had left the marriage, signing over to Mary his interests in quite a few mines, along with the house in Ballarat. The year prior to Harry’s departure, Mary had created the Ballarat Mining Company, which was reported to consist of approximately 100 mines worth upwards of ten million dollars during its heyday. In the tradition of her mother’s reputation, Mary eventually became regionally known as Shotgun Mary, due to her propensity of waving foreboding firearms in the direction of anyone with whom she had a conflict over one of the mining claims. All this shotgun action was apparently just to spook any potential claim jumpers, although word in the wind has it that she also pointed her gun at an Inyo County sheriff deputy once, who was sent up to investigate her aggressiveness – one unsubstantiated report even claims she shot him.
Judy Palmer and Margaret Pipkin Brush, authors of an article about Shotgun Mary, had this to say about one of her court appearances: “Some courtroom scenes were dramatic, as in 1936 when Mary Ann was convicted of failing to pay wages and sentenced to 600 days in jail or $1,200 fine. While appealing her case, she became hysterical, fainted and court had to be adjourned for the day.” Judy and Margaret further stated: “The Thompson’s were a secretive family who did not like talking about their past or having their photos taken. When Orpha would begin a story, Mary Ann would promptly hush her up. In later years, Orpha lost all of her teeth, which Mary Ann always promised to replace, but never did.” Shotgun Mary passed away at age 82 in 1967 of heart problems.
Yet another Mary was known to frequent the Panamint Range during some of the same years that the Thompson clan lived here. And, like Mary Thompson, Mary White had a popular nickname, that of Panamint Annie, a wild woman prospector known to live life on her own terms. Born in 1910, she was the daughter of a New York doctor, and eventually became a truck driver between New York and Chicago. She quit that profession in 1935 when her doctor told her that she was about to die from tuberculosis, and moved to Death Valley to see some of what she considered God’s country before it was too late. Mary continued her cigar smoking though, and surprisingly, continued right on living despite what the doc foretold; perhaps the clean dry air helped. After staking numerous mining claims in the Panamints, her Panamint Annie moniker evolved.
Noted regional historian Cecile Page Vargo writes of Annie: “Once her health and beauty was restored, Mary took to the surrounding barren hills in search of the rich minerals they bore. The peace and beauty of the desert struck her as she prowled the hills, with hammer, pick and shovel from the wee hours of the morning until long after dark. When the mountains revealed their hidden wealth, Mary learned to timber, blast and muck, as well as any man. Her underground work was lit with candles she made herself instead of spending money on kerosene.”
Panamint Annie had several husbands over time, more than one last name, and is reported to have given birth to eight children, four of which apparently did not survive. Cecile Vargo continues: “Her babies would be strapped on her back and taken into the mines with her or left in her oldest daughter’s care. As they each reached school age she would send them to family in Southern California where they could get an education.”
Eventually, Mary moved to Beatty, Nevada, where she was interviewed in 1974 by Tom Murray, a writer for Desert Magazine. In his article, Tom wrote of this colorful woman: “You can easily spot her camp in Beatty, Nevada, for it is piled high with junk and more junk. There you will find the remains of a dozen old cars, broken-down trailers, washing machines. You name it and Annie probably has it somewhere. ‘When you live out here in the middle of nowhere, you can’t afford to throw anything away,’ she said between drags on that cigar that looks like it might have been second hand too.” Five years after Tom spent time with her gathering information for his story, this rugged and matchless wild woman finally passed away at age 69. Another writer, Claudia Reidhead, penned these memorable words of Mary Madison (the name on her gravestone): “Annie passed away from cancer, and was buried in Rhyolite cemetery, in 1979. Annie had lived her life independent and free, and lived by her own code. Equality for women? She always thought they were, she worked as hard as a man, lived free as a man, and never asked anyone to do for her when she could do for herself. She was strong physically and emotionally, and carried her roughed edged life with an honesty and grace that few have matched.”
Louise Grantham, originally a resident of Ohio, headed west to Death Valley when she was only 25 years old, reportedly to learn more about her father who had come to the region years prior. She apparently found the area enough to her liking that she remained, and with the help of a Shoshone man named Bob Thompson, began the process of staking mining claims in Warm Spring Canyon in the southern reaches of the valley during the early 1900s. This is an area that is rich in talc and gold. Louise initiated a company venture called Grantham and Associates, and during the course of her mining operations, she worked with some other rugged folks by the names of Frances Franklin, Dorothy Ketchin, Ernest (Siberian Red) Huhn, and Nina Bradley. Warm Spring Canyon, fortunately for the company, had the ever precious water needed to work and play without fear of drying up. A swimming pool was even built here in the shade of trees.
Of the Grantham enterprise, a miner of the area in the 1960s named Gene Park is quoted as saying: “It was built by Louise Grantham and her Father. The mine was called Grantham Mines. I was working at the mine during the time the swimming pool was built as an equipment operator. This would have been around 1967-68. At that time we were mining out of ‘Big Talc’ and ‘#5’ mines that were about 2 miles east of the camp. The White Point Mine, if that is the portal just east of the camp, didn’t exist when I was there and would have been built after Grantham sold out.” Of all the female prospectors and miners around the Death Valley territory through the years, Louise Grantham may have been the most financially successful. In her book A Mine of Her Own, Women Prospectors in the American West, 1850-1950, author Sally Zanjani indicates that Louise brought a certain woman’s touch to the mining endeavors of Warm Spring Canyon, an ambiance that was clearly lacking in many of the era’s male-dominated mining camps.
Disputes did crop up however, as was often the case involving people extracting mineral wealth from the ground, and Louise was no exception. This one consisted of several interested parties, including Bob Thompson, the National Park Service, Pacific Coast Borax, and Louise Grantham. Louise had been leasing the Thompson land from Bob, but had not kept her payments current. She filed a mining claim in 1933, a first step to acquiring land ownership. This was the same year Death Valley National Monument was formed, so now the NPS had an eye on land stewardship also. The U.S. government held the opinion that the Shoshone never filed for a patent or paid taxes, indicating that Louise may not have been in default on her lease after all.
Another government agency, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, presented a different opinion however, asking that land rights be granted to Thompson based on the fact that this land had been used by generations of Shoshone family that predated the National Park Service. Thompson was awarded a non-ownership right to the land, and since Louise had fallen behind on payments, began leasing it instead to a former Pacific Coast Borax superintendent in 1937. In his book Indian Country, God’s Country, Philip Burnham writes: “There the contentious triangle stood: the Park Service and Pacific Borax, both, in their own ways, committed to monument development; the BIA and Bob Thompson, claiming aboriginal rights; and Louise Grantham, a private miner who had filed a claim before Death Valley Monument was ever established. Despite government threats of eviction, Grantham refused to budge, keeping a watchman posted at the springs to harass ‘trespassers.’ In 1940, the United States government sued for her removal. Though no friend of Thompson, the Park Service watched approvingly, preferring to deal with Pacific Coast Borax, a proven neighbor, than an unknown –and aggressive– talc miner.”
Lillian Malcolm was yet one more very wild woman who broke all the molds of customary female imagery. Born in 1868 of Scottish lineage, she grew up in the eastern U.S. and began a career as an actress on Broadway. At age 30, Lillian made an unusual decision to try her hand at seeking mineral wealth in Alaska’s Klondike gold rush. Reports say she piloted a dog sled solo to arrive at Dawson City in the Canadian Yukon, a formerly non-existent town in 1896, but one that swelled to a population of 30,000 during the gold rush frenzy of the late nineties. Lillian, realizing the dangers, kept a sixgun tucked into her belt for self defense. She ultimately left Alaska in financial trouble, after her claim was illegally taken and court battles to regain it did not prove successful. Of course, a woman this driven is not easily dissuaded.
Lillian gradually worked her way south to the Nevada gold towns of Tonopah and Goldfield, using her acting abilities to tell hair-raising tales of her Klondike adventures as a means to earn a few bucks. While in these parts, she formed her own company called the Scotch Lassie Gold Mining Company to raise capital. Not hitting the big gold strike at either of the camps, she moved to Rhyolite for a time and prospected in Death Valley. She met Death Valley Scotty and one of his side-kicks named Bill Key while seeking gold in the region, likely something she may have regretted. Lillian apparently thought that Scotty was framing Bill for an attempted murder, so she hired a lawyer to defend Bill, and headed out into the desert to find him; she was not successful. All this time spent with legal troubles resulted in her losing yet another claim, so she followed the golden trail to Mexico for a while, then back north to Nevada’s camp of Jarbidge in 1911. It was at Jarbidge that history lost track of the woman many called the “lady prospector.”
Again turning to Sally Zanjani’s book A Mine of Her Own, we glean interesting insight of Lillian Malcolm, where she is reported to have once said: “The grandest and healthiest life known is this rough pioneer life. And I don’t see why more women are not out in the hills. It ought to be as easy and natural for women to read rocks as it is for astronomers to read the stars. The day will come when they will not sneer at Miss Malcolm. They will not pick up their skirts when I come around. Disgusting conventionality must pay the penalty in any pioneer work … Woman can endure as much as a man. Comply with the law and you will have man’s responsibilities and man’s reward.”
On the Ash Meadows portion of Death Valley National Park, is ground that once felt the feet of a 280 pound woman with an unpleasant temper. She stood an inch shy of five feet, reportedly drank a considerable amount of liquor, was a spiritual person, but always kept a shotgun at her side nonetheless, regardless of where she went. As might be expected, a nickname was eventually hung on this wild woman, and of course, it was the word shotgun. Kathryn Marbaker was born in Pennsylvania in 1886, and her parents called her Kitty. Ultimately, she became known in the Ash Meadows and Death Valley Junction areas as Shotgun Kitty.
With a minimal elementary school education, Kitty earlier ran a classified advertisement in a Pennsylvania newspaper as a mail-order bride. It was answered by Bob Tubb, and in 1904, the two tied the knot. She was 16, and now married to a 34 year old freightline operator. During the course of Bob’s business, he found some large acreage northwest of Las Vegas that suited him for homesteading, so the family, including a couple of children, moved west in a covered wagon in 1907 to the Death Valley Junction region near Ash Meadows. In the area, he started several businesses to service locals, two of which were a grocery store and hotel, and the other two being magnets to other clientele … a saloon and brothel. By 1909, Kitty had given birth to her fourth child, reportedly premature and so small that she fed him with an eyedropper and kept him in a cigar box. This child ultimately became paralyzed, and remained in poor health.
No one apparently ever challenged this woman with her shotgun in tow, whether it be a bar in Beatty or on her own property, and from what I have learned about her, I understand why. She and Bob eventually split up, and she remarried two more times. Kitty passed away in 1957 at Tonopah, Nevada, but her legacy vividly lives on, and her story is always fascinating to hear.
We are learning that the wild women who made Death Valley and environs their place of business and home had significant obstacles to overcome, whether they were innkeepers, prospectors, mining entrepreneurs, or officials charged with the oversight of an entire town. This latter designation can be found in the situation that existed over in the Funeral Mountains and the gold camp of Schwab, accessible today via the Echo Canyon road. The year 1907 saw significant gold action in these parts, with three competing camps called Lee, and even a local newspaper run by Earle Clemens, nephew of well-known Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain).
Steel industrialist Charles Schwab commenced to mining gold here in 1906, and around his venture formed a camp of tents that housed the company workers. After a couple months of mining activity, around 200 miners called this canyon location home. There was a stage line that transported people and goods back and forth to Rhyolite from nearby Lee, a handy post office, and even use of a local telephone was possible, a device invented and perfected not too many years earlier.
Historian Richard Lingenfelter continues the story in a quotation from his book Death Valley & The Amargosa: “then the townsite company was taken over by three women – Gertrude Fesler, a young blue-eyed blonde stockbroker from Chicago; Mrs. F. W. Dunn, a San Bernardino matron; and her daughter, Helen H. Black. The attendant publicity of ‘A Mining Camp Built by Ladies … one of the most unique wonders of the new West’ gave it a boost. But as they sat taking their afternoon tea under a big, striped Arabian tent at the head of Main Street, the women started worrying about the morality of their new offspring. They soon sealed its fate when they started frowning on saloon men, asking gamblers to get out, and putting a ban on ‘sporting women.’” Well, these three refined gals attempted to clean up the act of the rough and tumble miners, but they may have fallen somewhat short in their vision, considering that the type of guys it took to do this backbreaking work that yielded little reward was precisely what gave them the opportunity to run the town in the first place.
Writer and historian Cecile Vargo is known to quote Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a well-known academian of early America, the history of women, and a professor at Harvard University. In 1976, Laurel wrote these now-famous words in one of her graduate-level papers: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” She has since published a 320-page book by the same title. In many instances, this humble assertion Laurel uttered way back then may certainly be true, yet we find a number of well-behaved women who do find their way into the history books of the Death Valley territory.
As times slowly changed over the years, mining was gradually fading out of Death Valley. With the increasing tourist trade, folks moved to the valley area and bordering small towns to service the travelers. Women, some very well-behaved indeed, played an integral part in a variety of roles. Back in 1915, the first formal school teacher came on the area’s southern scene, setting up shop in Death Valley Junction. Her name was Bess Davis, and some accounts tell of how she lived in a canvas tent during her three years at the school. According to documentation at the Shoshone Museum in Shoshone, California, Bess looked back upon her times here as some of the best of her entire life.
Wherever folks congregate for any length of time, medical needs are sure to surface. Doctors and nurses were, of course, in short supply across these vast stretches of secluded countryside. In the early 1930s, a nurse named May Dorville began assisting area people with their medical issues at Death Valley Junction, and became the principal provider of these services. Later, she focused her efforts to the Furnace Creek clinic, where she worked with Doctor Ben Jones. May became exceptionally experienced at first-responder type incidents when no doctor was available, handling such things as automobile accidents, baby births, fights among intoxicated men, and any other conceivable malady that one might imagine, like the crash of a military bomber in Death Valley. This pioneering frontier lady of medicine was born in 1889. She passed away in March of 1978, and is buried at the West Line Street Cemetery in Bishop, California, located behind the Northern Inyo Hospital.
Doctor Jones, who worked with May, offers the following remembrances of this lively woman: “May Dorville was the Harvey Company nurse when Dr Don Christenson and I had the opportunity to work out of a small office across the highway from the Furnace Creek Inn in Death Valley in 1964. This was after local Lone Pine physician, Winfred Zimmerly, quit his private general practice. Dr Walter Wilson and Dr Raymond Auvil were already holding clinic hours in Shoshone and couldn’t continue to cover Death Valley as well. In those days, we all flew airplanes, so covering the Eastern part of Inyo County was fairly easy and practical. The others had twin engine airplanes, and I had a Cessna 206.
“May couldn’t tell anyone how old she was, as birth certificates were not issued ‘way back then.’ She was employed by the Fred Harvey Company, as it was called then (later it was AMFAC and now it is Xanterra). In the Cessna, I would ‘buzz’ the clinic-office and she and her shaggy dog, Rayanne, would meet me at the airport. After a brief breakfast at the ranch cafeteria, we would head for the office. It was tiny with angular rooms and a closet. Ancient tools were there when I first attended. Some of these are now on permanent display at the Shoshone Museum. Office hours would start around 10:00 a.m., where patients from the Harvey Company, National Park Service, Indian Reservation, and mines, as well as tourists would flock.
“The patients would have to run a gauntlet upon arriving. They would be chastised rather severely for having the audacity to be injured or sick while in Death Valley. The Death Valley clinic was attended weekly during the tourist season, which, in those days, was from the time of the 49er Encampment until Mother’s Day. After 1975, I went into practice on my own, and Dr Christenson decided not to continue attending the Death Valley clinic. I continued there until 1990.”
Even Hollywood actresses found their way to the rugged and remote wilds of the Death Valley territory, or at least one did. Delia Marlo had a successful movie career going for her in the 1950s, and even her son was on the same course with child acting. Who would have thought that she would choose a secluded mining enterprise to a popular Hollywood career? Dad may have known, though, for he was a geologist with the Cherokee Nation, and while Delia was growing up, he taught her how to locate valuable minerals in the ground. The fun of finding rocks became part of Delia’s psyche, and she continued as an adult, searching out the elusive minerals in America’s southwestern states between movie engagements.
The next thing you know, Delia purchased a Caterpillar bulldozer in 1957 to forge a two mile road into her new land where she had discovered a large and very valuable onyx deposit! Onyx is a crystalline form of quartz, and highly prized for its alluring and colorful beauty. This was in the Argus Range, on the western side of the Panamint Valley, near where Remi Nadeau used to run freight with mule teams in the late 1860s. Well, things went from good to great for this gal, and the business of selling onyx products such as tabletops was flourishing. A year later, a world-famous opera singer joined her isolated desert mountain mining efforts, a fellow by the name of John Fletcher. His associates used to joke that he sure would look bizarre in a tuxedo while mining onyx in the desert. Not only did the business do well, with all their professional acting and singing friends purchasing onyx tabletops and other gifts, but their relationship soared also, with a marriage in 1960. They promoted their products as “God’s gifts of beauty in stone” through their advertisements in Desert Magazine over the years. Delia Marlo was a true success story, a happy woman who made the right choices for her life.
In 2008, National Public Radio hailed another pioneering woman as the “Dancer of Death Valley,” a more contemporary wild woman who followed her own path in spite of what she could have had elsewhere. A child of New York, Marta Becket decided she wanted to be a ballet dancer at the young age of three, and her parents willingly nurtured this desire by attending ballet and dance shows weekly. Comparing the city streets to the stage, Marta comments: “Outside, in the world, people struck each other, yelled, honked horns. Inside, in the theater, they conversed by singing and dancing. I knew that was where I belonged.” As a young woman, Marta performed on Broadway and the Radio City Music Hall, becoming quite skilled, however her vision found its ultimate expression not in performing in other people’s productions, but in creating her own. It was this powerfully independent streak that eventually landed her in the Death Valley territory, a place well-known for impressively autonomous people.
In 1962, she got married, and in 1967, she and her husband toured Death Valley, where they had a flat tire, and were directed to Death Valley Junction to have it repaired. While her husband tended to the tire business at hand, Marta discovered an old hotel with a stage, once used as a company town for the Pacific Coast Borax Company. They rented the building for $45 per month, renovated it, named it the Amargosa Opera House, and in February 1968, Marta gave her first performance. Over the years, the word spread, as local folks and tourists would come for the unique desert show. Marta painted an entire audience on the walls, so even when empty, the opera house appeared full. Few can claim such an enduring life path as Marta, now in her eighties and still performing in Death Valley Junction according to her own rules.
On Marta’s website is written these words: “She does not try to guess what she will be able to do ten years from now. For the present, she dances, and she continues to paint. She has her stage to call her own. Her imagination has carried her from the past to the present. From New York to Death Valley Junction … and a tiny theater nobody wanted.” In her own words, she adds: “I am grateful to have found the place where I can fulfill my dreams and share them with the passing scene … for as long as I can.”
Diversity clearly describes the collective of women who have passed this way, and continue to make their mark here. Other women today also carry on this distinctive tradition of living and playing in and around Death Valley. From the first people who lived in the region thousands of years ago, some of their descendants continue to live here now.
The Timbisha Shoshone tribe has acreage near Furnace Creek, where women like Pauline Esteves, Grace Goad, and Barbara Durham make their homes. Pauline and Grace are tribal elders, the respected ones, who provide leadership to the people. Born in 1924, and schooled locally, Pauline has led the way for many years in her efforts to achieve tribal autonomy and respectful recognition by the United States government. She can be described as a driven revolutionary who puts the needs of her people and the land first. Grace has lived in Death Valley her entire life, and was raised as a child living off the land, where she would spend summers in cooler Wildrose Canyon of the Panamint Range. She maintains the Shoshone way of life, and has had five children, from which five grandchildren were born. One of her much loved daily activities is sitting outside around sunset to view the beautiful changes that come across her sacred land as day turns into night, to experience the visual delights of the natural world at the end of each warm day, smell the fragrant aromas of the flora, and hear the sounds and music of the fauna. To Grace, this place is where her heart will always be for all time. Barbara is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. Though not yet considered an elder, she takes the lead in keeping the past alive for tribal members, as well as travelers through their land who take an interest in their ways of life.
In today’s world, more and more folks are taking a stance at preserving nature in meaningful ways, and one regional organization that inspires is the Amargosa Conservancy, a nonprofit group dedicated to protect the land, water, and beauty of the Amargosa River Basin of western Nevada and eastern California. Currently, this visionary group is led by five women: Linda Greene, co-president; Susan Sorrells, co-president; Donna Lamm, treasurer; Judy Palmer, secretary; and Tami Tripp-Massie, executive director. Their fundamental mission is to preserve and protect the Amargosa country, including its land and water resources, and to bring to public awareness the need of doing so.
Linda Greene is presently the Chief of Resource Management for Death Valley National Park, and finds her home in Beatty, Nevada. She was born in Washington D.C., and has lived in Colorado prior to her National Park Service career in Death Valley. Linda has researched and written numerous historical and land-use reference papers, including locations and topics such as Joshua Tree National Monument, Yosemite National Park, Hawaii, and the mining history of Death Valley.
Susan Sorrells is presently the co-owner of the town of Shoshone, California, and Shoshone Propane in Pahrump, Nevada, along with her husband. She grew up in Shoshone, and is a member of the Fairbanks-Brown pioneering family. Susan has worked for the Peace Corps in Liberia, West Africa as a school teacher and community worker. She lived in Europe for a number of years before returning to her homeland of Shoshone, where she was a founding member of the Death Valley Health Center, the Death Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Shoshone Museum Association.
Donna Lamm presently is the owner of Provenza Realty, Pahrump Valley Pottery, and Donna’s Studio of Dance. She has taught college-level dance and pottery in Las Vegas, Nevada, and has taught dance in the Pahrump and Amargosa Valleys. Donna has served as a commissioner on the board of the Pahrump Regional Planning District, facilitated local real estate agent informational meetings, and served as a Southern Nye County Conservation District supervisor. She also serves on the Nevada State Conservation Commission.
Judy Palmer presently is a volunteer for the Death Valley National Park Curatorial Services and at the Shoshone Museum in Shoshone, California. She is retired from the Stanford University School of Medicine, where she worked as a pediatrician in the field of pediatric pulmonary medicine and in the delivery of primary care services to uninsured children. Judy is an enthusiastic hiker and historian of the region, and has authored articles about the women of Death Valley. She is also a member of the Sierra Club.
Tami Tripp-Massie presently is the Executive Director of the Amargosa Conservancy. She was born in Oregon, and found the outdoors a worthwhile place to spend her time. Tami studied business management in college, and has been an agricultural inspector for the state of California, a California City Treasurer, a business operation director for the YMCA, and a financial and accounting executive for Native American tribes.
One other female member of the Amargosa Conservancy bears mentioning. Hermi Hiatt presently is a plant ecologist and independent consultant, performing botanical surveys for rare and sensitive plant species. Many of her projects have been in the Mojave Desert and Great Basin region. Through the course of years, she has consistently devoted herself to land conservation and wilderness preservation. Hermi is a past president of the Red Rock Audubon Society, and continues to edit their newsletter.
There are certainly additional members of the Amargosa Conservancy … however, since this story has been set aside for women, those other folks will have to wait. For once, at least, men will take the back seat! My heartfelt apologies to Zane Gray and others of his ilk. As we continue to observe, women of this wild land are a special breed, cut from a unique cloth that allows them to come to the Death Valley territory far from the usual stomping grounds of the masses, and often end up being powerful leading forces for change.
There are even more women of wild spirit to mention, including those who work for the National Park Service in Death Valley National Park. As mentioned earlier, Linda Greene, who plays a pivotal role in the Amargosa Conservancy, also has spent many years working for the NPS. Here is a woman who probably knows more about this untamed territory than any other. She studies it, she writes about it, and she lives it on a daily basis. She has appeared in books and in documentaries, and certainly deserves a place when folks talk about the ladies of the desert.
Linda Manning is a biologist for the National Park Service in Death Valley National Park. Her projects include the study of the endangered Devil’s Hole pupfish, which brought her to the attention of PBS television. The network presented an hour “Nature” special called Life in Death Valley, and one portion of the documentary revealed Linda’s important endeavors to protect the tiny fish. She commented: “Right now we are very concerned because we recently had the lowest count in 32 years – only 123 fish. We don’t yet understand everything that is going on in this system. It’s a real puzzle. You wonder what the dynamics are. What’s impacting the fish? How are they making it? We’re just starting to get a handle on it, but there’s just still so much more to know. We definitely believe the pupfish are an indicator for the health of this system. When you start poking holes in the fabric of an ecosystem, over time it’s going to tear, and the impacts will be felt by everyone.”
Linda Manning, also a specialist on abandoned mines, works with Linda Greene in tracking the location and safety conditions of these mines in Death Valley National Park in an effort to protect visitors from a dangerous situation that leads to injury and death for some tourists. About a third of all hazardous mines in the nation’s national park system are in Death Valley, somewhere between ten to fifty thousand, so both of these wild women of the hinterlands clearly have their hands full.
Ann Powell is a Museum Technician, also employed by the National Park Service, and works in the Death Valley National Park Research and Curational Facility at Cow Creek, just north of Furnace Creek. Her operations in Death Valley include cataloging, research, preservation, restoration, and conservation of prehistoric and historic materials found in or relating to the park. Park Service museum technicians generally must have an educational background rooted in a subject-matter pertinent to their respective parks such as aeronautics, anthropology, art, geology, history, natural science, technology, biology, or zoology. She has worked here for nearly three years, living in the park for a couple of years, but now in Pahrump, Nevada.
Of her job, Ann states: “I love my job. To interact so closely with relics of lives past is humbling. My greatest satisfaction is knowing that I have helped preserve history and therefore helped preserve the significance of the land itself. Death Valley is a very special place. I haven’t lived here for very long, but one of the wonderful aspects of being a 21st century woman living in a relatively unpopulated and pristine environment is that it allows escape from modern life without losing modern freedoms. It is rare to find a place that remains unsullied by human innovation.”
Born and raised on Bainbridge Island, Washington, Ann has a BA in Anthropology from University of Washington, and an MS in Anthropology from Florida State University. This well-educated woman has worked for the Southeast Archeological Center (also part of the National Park Service) in Tallahassee, Florida. Additional background includes three years as an Archeological Technician in Death Valley National Park.
Death Valley women have come here for all sorts of reasons and have done all sorts of things during their lives over the years. They are a diverse lot, with the common thread being one of loving the wide open spaces, free from the crowds of suburbia. Some of these women, like Sally Zanjani, Judy Palmer, Margaret Pipkin Brush, and Robin Flinchum have a gift of expressing history in the written word.
Robin is a desert dweller of Tecopa, California, a woman with a deep love for the desert environment in which she lives with her husband and young son. While her life may be considered tame by standards we have experienced in the preceding pages, she makes up for it by bringing the lives of the wilder women to life for others to read. Robin is an outstanding author and a joy to read. She is a freelance writer of Death Valley history, with her works appearing in local journals such as Las Vegas Life, the Las Vegas Review Journal, the Pahrump Valley Times, and the Inyo Register. She is also the author of the Death Valley Red Light Chronicles, as mentioned earlier in this story. For copies of these red-light books, contact the Shoshone Museum at 1-760-852-4941.
Not only are women still living in and all around Death Valley and the park, some are even setting up programs to bring other women in for activities in this legendary land. Yes, commercialism is alive, well, and offering unique female options with the flair of the outback for the wild women who seek an excuse to give this countryside a try. From traditional tours for the average wild woman, or cycling for the more active wild gals, to walking for the most extreme wild females, it seems a few innovative commercial outfits have women well covered. Let’s take a quick look at what is available these days, a far cry from the times of yore when it was rough for a woman to even be here, let alone have a bunch of fun in the bargain!
A company called “Women Traveling Together” offers traditional tours of five days, beginning the first night in Las Vegas with a welcome dinner. From there, they depart for Death Valley National Park, and take in such sights as Death Valley, Golden Canyon Trail, Scotty’s Castle, Ubehebe Crater, Mesquite Sand Dunes, Salt Creek trail, Furnace Creek, Zabriskie Point, Dante’s View, Artist Palette, and the Devil’s Golf Course. On their website, women-traveling.com, the write: “Women – just like you – find themselves searching for a travel solution when friends or family are unable to travel with them for whatever the reason. Imagine for a moment traveling with a small group of women who share your same interest and excitement about a particular vacation destination. Imagine the fun, the laughter, the new friendships, and the unforgettable memories. It sure beats staying at home!” This company has been around for ten years, and based on their website, it appears they know how to bring women to Zane Grey’s foreboding Death Valley in style.
For the more adventurous still, “Woman Tours” will take the wild woman for quite a ride. They also begin in Vegas (a popular place, it seems), and then spend the next five days cycling in Death Valley National Park, to such destinations as Rhyolite, the Funeral Mountains, Stovepipe Wells, Scotty’s Castle, Mosaic Canyon, Borax Museum, Badwater, Artist Palette, Golden Canyon, and Zabriskie Point. Their motto is “Extraordinary Tours for Every Woman.” On their website, womantours.com, they write: “Welcome to the only all women bike tour company in America! Womantours – we specialize in small, inn-to-inn road bike tours for women only. We design our bicycle trips for women of all ages, abilities and interests, and in the most beautiful places around the United States and abroad.” So, for the wild woman who needs a real challenge, this package may just fit the bill.
Need yet more? Well, how about walking through Death Valley? That’s pretty wild for anyone, even a wild woman. The outfit “Adventures in Good Company” will make sure walking wild women will get their fill of it during five days of foot travel in Death Valley National Park. On their website, adventuresingoodcompany.com, they say this: “This trip is for any active woman who wants to explore Death Valley. While we will offer one optional strenuous hike (2200 feet elevation gain), most of the hikes are moderate.” The groups visit such locales as Gower Gulch, Zabriskie Point, Furnace Creek, Wildrose Peak, Desolation Canyon, Dante’s Ridge, Darwin Falls, Aguereberry Camp, Mosaic Canyon, Mesquite Dunes, Scotty’s Castle, Ubehebe Crater, Little Hebe Crater, and Salt Creek. It’s enough to wear out a pair of good hiking shoes.
About their activities in general, the company further says: “Are you a woman who loves the outdoors — or who wants to give outdoor adventure a try? Do you want to sleep out under the stars or end your day with a hot shower and cozy bed? Have you dreamed of going on a trip by yourself or have you been looking for something fun to do with your sister, mother, best friend, or partner? Whether you’re an experienced adventurer or an absolute beginner, just beginning to get active or a triathlete, Adventures in Good Company offers trips and experiences that will last a lifetime.”
Women who come to Death Valley today are often every bit as wild as the ones who came here many moons ago. This is wild country, and it requires a wild spirit to fully appreciate the vast scope of the realm. I realized just how ongoing this migration to the untamed Death Valley frontier is a couple of years ago, when a professional photographer named Annie Doan contacted me from the San Francisco Bay area.
She and her close friend, Darcy Hellums, were intent on visiting Death Valley for the first time. They had read about it, Darcy loved the place even having never been, and they sought my advice and itinerary assistance. During a two hour telephone conversation setting up the exciting four-day trip, Annie reminded me: “Keep in mind Steve, we’re just two gals who will be way out there by ourselves, camping and hiking.”
Of course, I already knew that they were certainly not “just two gals” as she had spoken. The fact that they were absolutely intent on going to a place with a foreboding reputation like Death Valley in the first place indicated something about the essence of what made them tick, and then the fact that they were going alone spoke volumes to an enduring female spirit embodied in but a few women cut from a very different cloth. I knew Annie and Darcy were wild women even then, and after their successful trip, complete with three primitive nights in the most primordial outback to be found anywhere, they too came to understand that their “wild within” was now fully liberated.
In their own individual ways, these two contemporary women were personally tested in the Land of Legend, and initiated as members of good standing into the Eternal Sisterhood of Death Valley’s Wild Women!