Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Richard Lingenfelter''s "Death Valley & the Amargosa" Book Review

With a fifty-five page bibliography and a hundred pages of endnotes, you'd expect this closely documented history of this region, published from a university press by a professor (of physics!) to read like most academic texts. It does not. It's witty, insightful, droll, while remaining relentlessly focused not on the feel of the area (for that, see his "Death Valley Lore" edition of century-old tall tales and/or journalism or John Soennischen's lively personal take "Live from Death Valley"; both books also reviewed by me here and on Amazon)-- but on its discovery by pioneers, its promotion by hucksters to gullible investors, and the sheer difficulty of getting its mineral and ore riches out of the Valley due to the lack of water and wood. No matter how tempting the surface finds might promise prospectors and speculators, the fact remained that more borax than gold came from there, and perhaps more lead than silver, and the enormous labor and climatic peril meant that, less than a century after it was stumbled upon by gold-rushers seeking a shortcut west, it became more lucrative as a tourist attraction rather than a mother lode.

Lingenfelter assembles his considerable data primarily from newspapers and government archives of the time. Maps both early and later help you visualize the places, and period photos give you a peek into a few of the sites. I wish more of these had been included, but it's a minor flaw. Chapters cover chronologically the pre-European settlers; the miners of the 1850s and 1860s; the Pocket Miners' boomlets that sparked buying frenzies for gold, silver, lead and later the humbler but savvily-sold borax; the copper and lead profits; and the rise of the auto, rail, and bus excursions that in the wake of Scotty's endless PR set the Valley indelibly on the map and on the silent screen. His opening paragraphs for each of the chapters and sub-sections serve as models for expository writing in their command of image, style, and intrigue.

The author wrote most of his account based on the contemporary reports from the area, and the abundance of press from the California and Nevada mining towns themselves must have rivalled dueling bloggers who try to cash in on the staked-out domains of the Net in our own feverish commercial marketing campaigns. Death Valley's Scotty and his lesser-known real-estate snake-oil rival C.C. Julian emerge from these closely printed, but largely engrossing, pages as larger-than-life promoters of their own image and of the dreams of avarice that they kindled in their readers all over the country. The narrative leaps energetically into such characters' humbug, and your patience for all the data on stock prices, lists of claims, and dutiful attention to grubstakes and legal battles, while all necessary for the foundation of such an informative text, is rewarded with a chance to feel the repelling yet fascinating charm of the salesmen who sold the spirit of the Gold Rush or Klondike or Comstock to later, more citified, folks, and delighted in the con all the way as much as perhaps many of their willing victims seemed to do. Likewise, the manipulation of Leadfield by Julian as the profits rose and fell on his considerable talents in advertising what his reader wanted can be rivalled by earlier, less-known efforts such as the Panamint and Bullfrog and Ryan mines that crested and tumbled their value on the stock exchanges in roller-coaster fashion.

Finally, there's a glimpse at such later figures as "Bob" Eichbaum, who built a toll road, sensibly, to found a resort smack in the middle of the Valley when his horses refused to go any further with his supplies for construction. He and the last to get rich off the Valley managed to do so by convincing Hoover, just before he left the White House, to protect the interests of those who had already cornered the market for the automobile-bound visitors. These developers wished to keep the mining going, while heading off any real-estate boom, and they succeeded in cornering their control of the concessions and sights, while getting the taxpayers to take over the bill for roads, maintenance, and upkeep.

Still, as Lingenfelter concludes, this may well be a great bargain, for in its appeal as a supposedly deadly, noxious, forbidden, or hellish place, its own Hollywood-fueled scenario makes it the largest National Park today. It also was spared the dispiriting subdivision of Palm Springs or the tacky sprawl of Las Vegas. In its not-quite pristine but still rather primitive state, it's a place where yearly one that half a million of us drive to, winter or summer, in search of the curious lure that impels us to look high up to Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 States, while far below sea level at fittingly named Badwater.

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