The Saga of John Searles
By Ora Lee Oberteuffer
Desert Magazine - October, 1942
HIGH up in the mountains which
overlook Searles lake, at the head
of a tortuous, rocky trail, lie the
ruins of the old homestead of John Wemple
Searles. In the march of time over 75
years have passed since that home was
built, but in the still of the desert the deep
canyon seems to echo the chant of Chinese
coolies as they picked and shoveled away
at the rocky hillside to build terraces and
walls and develop a water supply.
Time and cloudbursts have almost obliterated
the trail, and the buildings have
crumbled away, but the mammoth fig trees
and grape vines, still flourishing and bearing
fruit, are living memorials to the courage
and faith of one of the most colorful
characters of early desert history.
John Searles was among those intrepid
pioneers who endured hardship and privation to reach the California gold fields
by way of the wagon train in 1849. Descending
from ancestors who won renown
with the American army in the Revolutionary
war, the courage and fearlessness
which he had inherited were his only possessions
when he joined his brother Dennis
at Indian creek, Shasta county, California.
The two brothers cast about for a few
years in farming and mining but eventually
disposed of their holdings, and in 1862
acquired and began operating mining
claims in the Slate range, just east of the
present Searles lake in central California.
Their camp looked out on a vast dry lake
of what was thought at that time to be salt
and carbonate of soda.
One day Searles, confiding in no one,
gathered samples of crystals from the bed
of the lake and took them to San Francisco
for analysis. At first he was told they contained borax. But after more trips to San
Francisco and more analyses had been
made, he was told that they contained not
a single trace of borax. Disappointed, he
returned to the desert where he devoted
the next few years to working his mine
and developing his homestead in the
One day in 1873 a man drifted into the
Searles mining camp with some samples
from a new borax discovery in Nevada.
Realizing that they were the same type of
crystals as che samples he had previously
taken to San Francisco, Searles' interest in
his own discovery was aroused once more.
With a pack outfit he went to the south
end of the lake and located 640 acres.
Later this acreage was increased to over
Then he made another trip to San Francisco
with samples. When he was told
again that his crystals contain no borax he
became suspicious. When he left San Francisco
for Los Angeles he was followed, but
while in Los Angeles he formed a partnership
with Charles Grassard, Eben M.
Skillings and his brother Dennis. While
the other three gathered simple equipment
for starting operations, Searles went in an
opposite direction, camping and prospecting,
still being followed. When he was
able finally to elude his followers he
joined his partners at the claims.
When word reached the outside world
that there was borax in Searles lake, hordes
of men came to stake out claims. Claim
jumping and murder knew no law on that
frontier but in time most of the claimants
starved out and the claims were abandoned.
One or two small organizations attempted
to produce the borax as a paying
industry but for one reason or another
faded out of the picture.
With crude equipment Searles' little
band collected borax in cowhide baskets
The highly chemicalized brine from beneath the dry surface
of Searles lake has created a town of 2500 people at Trona.
and carried it to a large boiling pan where
it was boiled for 36 hours. The solution
was then run into vats so that the crystals
could form on the sides. After drying it
was put into 70-pound bags, loaded into
20-mule-team wagons and hauled to San
Pedro, California, where it was transported
by water to San Francisco. Thus the
borax industry on the now famous Searles
lake was born. Those wagons, built and
operated for Searles by Oso Viejo, who, at
the time of this writing is still living in
Los Angeles, were the first 20-mule-team
borax wagons ever put in operation. It
was one of the Searles wagons that Salty
Bill Parkinson, Searles' foreman, later
drove across country for exhibition at the
St. Louis exposition in 1904.
On January 1, 1873, Searles married
Mary Covington in Los Angeles, California.
On February 27, 1874, a son, Dennis,
was born to them. But those were difficult
years for the city-bred girl. Never inured
to the rigors of desert pioneering, her
mind wandered in the maze of primitive
hardships and lost its way. Though deprived
of her help and companionship he
continued, with the aid of a faithful old
Chinese cook, to keep his small son with
him and carry on his enterprises.
In the operation of his borax works
Searles had accumulated considerable real
and personal property—land, buildings,
wagons, mules, horses and other equipment.
On one occasion he had gone with
the mule team shipment to San Pedro,
leaving Dennis, then four years old, in the
care of the Chinese cook. A few days after
the wagon train had left camp there suddenly
appeared in the distance, like a
plague of locusts, a band of hostile Indians.
Sensing the danger the old Chinaman
quickly gathered some food and fled with
Dennis into a nearby canyon in the mountains.
The Indians closed in on the camp,
burned everything that would burn, and
drove the stock over the Slate range into
the Panamint valley.
John Searles when he returned and beheld
the ruins of all that he possessed. As soon
as the Chinaman and Dennis reappeared
he assembled the team, took the same drivers,
and started back for San Pedro, stopping
enroute to leave his two passengers
in friendly hands in San Bernardino. At
San Pedro they bought mules, old army
saddles and repeating rifles, hired a small
band of longshoremen from the docks,
and returned to the desert to track down
Searles caught up with them in the foothills
of the Panamint mountains where a
bloody battle ensued. The Indians were
fighting with bows and arrows, and, as one
of the survivors told later, they did not
fear the white men, thinking that the arrows
would mow them down while rifles
were being reloaded. Many Indians were
killed and wounded and the remainder
fled in panic, leaving the livestock behind.
Searles and his men drove the stock back
into Searles lake basin where he began the
heart-breaking task of rebuilding the
In later years the faithful Chinese servant
enjoyed an annuity which had been established
by Searles. He died in San Francisco's
Chinatown 10 years after Searles
had passed on to his own reward. The son
Dennis later attended Stanford university
where he graduated in its first class with
Herbert Hoover. He died in San Francisco
November 25, 1916.
In the rebuilding of the borax plant a
corporation was formed under the name
of the San Bernardino Borax Mining
company. About 60 men were employed.
The borax was still hauled out by 20-muleteam
wagons to Mojave, the then nearest
railway station, where it was shipped by
rail to San Francisco. With each load
worth $4,000, and a load going out every
four days, the business produced a tremendous
revenue, but rival concerns paid
Searles and his associates such a handsome
sum of money to discontinue operation
that they closed down their plant in 1895.
At the time of the operation of Searles'
plant geologists considered the surface deposit
to be the largest supply of natural
borax in the world. None of them, not
even John Searles himself, dreamed that
under the hard white surface of the lake
was a subterranean brine and a vast stratum
of crystals containing thousands of
times more borax than was exposed on
the surface, as well as many other salts and
chemicals which were later to take their
place in the world of science, industry, agriculture
and national defense.
When it was discovered that the underground
lake also carried a vast potash content,
the President of the United States, by
a proclamation, withdrew Searles lake into
a potash reserve. Congress shortly thereafter
passed a leasing bill authorizing the
department of the interior to lease the deposits
of potash and other minerals in the
lake, preventing private parties thenceforth
from procuring it outright. This bill,
however, did not disturb those claims
which already had been patented, including
the holdings of the San Bernardino
Borax Mining company as well as those
of the California Trona company, a subsidiary
of Goldfields, Ltd.
In 1908 the California Trona company
undertook to manufacture chemicals from
the brine, but, for various reasons, found
the going too tough and went into the
hands of a receiver. The company lay practically
dormant until 1913, when it again
made the same attempt under the name
American Trona corporation.
Between 1913 and 1916 various experimental
processes were developed,
tests were made, plants were built at enormous
expense and promptly abandoned.
History does not record whether those trying
years proved to be a death struggle for
the processes previously used or labor
pains of the new Trona which was about
to be born, but finally, in 1916, a plant to
produce potash and borax by what was
known as the Grimwood process was completed
and placed in operation.
Ten wells, about 85 feet deep, were
drilled through the salt crust and into the
brine. A pumping plant was installed and
a pipeline constructed to carry the liquid
to the plant where the chemicals were extracted
by means of evaporation. This
plant was the real beginning of the present
Trona. Production of salts from the
brine by the American Trona company,
and its successor, the American Potash and
Chemical corporation, has been continuous
since that time.
The variety of the uses for Trona products
seems to be as unlimited as the universe.
The coarse grade of potash is used
chiefly in fertilizers. The finer grade is
used in the manufacture of soaps, textiles,
matches, medicines, dyes, glass, photographic
preparations, and many other
One grade of borax finds its way into
heat-resisting glasses, ordinary bottle
glass, and vitreous or porcelain enamels,
glazes for ceramic ware, leather, paper,
adhesives and textiles. It is used as a solvent
for casein, as a flux in the brazing and
welding of metals, to retard the decay of
citrus fruits, and to prevent the growth of
certain fungi which cause sap stain in numerous
types of lumber.
Boric acid (technical) is used in the
manufacture of vitreous enamels, heatresisting
glass and glazes for ceramic
ware. It is also used in electro-plating and
the manufacture of electrolytic condensers.
More highly refined boric acid goes into
various pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.
Soda ash is probably the most versatile
of all the products obtained from the
Searles lake brine. It becomes baking soda,
drugs, dye-stuffs, caustic soda, and other
salts containing sodium as the base. It
softens water, helps in the refining of
lubricating oils, is an ingredient in wood
preservatives and is a useful element in the
manufacture of paper.
Salt cake (sodium sulphate) is largely
used in the manufacture of kraft paper,
plate and window glass, dyes, chemicals,
tanning, cattle dopes and pharmaceutical
The youngest brain-children of the research
department are the recovery of lithium
from the process foams and slimes
which formerly were wasted and the recovery
of bromine and alkali bromides
from the potash. Heretofore lithium has
been obtained by mine production of minerals.
As prepared at Trona it constitutes
the highest grade lithium ore yet known.
In addition to a great many medicinal uses
lithium chloride is used in air-conditioning
units for de-humidifying, in metallurgy
for copper refining, in the red fire
of fireworks, and for many chemical experiments.
Bromine and the bromides are
largely used in modern industrial arts. It
is a vital constituent of Ethyl gasoline as
well as a fumigant for preventing weevils
and damage to stored supplies of grain.
The bromides are used also in the photographic
industry. In a national emergency
the photographer and his supplies as well
as the Ethyl gasoline used in aeroplanes
become of utmost importance.
And the end is not yet! The axiom in
the old riddle "the more you take, the
more you leave" must have been said of
the brine in Searles lake, for, in spite of
the enormous amount pumped out each
day, scientists claim that it constantly is
being replaced and that there is no indication
that the supply will be diminished for
at least 100 years. And so, judging the future
by the past, who can say what additional
wonders for the benefit of all mankind
are still lurking in that brine?
The village of Trona resembles, to some
extent, an army post. Where once there
was a pitiful little handful of rude cabins
on the edge of the salt beds there are now
hundreds of modern comfortable homes
on well-laid-out streets. There is a fullyequipped
grade and high school, a public
library, a modern up-to-the-minute hospital
with two doctors, a corps of nurses and
a dentist; a moving picture theater, an 18-
hole golf course, and a completelyequipped
tfapshooting ground. It also
boasts an airport with hangars for a number
of privately owned planes, as well as
one of the finest open-air swimming pools
in the West.
A large and commodious retail store
carries food, dry goods and drugs. In the
early mining days of John Searles it was
necessary for him to drive his mule team
over 100 miles to Tehachapi for his supplies
and feed for his stock. Later he ran a
small store of his own for the benefit of
the employes in his borax works. The ruins
of that little store building are still standing
on the shore of the lake.
In contrast to the 20-mule-team wagons
which groaned and creaked their way
across the desert in the early days of John
Searles, the American Potash and Chemical
corporation now owns and operates
its own railroad between Trona and
Searles station, a distance of 31 miles,
where it connects with the Southern Pacific
railway. Two huge engines, piloting an
average of 35 cars, now puff out of Trona
every day starting about 1,300 tons of
products on their way to every corner of
There are now 19 wells operating on
the lake and an average of 2,700,000 gallons
of brine flow through pipelines into
the plant every 24 hours. From this brine
approximately 1,260 tons of chemicals are
extracted. To carry on this herculean
chore, with loading and shipping, requires
about 1,250 employes, who, with their
families, constitute the entire population
of Trona, numbering about 2,500.
With Trona products taking such an important
place in the scientific and industrial
world, it is not surprising that the
interesting little city has gathered unto her
bosom a most unusual class of people. It
boasts some of the finest chemical and
engineering brains in the country.
Houses, administration buildings, store
buildings and dormitories for single men
and women are all air-cooled—almost sinfully
comfortable in the hottest summer
weather. It's a far cry back to those pioneering
days when there was no relief
from the dancing, baking heat waves of
the lake basin.
John Wemple Searles, son of George
and Helen Wemple Searles, was born at
Tribes Hill, Montgomery county, New
York, on November 16, 1828. Though
the glittering, shimmering borax crystals
in the bed of the lake which now bears his
name were not the yellow gold which he
expected to find at the end of the covered
wagon trail, they made him a rich man
and left a legacy of benefits and blessings
to be enjoyed by the whole world for
generations to come.
History records that in his early pioneering
days, while on a deer-hunting expedition
into the mountains of Kern county,
Searles had a gruelling, breath-taking
fight with a huge grizzly bear which left
his shoulder and one side of his face permanently
mangled. Companions on the
hunt managed to get him to Los Angeles
where surgeons miraculously saved his
life. Grim reminders of the incident today
are a bottle containing 21 pieces of broken
bone and teeth and an old Spencer rifle
with many bear-teeth dents in it. Perhaps
only the kind of pluck and courage which
saw him through that encounter could
have fought off claim jumpers and
marauding Indians in his early borax days
and establish for posterity one of the most
important industries in America today.
John Searles died on October 7, 1897,
and his body lies in the purple shadows of
the little cemetery at St. Helena, California.
But to watch the sun sink behind the
hills at Trona and the short twilight fade
into night, with the silhouette of the huge
industrial giant outlined in black against
the desert sky—then suddenly a million
electric lights rivaling the long jagged
points of the stars—one feels that his spirit
has come back that the desert may claim its
own; that here indeed death has been
swallowed up in victory.
Courtesy: Searles Valley Historical Society
Searles Lake Non-Metallic Minerals
This mineral treasure chest was not recognized as such by the emigrants who camped on its shore and tasted of its brackish waters while escaping from Death Valley ...