Greenwater Valley was the site of the most spectacular boom in the history of Death Valley mining. While other districts, such as Bullfrog, Lee–Echo, Panamint, Skidoo and Leadfield had their booms, which saw rushes into new mining areas and the establishment of new mining camps and towns, Greenwater surpassed all the others in the brilliance of its birth. Within a year and a half from the beginning of the rush to Greenwater, the deserted desert was home to over 2,000 people in four towns, 73 incorporated mining companies, and was the focal point of over 140 million dollars worth of capitalization.
But, it was not only the amazing rush to Greenwater which sets it apart from other booms, for Greenwater also experienced the shortest life ever recorded for a boom camp of its size. Within one year from the height of the boom, all but five of the companies had left the district, and Greenwater was practically deserted. By the end of two more years, everyone had given up, and the Greenwater Valley, the scene of so much bustle and excitement a short time before, was once again completely deserted.
This combination of a tremendous boom, a brief life and then complete desertion, all within the space of less than four years, has made Greenwater a name which is still anathema to the investing public, and dear to the hearts of desert folklorists. Few, if any, mining camps in the American west have ever combined such initial excitement with such total disappointment.
The real discovery of Greenwater, as with most throughout the Death Valley area, came about as a result of the Bullfrog boom, some 65 miles to the north. The great rush to the Bullfrog Hills soon filled up the ground in that vicinity and late-arriving prospectors were forced to move farther afield. Two such men, Fred Birney and Phil Creasor, ambled south down the east side of the Black Mountain Range, and in February, 1905, while looking for gold, and instead, uncovered rich surface croppings of an immense copper belt in Greenwater Valley. Birney and Creasor sent samples of their find to Patsy Clark of Spokane, Washington, a well-known copper mining operator, and Clark was sufficiently impressed to buy the claims from the two men in May.
Hearing of Clark’s new holdings, which held amazingly high copper values at the surface, F. August Heinze, the “famous copper king” of Butte, Montana, also visited the new locations, and was equally impressed. The rich surface showing was so promising that Heinze and his partners immediately bought 16 copper claims from another pair of early prospectors for the sum of $275,000. Commenting upon the transaction, which brought newspaper attention to the area, the Inyo Independent reported that the “vast copper deposits in the Funeral Range have long been known to prospectors, but, their inaccessibility to the markets prevented working.” Now, with the booming camp of Bullfrog to the north, and the promise of railroads into the desert regions, the transportation and supply problems would be much less severe, although the Greenwater Valley was still a long way from civilization.
As the news quickly spread that two of copper’s biggest operators had located in Greenwater, a rush ensued. Prospectors and mining men started to flock into the Greenwater area in order to stake out close-in ground. As usual with a new boom, transportation problems exceeded all others, and many prospectors, including one who reported for the Inyo Independent, were reduced to walking from Bullfrog into the new district, a task which took three days. The work was rough, since even in September the thermometer reached 113 degrees in the afternoon, and the reporter-prospector found that he was forced to sit down and rest after building each monument to mark his claims. The heat was not alleviated by the total lack of water in the district, and prospectors who ran out of water were forced to leave their location work and return to Bullfrog, the nearest point of civilization.
By late June, 1905, Patsy Clark already had eight men working at his property, and a shaft had been sunk 35 feet into the ground. As the year progressed, other operators entered the scene, including Arthur Kunze, who secured some of the best looking ground in the area and had five men working it by the end of the year.
As 1906 opened, Kunze, Clark and Heinze began to have plenty of company, for innumerable other mining promoters, prospectors and miners were entering the district. Clark established a mining camp near his mine to support his operation, and other small camps sprung up along the valley floor.
As the rush to the area continued, however, it soon became apparent that the lack of an adequate water supply anywhere in the vicinity would be a major problem. “The water proposition is the serious drawback in that section at present, and will be a matter of considerable expense,” remarked a Rhyolite stock broker, “yet the earmarks of the country seem to show that any expense would be justified, judging from the surface indications.”
Those surface indications were indeed so rich that men and money continued to rush into the district, regardless of the serious problems of water and transportation. As the spring progressed, some of the biggest names in Nevada mining joined the boom, and fortunes reaped in Tonopah and Goldfield were reinvested in the promising new district.
“All of the great copper magnates are looking to this section,” reported the Inyo Register in May, “which is destined to become the next great copper district of the world.” That prediction seemed to be borne out by June, 1906, as the copper belt was “proven” to be at least seven miles long. Four of the larger mines had by that time, been incorporated into full-fledged mining companies, and Greenwater seemed assured of a long and lively life.
The rush slowed down somewhat during the hot summer months of 1906, although the future of the district looked even better when both the Las Vegas & Tonopah and the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroads, which were building into the Bullfrog District, expressed interest in tapping the new copper belt to the south. The local papers declared that the district “will make one of the greatest copper camps in America,” and the continuing rush caused the major national mining journals to take notice of the area. “The weather in Death Valley is the only thing that prevents Greenwater from having one of the biggest booms on record in this country,” wrote the Bullfrog Miner. “But even the midsummer heat of the ‘terrible region’ does not keep prospectors out. Hardly a day passes that Bullfrog prospectors are not seen starting out for Greenwater.” In early July, a stage line was started from Ash Meadows into the new district, and water, which was being hauled in from 15 miles away, was selling for $5 per barrel.