Ryan is what the Old West was all about. It was a mining town built on the side of a steep mountain on the eastern edge of Death Valley in a remote and rugged area. It had its own train, the Death Valley Railroad narrow gauge that ran from Death Valley Junction to Ryan. And it had its own mine train on top of that. The Baby Gauge ran from the terminus of the Death Valley Railroad in Ryan south several miles along the hills to the borax mines.
It was a company town that was built in 1914 to serve several borax mines. In 1928 the mines were shut down and part of the town was converted to a hotel in hopes of attracting tourists to Death Valley. The hotel and the town were closed in 1930.
Ryan would sit idle for the next 78 years and remained private and used very little. But it had a grand view of some things that did occur.
During those 78 years President Herbert Hoover signed a proclamation creating Death Valley National Monument. The newly organized San Jose State University Field Studies in Natural History started to use Ryan in 1952 as their base of operations for their spring time study session. Two years later those same students partnered with Ranger L. Floyd Keller in Ryan and created the Death Valley Natural History Association.
Ryan also saw its founder, Pacific Coast Borax, merge with United States Potash Company to become U.S. Borax in 1956 . Then more changes came in 1967 when U.S. Borax was acquired by the Rio Tinto Group.
Sixteen years later in 1983 through 1991 the U.S. Borax exploration department quietly staked mining claims and drilled exploratory holes on the basalt-capped plateau above Ryan.
Time marched on and Ryan watched as in 1994 Death Valley National Monument became Death Valley National Park. And in 2005 Ryan saw its neighbor, the newer and more modern Billie Mine, owned by American Borate Company, shut down operations.
Ryan remained quiet a few more years and then Ryan started to catch a lot of people’s attention. The National Park Service started to note in their plans and reports in 2005 that Ryan would make an excellent place for an educational center and expressed desire to partner with Rio Tinto.
In 2007 the park service and Rio Tinto started to discuss the idea of Rio Tinto donating Ryan to the park service. Senator Feinstein even included the transfer of Ryan to the park service in one of her bills, S. 138, California Desert Protect Act of 2011.
The Death Valley Conservancy was formed in 2008 and Rio Tinto decided to donate Ryan to the conservancy. Rio Tinto and the Death Valley Conservancy began the transfer process. The Death Valley Conservancy nonprofit charity was led by Rio Tinto Chief Executive of Energy and Minerals, Preston Chiaro, as the conservancy president.
In 2012 there is a new flurry of activity. Ryan says goodbye to an old friend when after 60 years the staff of the San Jose State University Field Studies in Natural History program decides to hold the session in Furnace Creek. Rio Tinto and Death Valley Conservancy propose upgrades to a water collection system at Navel Spring inside Death Valley National Park. And a brief time later a Fundraising Agreement is entered between the National Park Service and Death Valley Conservancy.
May 6, 2013, the Death Valley Conservancy announced the transfer of ownership of Ryan Camp from Rio Tinto to the Death Valley Conservancy.
The research of Ryan Camp started in 2011 and it was discovered that the information for the last 75 years was scarce, incomplete and difficult to obtain. There are several stories on Ryan from its beginning in 1914 through its close in 1930 but only random pieces of information can be found after that. This project will attempt to tell the complete story of Ryan Camp and other associated activities in the area.
As work on the project continued it was expanded to include information on another historic property, the Death Valley Junction, and two other nonprofit groups that either own, manage or watch over historic properties or land and activities in this area of the desert.
Death Valley Junction was built by the Pacific Coast Borax Company and was later sold. It is currently used as an opera house, motel and café and is managed by the nonprofit organization called Amargosa Opera House Inc.
Another nonprofit group, The Death Valley Natural History Association, was started in Ryan Camp and had close ties to U.S. Borax. The association has an office in Furnace Creek and has very close ties with Rio Tinto. Employees with U.S. Borax and Rio Tinto have served on the association’s board of directors for many years and continue to serve on the board.
Rio Tinto, the Australian-British multinational and one of the world’s largest metals and mining corporations, continues to own several hundred important mining claims in and around Ryan Camp and the Death Valley National Park.
The expanded work will attempt to report on the activities, interactions and influences these groups have on one another and a national park.
(Please notify author on the website contact page for errors, omissions or suggestions.)