Chapter 2

1931 through 2007 activities in and around Ryan.

In 1931 the West Coast School of Nature Study was created. Its intent was to utilize the west’s rich and varied natural shore, mountains, forests and deserts as superb outdoor classrooms. These would become one-week campuses for nature study under the direction of specialists in entomology, botany, zoology, geology and ecology. The main purpose of the program was to give lay students a better understanding of the natural world they live in.

This new field school was well received and between 1931 and after its suspension for World War II, it conducted sessions at a dozen different locations among the most spectacular scenic areas on the continent. More than 9,000 students had attended.

At first none of these sessions had been held in Death Valley. All of the sessions were held in the summer and Death Valley had been considered but passed over because of its summer heat.

In 1937 the spring vacation week for the public elementary and high schools coincided with that of the college. It was suggested that both teachers and students go together to Death Valley for a field session. The program proved so successful that it was repeated again in 1940 when school spring vacations again coincided.

The first two sessions in Death Valley were set up in camps and the students and staff unrolled their sleeping bags under the stars. They had good luck with the typical spring weather and their sessions were pleasant. But they knew they should start looking for indoor quarters for future sessions.

Field Studies in Natural History

Field Studies in Natural History

The third session was again planned as a camp. Students and staff were forced to deal with the inconveniences of the warlike gas rationing and lack of student transportation. After a grueling 14 hour trip in a borrowed decrepit surplus military bus the students and instructors arrived at a small canyon extension at the upper end of Texas Spring campground.

Camp was established and the group ate dinner. After that everyone slid in to their sleeping bags on the bare desert floor. A short time later a strong wind blew down the valley blowing sand and gravel and scattering the food tent and personal belongings across the desert. Everyone wrapped themselves the best they could and huddled with their backs to the wind until it died some. The group then group walked to Furnace Creek Ranch for help and they were put up in a small hangar near the airfield.

Field Studies in Natural History

Field Studies in Natural History

No progress had been made securing indoor quarters for the Death Valley program and in 1949 the camp was established  at the upper end of Texas Spring campground. And again a strong wind blew. This time the group went nearly four miles through blowing sand and darkness to the old Civilian Conservation Corps barracks at Cow Creek. There they waited out the storm and upon returning to their camp at Texas Spring found it a disaster in a sea of mud and clay. It had become clear that shelter from inclement weather was a necessity if future sessions in Death Valley were to continue.

The park service granted permission for the program to use the old CCC barracks. But in 1952 the park service found it necessary to demolish the barracks as high winds had made it too dangerous to occupy. The school now had to consider whether it should continue in Death Valley if it could not find quarters there.

Field Studies in Natural History

Field Studies in Natural History

It had not gone unobserved that on the mountainside at the old borax mining camp at Ryan, the US Borax corporation owned the abandoned Death Valley View Hotel. Two directors of the nature school had for several years maintained a friendship with the resident manager for the US Borax Corporation whose office was at Boron but included the old hotel at Ryan.

The directors arranged for a meeting with the US Borax manager and they presented their request to use Ryan. There were compelling reasons for and against using Ryan but in the end the educator team prevailed and the agreement was a loose one-dollar-a-year contract with specified restrictions to keep adventurous students out of harm’s way. The school would carry a liability policy and use of the Ryan facility would be reconsidered yearly.

In 1954 the field studies program was held in Ryan for the first time. The old hotel was ideal and any disadvantages were worked around. The name of the program was also changed to Field Studies in Natural History and the sessions met without any noteworthy incident until 1965.

Following the spring session in 1965 the director sent a check for one hundred dollars to the US Borax corporation as a goodwill contribution. The check sent shock waves through the corporation and the legal implications caused US Borax to reconsider its relationship with the field school.

The check was returned along with an ominous message that Ryan was not an operating property and that maintenance service for the buildings and equipment was not even being provided. It was also suggested that the program seek facilities to use elsewhere.

Ryan 1964

Ryan 1964

US Borax relented and added that if no other facilities could be found for the Death Valley program permission for the continued use of Ryan would be granted if a new set of conditions were met. A more formal contract was drawn up that included a hold-harmless clause and specifically provided for the use of guest houses 1 and 2, the infirmary building, parking area for 70 cars, access and ingress facilities, and utilities and water as furnished.

At the same time the issues with US Borax were resolved new ones appeared back home. Field Studies in Natural History, born the West Coast School of Nature Study, was an illegitimate child. While it identified itself as a self-supporting adjunct of the natural science department of San Jose State College, it met this description only outwardly and its parents had never been joined. The project had never been incorporated into the established administrative structure of the state college system. While it gave the appearance of a public school program it was in fact a private business.

During the succeeding years the nature school was brought in to a more respectable relationship with the college administration. But in 1963, before fully gaining official recognition, it caught the disapproving attention of the newly created chancellor’s office. A member of the chancellor’s office went so far as to warn the college staff involved with the program that they could be prosecuted, fined and jailed if they continued.

The problems were eventually worked through and the nature school became legitimate. Its name was changed to Field Studies in Natural History and became an extension services program under the direction of the then renamed College of Science at San Jose State University. Nobody went to jail. With its survival guaranteed the program became a shining star. Some years students waited all night in line to sign up for a Death Valley session.

The academic and logistical conduct of the field studies program that lasts a week in the middle of a desert wilderness created extreme dual responsibilities. Well organized and delivered instruction needed to be supported by providing the students full stomachs and rested bodies. Meticulous planning for their subsistence has been basic to the school’s success.

For three postwar years, both academics and logistics were handled by members of the teaching faculty. That proved to be too much for one person so the program hired a camp manager. A session filled with 240 students met with a logistical nightmare and the number was lowered to 192.

Field Studies in Natural History

Field Studies in Natural History

The program camp manager would go to Ryan with a couple of helpers two or three days in advance to get things ready. The first thing they had to do was clean up the dirt brought in by the desert winds. They would also repair things that were broken and also make things that were needed. Since the old CCC barracks at Cow Creek had been bulldozed into a gully, the camp manager and his helpers would go to the gully and get as much wood as they could use and took it to Ryan and made it in to legs for tables. They also made outhouses put together with pins so that they could be disassembled and stored and then reused for the next session. Anything broken during the session was fixed and the staff tried to leave the place in better shape than they found it.

Injuries to the students, either at Ryan or on field trips, were almost nonexistent. Concern for student safety was written into a list of regulations and discussed at the mandatory first evening’s session. Any noncompliance would result in an immediate expulsion from Ryan, no course credit and no refund of the course fee.

Field Studies in Natural History

Field Studies in Natural History

While in Ryan students attended evening lectures by staff members and occasional participation by park ranger naturalists who would drop by to share their knowledge of the valley or just to chat with the students.

At an evening session in 1954, ranger naturalist L. Floyd Keller, a frequent visitor at Ryan, made a proposal that led to the creation of the Death Valley Natural History Association. Keller proposed a natural history support group for Death Valley like the one in Yosemite National Park.

The students responded enthusiastically and voted to raise their registration fee by fifty cents as a contribution toward its founding. The Death Valley Natural History Association was born.

At the same time the field studies program was taking place other things were occurring in Death Valley in full view of Ryan.

On February 11, 1933 President Herbert Hoover signed Proclamation No. 2028 creating Death Valley National Monument. The original monument consisted of 1,697,112 acres. On June 13, 1933, by prior agreement, the monument was quickly reopened to prospecting and mining by congressional action. On March 26, 1937 President Roosevelt signed Proclamation No. 2228 which added an additional 304,789 acres to the west, northeast and southeast sides of the monument. And on January 23, 1952 President Harry S. Truman signed Proclamation No. 2961 which added Devil’s Hole, consisting of 40 acres, to the monument.

From 1930 to 1950, Ryan Camp is mostly inaccessible  except for Baby Gauge rail tours. The conversion of the line into a tourist ride involved more work than just adding seats to the flat cars. The Baby Gauge line originally started at the tall trestle and earthen fill platform above Ryan’s large ore bins, and required re-routing once these features were put out of commission. After the Death Valley Railroad track was removed it was replaced with two foot gauge track in central Ryan to allow turnaround of the tourist train.

Death Valley tourists ride the Baby Gauge. County of Inyo, Eastern California Museum

Death Valley tourists ride the Baby Gauge. County of Inyo, Eastern California Museum

The Death Valley View Hotel touted the $1 trip as an experience both thrilling and educational, and continued running it for years after it ended its hotel operation at Ryan. It stopped running the Baby Gauge trips in 1949, after an unspecified accident that may have injured someone, and from that point used the line only for yearly assessment work on the claims in the area of Ryan. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was seriously considered rehabilitating and re-opening the Baby Gauge as a tourist attraction, even going so far as to solicit bids for the rehabilitation work and to consider partnering with the Fred Harvey company for the line’s operation.

Around January 1957 the Baby Gauge roadbed, rails, trestles and tunnels were inspected and found to be in poor condition. It was suggested to have a qualified engineer conduct an inspection.

In December 1960 there were two options for the rebuilding of the Baby Gauge. The first one would run from Ryan to Grand View, through the Grand View tunnel and then over the return loop back to Ryan. This option was estimated to cost $36,728.58. The second option would run from Ryan to Grand View and back to Ryan at a cost of $25,511.98.

The Ryan Baby Gauge had been considered by many as one of the finest narrow gauge mine railroads in the United States. At that time there was 3.84 miles of roadbed remaining. Of that distance it had been recommended that approximately 2.78 miles of track be used for the tourist ride. That would then consist of a complete round trip ride of 4.5 miles.

Sightseeing train leaving Ryan for the mines. Courtesy National Park Service, Death Valley National Park

Sightseeing train leaving Ryan for the mines. Courtesy National Park Service, Death Valley National Park

The trip under consideration would begin at Ryan, enter the Ryan tunnel, travel over three trestles, enter the Grand View tunnel, and stop therein and a short lecture would be given on mining where a view of old mining equipment could be seen and also a sample of colmanite could be picked from below an ore chute. Upon re-boarding the train the tour would proceed through the Grand View tunnel, turn 130 degrees and then tram 1,300 feet upgrade to the “Widow High Line,” return to the entrance of the Grand View tunnel and then return to Ryan over 1.72 miles of the main line. The trip would take approximately one hour.

Railroad contractors Wm. A. Smith & Martin from Los Angeles, California, submitted a proposal for the rehabilitation of the Baby Gauge for $23,790.00 and estimated that they could complete the work in 45 days. The estimate from Smith & Martin did not include furnishing any material for the work.

In 1961 the cost to rehabilitate the Baby Gauge was now $42,500.00. In addition to the increased costs there were also concerns about the liability of operating the Baby Gauge as a tourist ride. In addition to those obstacles, portions of the track beyond the Grand View mine is on Federal land which was used in the building of the railroad. None of the plans ever came to fruition, and the Baby Gauge line was left to deteriorate in place.

In 1956 Pacific Coast Borax merged with United States Potash Corporation to form the US Borax and Chemical Corporation, which preserved Ryan as a base for future exploitation of borates in its nearby mines and elsewhere in the vicinity.

Ryan Camp also served as a television and movie filming location. Some of the Death Valley Days episodes were shot in Ryan and the then future US President Ronald Reagan who hosted the series between 1964 and 1965   The first scene for Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film Spartacus was also filmed in Ryan. In that scene the title character and executive producer, Kirk Douglas, who is doomed to die in a Libyan mine, is rescued by Roman Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), who was shopping for gladiators. This scene was filmed on the old Death Valley Railroad grade between Ryan and the Lower Biddy mine.

Ryan 1964

Ryan 1964

Things started to get busy in the area of Ryan when in 1971 Tenneco Oil Company started a large open-pit mine operation just over 2 miles northwest of Ryan Camp. This open-pit mine was 400 feet deep and called the Boraxo. The public outcry over high impact mining from the Boraxo in Death Valley National Monument led to increased protection for all national parks.

Congress passed the Mining in the Parks Act of 1976 which closed Death Valley National Monument to the filing of new mining claims, banned open-pit mining and required the National Park Service to examine the validity of thousands of pre-1976 mining claims. Mining was allowed to resume on a limited basis in 1980 with stricter environmental standards.

In the 1991 edition of the U.S. Borax company publication Pioneer appeared an article on Death Valley borates. The article is titled “Ryan revisited and opens with “QUIETLY, OVER the past eight years, the U.S. Borax Exploration department has staked mining claims and drilled a series of exploratory drill holes on the basalt-capped plateau above the old company-owned town of Ryan.”

The plateau mentioned in the article is directly east of Ryan. It is on the eastern edge of Death Valley. It is entirely outside of Death Valley National Park, but still on federal land administered by the Bureau of Land Management and open to the location of mining claims. Between 1983 and 1991 geologic mapping and detailed sampling and analysis of the Furnace Creek formation under the plateau were carried out. The work showed that a trend of borate mineralization ran from some of the old mines at the Played Out, Upper Biddy and Widow to the southeast under the plateau.

Ryan Plateau

Ryan Plateau

The article also reports that low-keyed exploration for borates by US Borax in Death Valley has been occurring since the 1960’s and that the old mines along with new discoveries under the Ryan plateau will keep US Borax supplying borate to their customers throughout the world. Between 1984 and 1991 US Borax filed 446 location notices, or mining claims, with the Inyo County Recorder’s Office.

With the passage of the California Desert Protection Act on October 31, 1994, Death Valley grew by 1.3 million acres and was designated a national park. Death Valley National Park is now made up of 3,336,000 acres and contains more than 3,000,000 acres of wilderness. The Act also created the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Monument was designated as a National Park. None of the actions from the act impacted Ryan.

In 2005, Ryan’s closest mining neighbor, the Billie Mine, closed and the last of Death Valley’s mines had ceased operations. The Billie operated for over a decade as an underground borax mine along the road to Dante’s View and just north of Ryan Camp. It was also the only active mine in the park.

Also in 2005 Death Valley National Park published its long-range interpretive plan. This plan is a component of the park’s comprehensive interpretive plan. Using the park’s mission, purpose and resource significance statements, plus the primary interpretive themes and visitor experience goals, this plan articulated a vision for the park’s interpretive future, and recommended the media, facilities and programs best suited for meeting visitor needs, achieving management goals and telling park stories.

Ryan 1964

Ryan 1964

At the time of the report the park was part of a new entity called the Desert Learning Center. This organization included several national park units and it was still in its formative phase of development. The park was hoping to work with this new organization to develop an education program and facility at Death Valley. The park suggested that through a program such as this that sites such as Ryan, which was owned by Rio Tinto, could be considered for development as a future residential education center, operated and funded through multiagency entities in partnership with Rio Tinto.

Another report was published by the park in 2007 and was called the First Annual Centennial Strategy for Death Valley National Park. In this report the park expressed a desire to develop a partnership with the Death Valley Natural History Association, California and Nevada Universities and Rio Tinto to develop a science and learning center at Ryan Camp. At that time Ryan Camp was still the abandoned US Borax company town whose history was tied to Death Valley’s mining history.

Reference sources and recommended reading:
  • Dwight Bentel, When Field Studies in Natural History goes to Death Valley, Proceedings Third Death Valley Conference on History and Prehistory, Jan. 30 – Feb. 2, 1992, 1992 Death Valley Natural History Association
  • Esy Fields and Shirley Harding, Background on Cooperative Associations in the National Park Service, Death Valley Natural History Association 50th Anniversary 1954 – 2004 Keepsake No. 44, 2004 by Death Valley ’49ers Inc.

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