For years I have wanted to photograph and write about Atolia, but I’ve always had a general rule that I don’t publish stories about places that I haven’t visited first-hand. Technically I guess that I’ve visited Atolia on hundreds of occasions, Highway 395 runs down the middle of the once bustling tungsten mining town, but that doesn’t count in my mind. Atolia has always screamed for my attention with several structures and headframes dotting the otherwise sparse landscape. The problem has always been the unwelcoming no trespassing signs that are placed along the Highway.
Before I relocated south to Joshua Tree, I finally had caught a break when a for sale by owner sign was briefly placed along the highway. I called the number on the sign and spoke with a gentleman, explaining that I’d like to photograph the ruins. The very friendly older sounding man was quick to agree. The only problem was that I had moved before having the opportunity to visit. Since then I have still traveled 395 on several occasions, just never having the time to stop. On a recent trip to shoot for my upcoming book, The Mojave Desert: Yesterday and Today, I finally found the time.
Atolia sprung to life in the early 1900s after Charles Taylor and Tom McCarthy discovered tungsten deposits there in 1903. The duo shipped a carload of the ore to Germany, receiving a payment over $8,000 (net) in return. In 2016 that $8,000 would be valued at $212,832.
A couple of years later in 1906, Taylor and McCarthy sold their claim to E. B De Golia and a Mr. Atkins for $114,000 ($3,032,862 in 2016). At the time the mine had one developed shaft at 50-feet deep. De Golia and Atkins started the Papoose Mining Company, and that same year the town of Atolia was officially born. The name Atolia is a derivative of both Atkins and Golia.
In 1907 the Papoose Mining Company constructed a mill on site, prior to that they had shipped ore to Barstow for processing. Water which is required to operate a mill was not readily available at Atolia, so water had to be trucked in on railroad tank cars from forty-five miles away in Hinkley.
Between 1907 and 1915 the population of Atolia swelled to over 2,000. The town had grown to include three rooming houses, three butcher shops, a post office, a dairy, ice cream parlor, four barber shops, four pool halls, theater, several restaurants, a drug store, a saloon called, “The Bucket of Blood,” a town newspaper, and a school-house large enough to accommodate up to 60 students.
In January of 1916 the company’s mill burned to the ground, but was promptly rebuilt, and operating again by March. From 1916-1918 the Papoose Mining Company had a monthly payroll of $60,000 per month, while raking in nearly $10 million, at the time making the Atolia mines the largest producer of Tungsten in the world.
It was looking as if Atolia would have some staying power, being one of the few towns on the desert that managed to stick around longer than a few years. That was until the close of World War I, and the price of tungsten dropping significantly. With prices on the floor the mines slowed production, and began laying off workers. The miners began packing up and moving on, as did the businesses.
Atolia as a town faded quickly despite the mines continuing to be worked off and on up until the 2000s.
Since tungsten is not a mineral that we often hear mentioned, you may be wondering what exactly it is used for. Tungsten has the highest melting point of any metal, because of this tungsten is likely present in anything made to withstand high temperatures. The military has used tungsten to create missiles, bullets, and other miscellaneous weaponry. In our daily lives tungsten is used in both incandescent and fluorescent light bulb filaments.
Today nothing remains of the original town of Atolia, but there are several structures that I believe date to the 1970s mining era. These include a few housing structures, a garage, an empty skeleton of a mill, and a large yellow silo. Along with the buildings there are over a dozen head frames over a short mile across the desert. The mine shafts below these headframes have been left wide open, many have ladders reaching down into their depths.
Despite the no trespassing signs that to this day are posted around the site vandalism has been rampant. Many of the structures have been ransacked, and walls torn down for copper wiring and pipe. The mill has copious amounts of very recent graffiti painted inside and out. But despite all of that it remains a testimony to the hustle and bustle of these once great mines.