Spanish Spring Triple-Arrastra (Death Valley National Park)

 

Hunter Mountain in the Cottonwood Range is starkly different from a vast portion of Death Valley National Park – so much so, that one would think that they had entered a National Forest as opposed to a “desert park.”  Gone are the sand dunes, and vast wide open spaces – this is the land of mountain springs, Pinyon pine forest, and bright green vegetation. There are even deer that manage to survive here, I happened to be so lucky, as to have caught a glimpse of one bouncing across Hunter Mountain Road.

Before miners arrived, Native American people flocked to Hunter Mountain to escape the baking summer temperatures of Saline Valley. Once miners arrived, they found treasures in the mountain’s minerals.

I arrived at Spanish Spring, via a spur road, from Hunter Mountain Road. I had heard of this site, but had yet to make my way out to it. I wasn’t sure exactly where I would find the somewhat mysterious ruins of the triple-arrastra site,  but I knew that they’d be somewhere in the vicinity. I parked the Jeep at the wilderness boundary, and decided to follow the wide and sandy wash toward what looked like a ravine in the distance.

The wash was heavily trafficked, not by humans – but rather by the four-legged type. One set of tracks concerned me slightly, a very fresh set of mountain lion tracks could be made out as if they had been left there just hours or minutes before. Overall, I didn’t let it bother me too much, as I’ve gotten rather used to hiking in mountain lion country, and having had just had my first encounter weeks before. The tracks are just a good warning to be extra cautious.

After just a few minutes of walking, I noticed some stone ruins – I turned toward it, figuring that it was my intended destination. Just as I was about to reach these ruins, is when I came upon the three beautifully preserved arrastras.

Some of you may be wondering, what the heck is an arrastra, and what makes it so special?  To start with, an arrastra is a very early form of a mill, they were first introduced by the Spanish to the New World, in the 1500s. The earliest design (which is what is located at Spanish Spring) consisted of a circular pit, that was lined by flat stone on the bottom and the sides. A drag-stone, or sometimes several were dragged along the ore that was placed in the pit, crushing it. A mule, burro, or horse would usually be the one to drag the stone(s).

Three arrastras in a row - the furthest one out, is difficult to see.

Three arrastras in a row – the furthest one out, is difficult to see.

 

Their historical importance, is that few remain today – and most that do, are in terrible condition. As I previously stated, the three at Spanish Spring are nearly impeccable.

After inspecting the arrastras, I checked out stone ruins (furnace?) – I was surprised to find the masonry work to be so well done. Each stone on the wall had been hand-shaped into a perfect block of stone. I have never seen anything like this before, at a remote old desert mining camp. Whoever had built this, had built it to last – and had planned to stay for the long haul.

Near the stone ruins, a few rusted tin cans, including a tobacco tin was found – and a sherd of wood fired pottery, with a visible “PARIS” stamped into it.

The beautifully hand crafted stone walls of the furnace.

The beautifully hand crafted stone walls of the furnace.

 

A very old tobacco tin.

A very old tobacco tin.

 

A pottery sherd - stamped "PARIS"

A pottery sherd – stamped “PARIS”

 

The question is, who built these arrastras and furnace? There are two stories…

The first would suggest that the Spanish had milled here in the 1860s, while mining the Monarch Mine; if not as far back as the 1830s. It was this story that the spring’s name would be derived from.

The other story states that William Hunter and John Porter, had used – and possibly built the arrastras in 1875 to mill copper from the Ubehebe district, which had yet to boom due to low-grade ore, and the expense of shipping it.

In 1906,  A. D. Whittier, a cartoonist for the Bullfrog Miner found the arrastras, and nearby mine, and promoted it as “The Lost Spanish Mine”. The romance of the story, was all that was needed to get the Ubehebe Mining Company off the ground and running, with Whittier as the Vice President.

Whether or not the arrastras had been constructed by the Spanish, or by Hunter & Porter, we will likely never know. But what we do know, is that without Whittier having had found the site, there may have never been a rush to the Ubehebe Mining District.

 

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.

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