Trona, CA is a mysterious land situated at the north-west corner of San Bernardino County in Searles Valley. Trona is home to the Trona Pinnacles National Monument, Searles Valley Minerals, The Gem-O-Rama Mineral Show, and the continental United States only dirt high school football field. Let’s not forget the smell either, you know that you are approaching Trona when the smell of rotten eggs is lofting through the air which makes you question your passengers about their bodily functions, only to discover that you can’t get rid of the smell as hard as you try. Don’t worry, it’s just the smell of the chemical plants and as far as I’ve been able to tell during all of my visits it doesn’t stick to your clothing.
Your first visit to Trona will likely depress you, disgust you, or have you leaving with an overwhelming feeling of pity. Trona being so far in the middle of nowhere has left the town in economic woes. Driving through what was once a bustling residential area you will find the burnt out structures of old company housing, debris still in place with the neighborhood kids playing just down the street. You’ll find this same scenario played out in just about every residential street in town.
I’m not telling you these things because I hate Trona, or because I don’t want you to visit. I am honestly fascinated by this once thriving desert community. I’ve managed over time to appreciate it for what it is, and its rich history. I am impressed that this town continues to survive, and that the people who live here have a true sense of community that is missing from much of modern day America.
The town of Trona was established in 1913, however mining at Searles Lake began around 1874. John W. Searles and his brother Dennis first discovered the crusty dried up lake in 1862 while searching in the Panamint Mountains for gold. Not thinking much of their find, John took a sample of crystal encrusted crust and stuck it in his ore sack. Many years later John would meet up with Francis Borax Smith, and realized that Smith was recovering borax from nearly identical crystals as those that he had picked up at Searles Lake ten years prior. John Searles hurried back to the dry lake that he had found and staked claims to 640 acres and formed the San Bernardino Borax Mining Company. The first year alone the newly formed company produced 1 million pounds of borax.
John Searles ended up selling his San Bernardino Borax Mining Company in 1895 to Francis Borax Smith and his Pacific Coast Borax Company. Smith was working diligently to corner the borax market, and ended up shutting down the plant after making the purchase.
The early 1900s saw numerous promoters and miners coming in and trying to recover soda ash from the dry lake’s surface. It was failure for everyone that tried. The California Trona Company gave it the biggest go, having borrowed roughly $2 million in order to build two plants to recover soda ash, potash, borax and sodium sulfate. Sadly due to their debt they went under before the completion of the facilities.
S.W. Austin was the receiver of the failed California Trona Company, he immediately began building roads onto the lake, and started drilling wells to further explore the possibilities. Austin discovered that a majority of the lake’s mineral wealth actually lied beneath the surface when he discovered a mineral-rich layer of salts roughly 100 feet beneath the surface. Previous to this discovery all of the miners had only focused on the crystals from the surface.
In October of 1910, a little known event took place at Searles Lake, the famed Arizona law man Wyatt Earp, along with 33 other men had made their way to nearby Slate Range City with the intentions of jumping the claims of the California Trona Company. S.W. Austin would give an account of the activities in his diary as follows:
- October 20, 1910: “A party of jumpers came in last night in five Automobiles and camped at Slate Range (City) on the East side of the lake. This morning they began to run a line of survey, westward from the patented claim in Section 12. I ordered them out as trespassers, but as I only have two men besides myself I could do nothing.”
- October 21, 1910: “Today (I) went to Searles (Station) to wire for a U. S. Marshal.”
- October 23, 1910: “As I could get no word of the Marshal’s coming I went direct to the Jumpers camp last night, met the party at six this morning and ordered them out. A man called Sprat, whom I afterward found to be Wyatt Earp of Arizona fame, made an assault on one of my men and only desisted when I threatened to shoot. After notifying all of the men I could see that they were trespassers on the Company’s property, I returned to Borax Works.”
- October 25, 1910: “Marshall arrived at Jumpers camp last night and caught 28 of the men and served them with summons to appear before the U.S. Circuit Court for Contempt. He found H.E. Lee among the rest. He had kept out of sight while I was there. The whole party had consisted of 33 but a few left before the Marshal arrived.”
- October 26, 1910: “Names of jumpers as given to the Marshall: H. E. Lee, G.E. North, J.E. Dorsey, P.W. Snyder, B.S. Farrar, Oliver Hoefer, Harvey Glenn, C.C. Payne, A.W. King, M. Varney, E.A. Rasor, E. L. Bergeroa, W. R. Habdy, G.R. McCarne, H. B. Dee, Carl Homan, E.W. Dorsey, Wolff W. Foreia, J. A. Walden, R.A. De Lair, James Hickman, Ed F. Basse, R. Clark, W.R. Simpson, W. Crayton, A. J. Capt. and W.E. Stapp (alias Wyatt Earp).”
- October 28, 1910: Austin goes to San Francisco and Met with Judge Slack and Mr. Wilkinson.
- October 31, 1910: Contempt cases were brought up in the Circuit Court but were postponed and Austin says “Will return to the Lake after giving testimony in reference to Assessment work.”
It would come out in court in 1916 that Earp had acted on the request of LAPD Commissioner Tom Lewis.
In 1913, the American Trona Company acquired California Trona Company. The American Trona Company had the funds to get things done, building the previously abandoned Trona Railway, completed work on the unfinished processing plants, and established the company town of Trona. In only two years, American Trona did what nobody else before them had been able to do, they began potash production. In 1915 alone they produced 250 tons of potash.
Trona being a company town meant that American Trona owned all of the business and housing in town. The company supplied housing to its employees, and paid in script rather than U.S. Currency. Script could be used around the town at other company owed businesses; like the for profit script-accepting grocery store. American Trona also provided a school for children, a public library, and some additional recreational facilities.
During World War I, Trona flourished. Searles Lake was Americas only source of potash at the time. Potash is an important element in the creation of gunpowder. In 1916 potash production at Searles Lake grew to 36,000 tons. After the war efforts the price of potash plunged, causing American Trona to improve is recovery process.
With the roaring 1920s and 1930s came the buy out of the American Trona Company by American Potash & Chemical Corporation, and the return of Borax Smith with his newly formed West End Chemical Company. In 1956 West End would merge with Stauffer Chemical Company, and Kerr-McGee would purchase American Potash & Chemical Corporation in 1967. Seven years later, Kerr-McGee would become the only game in town with the purchase of Stauffer’s Westend facility. Kerr-McGee would operate the plants until 1990.
Since 1990 the plants would change hands three times, current ownership is by India based Sun Capital Partners who purchased it in 2007. The plants currently operate under the name Searles Valley Mineral, Inc. They are the town’s largest employer, employing well over 800 individuals from Trona and the nearby community of Ridgecrest. They currently extract and ship 1.75 million tons of chemicals per year.
Events and places to see in Trona today:
Trona Pinnacles National Monument: Located on the outskirts of town the Trona Pinnacles became a National Landmark in 1968. They are the best examples of tufa formations found anywhere in the United States. These tufa formations formed underwater between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago. Camping in permitted at the Pinnacles, please use established camp sites.
Old Guest House Museum: Located on Main Street next to the old Fox Theater, the Old Guest House Museum is operated by the Searles Valley Historical Society. The hours are limited so please call ahead (760) 372-4800.
Gem-O-Rama Mineral Show: Held the 2nd weekend of every October. Includes specimen collection on the Searles Lake Bed, and one of few opportunities to tour the mineral plants. For more information contact the Searles Lake Gem and Mineral Society at (760) 372-5356.
Esparza Family Restaurant: Located at 13223 Main St., this once was the location of the town’s theater. Now the Esparza family serves up excellent American and Mexican dishes. They are open 7 days a week.
For more information about Trona, I highly recommend the website Trona on the Web.