Trona, CA

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.

 

Residential area in Trona. You can find house after house just like these, with families living right next door.

Residential area in Trona. You can find house after house just like these, with families living right next door.

 

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 main plant of Searles Valley Minerals located in downtown Trona.

The main plant of Searles Valley Minerals located in downtown Trona.

 

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.

 

Trona Railroad with the town's "T" displayed up on the mountain side.

Trona Railroad with the town’s “T” displayed up on the mountain side.

 

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.

 

The most impressive structure in Trona is the St. Madeline Sophie Barat Catholic Church. The building is triangular with no windows.

The most impressive structure in Trona is the St. Madeline Sophie Barat Catholic Church. The building is triangular with no windows.

 

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.

 

The outside of Esparza Family Restaurant. This building was once the town's theater. The theater opened in 1954, and closed in 1991. The Esparza Family Restaurant has the best food in town, and is well worth having lunch or dinner at when visiting.

The outside of Esparza Family Restaurant. This building was once the town’s theater. The theater opened in 1954, and closed in 1991. The Esparza Family Restaurant has the best food in town, and is well worth having lunch or dinner at when visiting.

 

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.

 

 

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.

13 Comments

  • Eric, Trona did not flourish and prosper under Kerr-McGee, KM was the beginning of the end of our town. AP&CC was the company under which the town flourished. You are probably too young to be aware of the difference between the two companies, but AP&CC was the heart and soul of the town, KM was just big business.

    • Right on Linda… I worked for AP&CC in the Engineering Department for about five years thru two major strikes. AP&CC was a great school… I learned a lot about engineering I thought I already knew. Some of the very best people in the World worked for AP&CC.
      Yes, Kerr McGee was the end of the good ole days of Trona.
      I owned one of the old red tiled homes on Lupine Street previously owned by the AP&CC manager.
      While working at Trona I bought a 4-place Cessna and taught myself how to fly along with a couple of early morning flights with my buddy Onace Long the H.S. Principal (RIP). John Husted always kept a watchful eye of the airplanes. He actually took me for a ride in his Stinson V77 one Saturday afternoon.
      AP&CC owned the airport and John sold everyone avgas on our honor… Seems like we were pay something like $0.85 a gallon since AP&CC was getting it at cost.
      Oh for the good ole days…

  • I like to go camping west of Trona just outside of the Park. It’s a great place with a lot of peace and quiet. Except maybe when I’m shooting.

  • Eric, Trona is alive and well, but a shadow of itself. When I moved in next door (Ridgecrest) in 1991, Trona was still an active town. Then a series of unfortunate events outside of local control really rocked the town. In the early 90’s new compliance laws from the state closed the Valley Wells Pool and signaled the end of the popular park. As one of the (if not the) largest salt-water pools in California, it was immensely popular for people from all over the area to visit.

    A short time after that, the state restructured how much local taxes communities were able to retain, and put distribution of funds firmly in the hands of Sacramento. Since the chemical companies made a hefty profit, the town benefited greatly – well maintained schools with accomplished teachers, recreation opportunities, well maintained infrastructure, etc.. The money quickly dried up after Sacramento redistributed the taxes elsewhere. Valley Wells fell apart, the roads began to deteriorate, more businesses closed or moved to Ridgecrest. I am sure this has had an effect on the company’s ability to attract talented workers to the area as well – more and more families live and shop in Ridgecrest.

    Automation also took hold over the last twenty years or so, reducing the number of employees. New EPA regulations have put the power local plant on death row (America still gets most of its power from coal power plants, but many/most will be shuttering soon from these regulations. With no significant replacements, it will be interesting to see how our quality of life will be affected with the coming power shortages..).

    In the late 90’s early 2000’s social engineering brought a new wave of residents to small eastern-California towns like Trona and Ridgecrest. Through a series of “volunteer” relocations, large municipalities moved indigent welfare cases to rural areas. This allowed the families to have a fresh start in a new location with a lower cost of living, but also artificially inflated the statistics of the cities to increase their credit standings, marketability, and growth. Some families took advantage of the opportunities to really improve their quality of life and have become assets to their communities. Unfortunately, rural communities have only so many opportunities and few social services, and many people continue to be indigent. Crime and drug abuse have been an increasing problem since these relocations began. It is very noticeable in communities such as Trona, where there were few opportunities to begin with.

    The “smell” of the town has greatly improved. With new technology, and regulations, it really isn’t all that noticeable. Still, the town is engaging and the locals friendly and inviting. When our kids get together for athletic events, the families from Trona are a testament to sportsmanship and enthusiastic fans of their children. There is a great deal of local pride.

  • Wow, for all the times I’ve been out there, thru there and to the Gem-o-Rama, I had no idea it had such a rich history. And next time thru, we’ll stop at the Esparza Restaurant! Thanks for so much info!

  • The name of the church camp was “Old Oak Ranch” and quite a few Trona kids went there and came home with a pile of red clothes.

  • Yet Trona might have world celebrated Eichler buildings in it’s housing stock also. Yet nobody shows you these gems.

  • Skykin44 has a few things correct. No idea why he needs to get political with all the coal propaganda. And I don’t know about the social engineering remarks of his either. That seems to be a gross exaggeration at best and urban legend more likely. I’ve heard the same from several gossipy types about every community in the IE and high desert that suddenly see minorities move it. The were a thousand things what went on in Trona while interesting then are really stupid in today’s more intelligent society. Trona used to have a huge bonfire. They collected large trash items and all sort of nasty junk and piled it high and then lit the whole thing on fire. There were some great people there in Trona and Argus and Pioneer Point but like all small towns there were some people who lived “out there” simply because they didn’t like people. The BS about Sacramento rings false as well. If there was so much money then why did we play football on a dirt field? The more likely and very well documented cause was Prop 13 and what it did to schools especially in places with little real estate turnover. Same with Skyking44s remarks about Sacramento causing the loss of talent. In the late 60s and 70s the telephone company couldn’t get anyone to work out there. Trona had the worse phone office in the entire Continental Telephone system. Continental hired a genius guy out of Western Electric in LA making all sorts of promises to that guy but after a year he left. I don’t remember the guys name but he coached out kids basketball team and took only misfits and had one rule; everybody plays every game. He won the championship. I think he had one good athlete, whose name escapes me. Cory something. Also, most forget to mention, as Skyking44 and the author do, that there were two pools in Trona. The huge one just over the county line to the north was for kids. The other at the south end of town was more for adults but a completely different pool in a giant tank, perhaps of wood if I remember correctly. If I remember correctly each chemical company owned one of the pools. Skyking44 is correct about the schools. They were well maintained and had great teachers with great tools and everything they needed. A lot of great people there. Plus all the usual small town Peyton Place drama…

    • I was born and raised there mister or misses, your willingness to hide behind your pmxr is very telling of yourself,and your bashing of the first email that didn’t set right with you. Your are opinionated only,not factual in the most the things your wrote. I will give you 1/2 credit for the truthful words. My name is James Hubbard. 1964-1983 full time Trona/Pioneer Point resident. Still proud of my little one horse town.

    • They play on sand because grass won’t grow because of all the chemicals in the area. The pool at the south end was for the Westend plant workers. Valley Wells was for the Trona workers. Although most people from both plants went to Valley Wells since it had food, music and the FREE swimming lessons provided by AP&CC were given out there. The bonfire was only at Homecoming. And it was only composed of wood. And they still do that. Trona schools got a lot of their money from Potash Royalties for product taken from part of Searles Lake that was on public lands.

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