Tracking the ghosts of Old Dale

Dale City, east of present-day Twentynine Palms, was in its heyday when this historic photograph was taken on Dec. 27, 1897. The community had two small mills and an arrastra to process ore, a general store, an assayer’s office, a blacksmith shop, a saloon and a house of ill repute. (Twentynine Palms Historical Society photo)

A long time ago in a mining district not so very far away, the California Gold Rush spilled into the Morongo Basin. Fortune seekers from Holcomb and Bear valleys in the snow-capped peaks 60 miles to the west and on the Arizona side of the Colorado River near present-day Blythe spread gold fever to the Oasis of Mara, known then as Palm Springs or simply The Palms.

The nearest established city before the turn of the century was Banning, some 70 miles distant. A trip in a wagon with a six-horse team took five days to get to Dale, only four days for the downhill return trip.

A tour of the Dale Mining District east of town with mining historian Jim Wharff is a step back in time, a return to an era full of contrasts to the present day. Things back then were simpler and more elegant in many aspects, but also a great deal more difficult, rugged and primitive.

Located past the airport only about a 15-minute drive from present downtown Twentynine Palms, a nondescript, unposted dirt road leads into the remnants of the boom town of Dale, the first of several settlements with variations on the name.

The origin of the name “Dale” is lost to history. It may have been a last name, or perhaps was used as a synonym for the broad valley between the Sheep Hole and Pinto ranges.

The people who populated this remote mining region were tougher than a tortoise shell and twice as dusty. To describe some of these hard scrabble miners as rugged individualists is like describing the Coen brothers as a couple of kids with cameras.

The miners defined the term colorful character, some of whom would made a cholla cactus seem cuddly by comparison.

Little is left but a grave

By April 1896, Dale had two small mills and an arrastra to process ore, a general store, an assayer’s office, a blacksmith shop, a saloon and a house of ill repute.

No structures remain in any of the settlements today. Everything has been salvaged, stolen, vandalized or burned to nothing but ash piles and rusty nails. Roofless adobe walls have melted back into the sands from which they rose.

Blow sand that had covered the arrastra at Old Dale has recently been excavated. Contrary to being pleased by the amateur archeological work, Wharff is wary, concerned that the people who did the digging may return to unearth the stones, looking for any traces of stray gold that may be left below the rock floor of the historical structure.

Photos from as recently as the 1960s depict a few wood structures still in existence at Virginia Dale mine. The largest was the mine’s headframe, a tower that sits over the vertical shaft, used to lift ore buckets into and out of the diggings.

The infant Carl P. McCabe, born Oct. 17,1903, died at Gold Crown Jan. 14, 1904. The baby’s short life is commemorated by a simple, flat headstone placed in the remote ghost town 70 years later by the historical society E Clampus Vitus.

Bob Connors, Morongo Basin Historical Society president, was along for a tour of the historic area Saturday with about a dozen others in six vehicles equipped with four-wheel drive.

The extra traction came in handy a few times during the tour for rough spots and wash-outs in the hundred-year-old roads first blazed by wooden wagons and mule teams prior to the advent of the internal combustion engine.

“The roads were pretty rough in places but we survived,” Connors reported to MBHS members who didn’t make this trip.

The fourth and final stop of the day, scheduled for the Gold Crown Mine, was not to be. As the caravan picked its way through ravines and across washes, the desert’s spooky silence was ripped away by an explosion and plume of white smoke succeeded by staccato automatic weapons fire and shotgun blasts.

Wharff drove ahead, stopping at the crest of a low ridge and blew his truck’s horn to let the shooters know another group was in the area. When they continued to fire their weapons, the retired Marine quickly decided that discretion was the better part of valor and turned the caravan back toward camp.

The final stop on the tour was a barbecue, complete with potato salads and thick pork chops, provided by appreciative visitors from Orange County, out for the weekend.

Time Wharff

A few years back, Wharff was out at the Old Dale townsite by himself, enjoying the solace of a spring morning, kicking around the rocks in their rich patina of desert varnish, taking photos and doing research for the mining class he teaches at Copper Mountain College.

The late morning was warm, with a light breeze. Wharff was “in the zone” with his historic maps and photos of the area, lost in the moment, imagining what it was like back when Dale was booming.

The desert’s uncanny calm and quiet can play tricks on a person’s hearing, its heat can play tricks on a person’s vision, its beguiling beauty can play tricks on a person’s thoughts.

Apart from a hawk’s caw and a lizard scurrying from a clump of dried grass to his hole, the hills were silent and still. Then, incredibly, from the direction of the abandoned mines, Wharff heard the tinpanny notes of a player piano pleasantly plinking out some bawdy barroom ballad.

Wharff shares the details of his glimpse at a wrinkle in time reluctantly, concerned that some might question the credibility of an historian who lays claim to actually stepping back in time.

The mining expert is quick to point out that he didn’t see any apparitions, just that hint of old-time piano music. But for that instant, history beckoned.

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