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Physicist Gives Death Valley New Lease on Life : Name Is Bum Rap; It's Safer Than L.A., He Claims

September 21, 1986|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

Believers in Sasquatch, the Bermuda Triangle and other legendary dark forces might not like Richard Lingenfelter's new book.

In "Death Valley and the Armargosa: A Land of Illusion" (University of California Press: $39.95), Lingenfelter, a research physicist at UC San Diego, debunks another enduring myth--that Death Valley, an area about 130 miles long and 6 to 14 miles wide, is a sinister, even supernatural patch of sand dunes, sagebrush and bleached bones.

'A Little Deeper, Hotter, Drier'

"The valley we call Death isn't really that different from much of the rest of the desert West," Lingenfelter writes. "It's just a little deeper, a little hotter, and a little drier."

Previous works on the great valley, according to Lingenfelter, upheld the valley's reputation for evil by repeating old tales of prospectors gone mad from the heat and entire wagon trains swallowed by the desert.

In his five years of research, Lingenfelter sought the more prosaic truth. His book is already being called the definitive work on the human habitation of Death Valley, which is indeed the lowest and hottest spot in the nation--but only by default, Lingenfelter points out, since the Salton sink was hotter and lower before it flooded in 1905, becoming the Salton Sea.

"What has made the valley what it is is its name," Lingenfelter said in an interview at his UCSD office. "If it had been called Bennetts' Valley (the Bennetts were emigrants who nearly starved while crossing the valley) or if it had been named after another one of the forty-niners, it never would have been a national monument or a tourist attraction.

"The name was almost accidental," Lingenfelter added. An ailing ex-civil servant from Washington succumbed to exposure and starvation during the Bennett party crossing in 1850, he said. Pausing at the crest of the Panamint mountains on their way out of the desert, the surviving party members looked back and said: "Goodby, death valley."

Lingenfelter said there have only been about 100 deaths in the valley's recorded history due to other than natural causes, making it far safer than places with friendlier names--Los Angeles, for instance. Heat does take its toll in the valley; dehydration was responsible for about two-thirds of the untimely deaths. (The others met their end through accidents.)

Newspaper Reports

The Los Angeles Star was the first newspaper to print the newly coined name Death Valley. Before long the name had made its way into newspapers in the East and cast its spell over readers who could only imagine this vast and dreadful desert dotted with places like the Funeral Mountains, Dante's View and the Devil's Golf Course.

The story of Death Valley, from this time on, as Lingenfelter tells it, is one of hype.

A parade of horse traders and prospectors soon invaded the territory of Shoshone, Southern Paiute and Kawaiisu Indians who had inhabited the valley, about 180 miles northeast of Los Angeles, for centuries. There were rumors of gold, and of a cache of silver promising "elusive, immeasurable wealth."

"Once I got into the research, I found that all the mining promotions and schemes that went on had involved the loss of millions of dollars in times when the dollar was worth 20 times what it is today," Lingenfelter said. "It seemed that all a mining promoter in the East had to say (to make a profit) was that he had a gold mine in Death Valley."

Death Valley did yield a few profitable mines. In 1881 and 1882, the biggest stocks on the New York Mining Stock Exchange were in Death Valley. But mostly what was being traded was sham. Lingenfelter's book provides extensive detail about the corny promotional gimmicks of the mining hucksters: "Buy Bullfrogs and Watch Them Jump" was just one slogan that came out of the Bullfrog Mining District in the valley.

The biggest boost to Death Valley's reputation--after its name--was Walter Edward Scott, better known as Death Valley Scotty. "Scotty shrouded himself in mystery," Lingenfelter said. "He was the greatest publicist for the valley." In the book, Lingenfelter calls Scotty a "ham actor, conscienceless con man, an almost pathological liar and a charismatic bull-slinger."

Secret Mine Claimed

Scotty began promoting himself and the valley in 1902, claiming he had a secret mine so rich with gold that he only needed to go there once or twice a year to live lavishly the year round. The scheme was effective in persuading a New York banker and a Chicago insurance man, his prime investors, to give him thousands of dollars in grubstake.

Mining promoter E. Burdon Gaylord later offered to bankroll Scotty in his extravagant life style to make him "living proof" of Death Valley's bounty, Lingenfelter said. Tearing up $100 bills to make change, and buying diamonds for the shoes of his mule, Slim, Scotty continued to fool the press. They never seemed to tire of thinking up new titles for Scotty: "Sphinx of the American Desert," "King of the Desert Mine."

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