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A Company Town Changes Companies : Mining: The sale of Trona's major employer has brought anxiety--and hope--to the Mojave Desert town.

December 13, 1990|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TRONA, Calif. — Minerals brought life to this scorched corner of the Mojave Desert more than a century ago, and a string of prospectors have clutched the fate of tiny Trona in their fists since.

Wedged in a wind-swept bowl hugged by three rugged mountain ranges, Trona is the classic company town, its destiny written by corporate outsiders who come to tap the bounty hidden beneath the chalky crust of Searles Dry Lake.

A forest of smokestacks from three mineral processing plants makes up the local skyline, and close to one-third of the 3,500 townsfolk work for "the company." Many of the others used to.

Last week, a rare visitor rolled into Trona--change. On Dec. 3 at 4:05 a.m., Kerr-McGee Corp. concluded the $210-million sale of the plants, railroad and vast mineral reserves that made up its soda products division.

The move spawned a good bit of anxiety here, about layoffs, production cuts and the buyer's ideas of civic benevolence. But, more than anything, it sent a flutter of hope through Trona--hope that an inspired new patriarch might help revive the withering town before it becomes a historical footnote.

"We're optimistic," said Pat McGlothlin, owner of the local hardware store and chairwoman of the Trona Pride Committee. "Because, let's face it, the place can't get any worse."

During the mining industry's boom days, one-company towns were common fixtures throughout the remote reaches of California, Nevada and Arizona. Today, however, the West is littered with their carcasses; faded signs, rusted equipment and weather-beaten shacks provide the only evidence of better days.

Tronans are aware of such history, and some worry that the worst may someday befall their town. But for now, they see cause for comfort: Although Kerr-McGee--an Oklahoma-based conglomerate specializing in oil and natural gas production--displayed what some described as an absentee landlord's interest in developing its Trona operation, the new owner, North American Chemical Co., has an ambitious agenda.

A team of specialists has already been assembled to develop a long-range plan for the company, and its scientists are researching new uses for the wealth of chemicals mined from the dry lake.

"Our goal is to build a billion-dollar company by 1997," North American's chairman, D. George Harris, told community leaders at a recent dinner meeting. "We have a lot of ideas and a lot of specific projects in mind. . . . You can be sure we didn't come here to stand still."

Tronans say that all sounds well and good, but a whisker of skepticism tempers their enthusiasm. After all, trusting The Company has proved perilous in the past.

The old boss, Kerr-McGee, laid off one-third of its work force--nearly 500 people--when it trimmed operations in 1982. The exodus that followed tore families apart, caused a local grocery and furniture store to fail and sent property values tumbling. The town, perched on the northwestern edge of San Bernardino County, has been struggling to regain its footing since.

A year earlier, a bitter strike erupted at Kerr-McGee that set neighbor against neighbor. The union was later decertified.

"People want to believe the company will do the right thing," observes local historian and 34-year resident Osco (Doc) Cole, who is 78. "But an awful lot has gone on in this little town. You can get a shudder up your spine wondering about the future."

You can smell Trona before you can see it. To visitors, most of whom stop in the town to gas up on their way to Death Valley, the pungent, inescapable scent of brine evokes images of rotten eggs. But to locals, it means profits.

Prospector John Searles was the first to tap the treasure buried in the vast dry lake, a 30-square-mile, lunar-like expanse he happened upon while hunting for gold. Formed by melting snow during the Ice Age, the lake gradually evaporated, leaving a rich concentration of minerals in brine trapped in pockets beneath the surface. The lake's reserves--all of which are either owned by North American Chemical or leased by the company from the federal government--are valued at $150 billion.

Searles harvested borax. Later, miners unearthed soda ash--used to manufacture glass--and potash, a key ingredient in fertilizer. Today, brine pumped from wells on the lake is processed to create an array of products that yielded sales of more than $200 million in 1989.

In the early days, Trona was little more than a scraggly mining camp, inhabited strictly by bachelors. But after the American Potash & Chemical Corp. took over the operation in 1926, the town began to blossom.

During this era, Trona was owned lock, stock and barrel by American Potash.

Historians say there were only two places in the settlement where one could stand on property not owned by the mighty landlord: the U.S. Post Office and the railroad depot.

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