Friday, June 04, 2010

Goler Gulch: A Travel Tip Thursday post

Ralph died on Wednesday morning. We met shortly after I moved to Cedar City, Utah and quickly became friends. I was beginning my research into mining camps, which eventually led to my dissertation. Ralph had grown up in Goler Gulch, a mining camp in the Mojave, before World War II. We took many trips out into the desert. I always liked traveling with Ralph for he could look at a rusty piece of metal and figure out what they use it for in the mining or milling processes. For my Traveling Thursday post, which I’m posting on Friday, I’m going to take you to Goler Gulch, the place where he grew up, north of Randsburg, California. This trip was in March 2005. The photo below is Ralph at Sam's cabin.

Ralph and I had stayed the night in Ridgecrest. Before heading out for the desert early in the morning, we stopped at a grocery store and picked up fruit and pastries along with coffee and juice. We then drove in the soft morning light toward Goler Gulch. It had been a wet winter and the highway is lined with pinkish flowers. Along the way, I see White and Yellow Asters, Daisies and bluish Heliotropes growing under the Greasewood. Our first stop was at Sam’s Cabin, located just off the highway. We got there and sat outside, eating breakfast and watching the morning light change across the El Paso Mountains to our north. Ralph noted that you could find any kind of mineral in those mountains, but you better not try to develop a mine, because as soon as you start digging, whatever you were after would disappear.

Sam's homestead
After eating our breakfast, we looked around the old cabin while waiting for Bill, a friend of Ralph’s friend from Southern California. Rocks and boulders of all shapes, colors and sizes dotted the yard and Ralph could point to each and tell me from which gulch it had been taken. Most of the rocks had been hauled in by Sam with the help of Ralph and his brother Charlie. Sam’s cabin is in a state of “arrested decay.” The BLM keeps it from blowing down and one can rent it for up to two nights. I’d heard a lot about Sam and had even met his daughter, who’d recently died in her nineties. He was an old-time miner. He’d worked in Nevada and then headed up to the Klondike in 1898, where he supposedly made enough money that he didn’t have to do much work the rest of his life. In the 1930s, he showed up in the Mojave, working as a caretaker for a mining firm in the desert. It didn’t take much to live like he did. He had a wife, who lived over on the coast. Sam would go visit her a couple times a year and occasionally she’d come out to the desert, that being the extent of their marriage. My favorite story of Ralph and Sam was their trip to Death Valley in Ralph’s family Model T, taking the truck out across China Lake before the government converted the dry lake bed to a Naval Aviation bombing site. Sam died in 1965, in his early 90s.
Sam's homestead in the Mojave

Bill arrives a few minutes later with Mike, the plant manager at a chemical company he owns. Bill is driving a huge Suburban SUV, so we decide to take it and leave my vehicle at Sam’s Cabin. We climbed in and Ralph began the tour of Goler Gulch. The gulch has always been a placer mining district, meaning the ore is found in sediment washed down from the mountains. Attempts have been made to find the ore body from up in the mountains, but no one has ever identified the source of the loose ore. When Ralph was a kid, old miners held to the belief the gold had been brought in during the last ice age, by glaciers, but there is no evidence of glacier activity this far south. Another popular theory, according to Ralph who reports this with a straight face, is that the gold came from Alaska.

Ralph was born in Kansas, but when he was an infant, his parents moved to California. They added a bed to their Model T coupe, making it into a truck in which the family made the journey. After a short stint in LA, they headed into the desert, where his dad worked as a miner and a cook. The Model T still runs and is still in the family. Ralph told about his brother Charlie and him taking the Model T on trips through the desert. In the spring or after rains, when the water would be raging in the gulch, they’d stop the car on one side of the stream, take off the fan belt and drive through the water, hooking the fan belt back up on the other side. The car seemed to go anywhere; you just had to know the tricks. If the fan was spinning, it would kick water over the distributor cap and short out the electrical system. The engine could take a little more heat than the electrical system could take water. The Model T still runs and is still in the family.

Ralph's family homestead

Over time, Ralph’s family acquired quite a collection of buildings around the homestead. Ralph pointed to a building he and Sam had built at the beginning of the war for some women from Pasadena who wanted a place to flee when the Japanese invaded. They were sure the Japanese were coming to rape them, Ralph said sarcastically, so they hired Sam to build them a home in the desert. Another building Ralph rescued from the Navy, who’d set up operations at China Lake during the war. Abandon as surplus, he brought it and hauled it home so that he could have his own room and he returned from the Pacific.

We made another stop at the site of the old one room school. Ralph and his brother attended school here with eight or ten other kids from 1932, when the schooled opened, to 1936 when they got bused into Randsburg. (Last summer, Ralph’s first grade teacher was celebrating her 100th birthday). Ralph pointed up stream and said that the girl’s outhouse was up there and the guys were downstream. I asked him why they didn’t just have a unisex outhouse with a lock, since the most students they had were 12, and Ralph, in all seriousness, said he assumed the school board had concerns about mixing urine. We saw the well for the Yellow Aster mine, one of the larger mines in the district. As we explored, Ralph picked a leaf of Indian Tobacco and told about as a kid he’d harvest it and sell it to an old miner, but the miner was forbidden to smoke it underground because it stank so bad. He also found an “Indian pickle,” a plant with a long stem and an open chamber on the end where you could place your tobacco as you drew the smoke up the stem. The “Indian pickle” made a good bong, Ralph said. He also showed us a growth on a greasewood (also known as Creosote bush) which could be crushed and smoked for a “natural high.” “This also stinks, which is what you’d expect from such a plant,” Ralph informed us. None of us wanted to try it out for ourselves.

We next headed into the gulch itself, a canyon where the mining took place. There were five shafts dug down into the dirt, named Fine Gold (#’s 1 though 5). Only Fine Gold #1 had a traditional gallows frame, the others being pick and shovel operations with a windlass. In time, the miners discovered that the gold was mostly deposited within a few feet of bedrock, some eighty feet down. They’d sink a shaft then work out following the bedrock as they made their way up and down the gulch.

As we drove our way up the gulch, Ralph told us about miners he’d known growing up the desert. One was a kid, just 18, who discovered enough gold to buy himself a brand new ’36 Ford with an 85 horsepower V8 engine. Another was a guy named Happy, who was the first pot-head Ralph knew, back before the war. Happy came looking for work and the miners didn’t want much to with him so, when he asked where he might a place to prospect, one of the old-timers sent him to the most unlikely place around. Happy discovered a 14 ounce nugget and was happy for a long time thereafter. Some of the miners were more adapt at mining outsiders, an ancient trick of the mining trade. Curly would pull out his pan anytime he saw a tourist. They’d get to see him work out some nuggets from his washings. He’d tell him he dug the ore at his mine, Eagle’s Roost,” up in the mountains and they’d be willing to buy a few inches or feet of the mine from him. During the war, Curly got talking to a man from Kansas and Ralph’s father warned the man not to trust Curly, but Curly had told the man that everyone talked bad him and were always saying that he was dishonest because they were jealous. So the man brought from Curly a bunch of land that wasn’t worth much and most of it Curly didn’t even own. Afterwards, Ralph said, “Curly went into Randsburg and brought war bonds and became a hero.”

The creek was still running strong and the ground soft, so before reaching the end of the gulch, we decided to turn around. Bill said he’d thrown in a shovel, but none of us were excited about actually using it. After we got out of the gulch, we drove up into the hills and then headed back across the way to Randsburg, where we had lunch.Looking at Creosote Bushes near the Yellow Aster Mine

Postlude: Ralph lived in the Gulch until he graduated from High School at which time he joined the Army Air Corp and trained on a B-24 (I think that’s the plane). He made it to the South Pacific in time for the war to end. Ralph received a combat citation, and just so no one thought of him as a hero, he loved telling the story about how some General thought they should have combat experience before being sent to blow up Japan. The General sent several hundred airplanes into the sky to blow the hell out of some islands that a few Japanese soldiers had the misfortune of being marooned on as their island had been leaped over in our drive toward the Japanese homeland. His second mission was to drop supplies into POW camps after the surrender. After the war, Ralph attended school on the GI bill and became a chemist and spent the rest of his life in the Southwest.
Other posts where I was traveling with Ralph: Randsburg, CA and Death Valley (same trip as this one); Hole in a Rock Road; Treasure City; Camp Bangladesh


  1. I have never met an old timer who didn't have an interesting story to tell.

  2. Beautiful landscapes. I appreciate the barren, desert kind of look, although for me life growing up was all about the lush woods and streams. That's still where I want to live, and where I do at the moment.

  3. Rest in peace, Ralph.

    Sage, maybe you should fire up some greasewood in Ralph's

  4. Arrested Decay.....

    really great line,


  5. What a great story. And tribute to Ralph.

  6. Sage,
    Thanks for the head's up about your post. As you know, I am personally familiar with the area, although I'm not quite sure where Goler Gulch is. I know of an area where people still mine to this day - it's east of US395, just north of Randsburg.

    Ralph sounds like he was a very interesting man. I'm sure you will miss him.

  7. Heff, thanks.

    Ed, we just need to find the time to listen.

    Charles, growing up in the coastal marshland, I found myself drawn to the mountain deserts

    Kenju, good idea except that stuff stinks and it don't grow around here!

    John, I hope that describes it

    High Schooler, thanks!

    Dan, there are still some mining in the Goler Gulch area... It's north of the road between 395 and CA 14. Sam's cabin is next to that road.

  8. Dan, after looking at a map, Goler Gulch may be on the other side of US 395

  9. Wonderful tribute to Ralph. Mixing urine? One of the single strangest things I've ever read

  10. Great story! Glad you shared it with us...

  11. I used Cedar City as a base for a trip to Utah/Eastern Nevada some years back. It's extraordinarily convenient to so many scenic wonders, I thought about putting it on the short list of potential retirement spots. (Moab eventually prevailed as the designated Utah representative in the final beauty contest to held in about ten years.)


  12. Hello, NetChick sent me!
    Happy Saturday Ralph!

  13. Pia, the mixing urine was Ralph's quick wit--he was always able to come up with some witty answer!

    Buffalo, thanks.

    Randall, Cedar City has a lot of benefits over Moab: 1. Southern Utah University, 2. the Shakespearean festival and 3. its only 2.5 hours to the Vegas airport. Moab has some benefits. I was blessed to be in Cedar for 10 years.

    Anonymous, I'm Sage, not Ralph, but thanks for stopping by.

  14. Two interesting men who lived intense and interesting lives. It's a wonderful tribute to Ralph.

  15. You meet the most fascinating people, Sage! :)

  16. A beautiful tribute to a man who lived a full life. Sounds like you learned a great many things from Ralph. God bless him.

  17. Leni, who is the other interesting man?

    Michael, yes, but everyone is fascinating if you get to know them. Ralph was a good guy and I'm going to miss him.

    Ily, thanks, I learned a lot from him.

  18. As usual, another interesting chapter from an equally interesting book of life:). Thanks for sharing buddy.

  19. I have always found mining interesting, not sure why.
    Nice post about Ralph.I wonder if that generation was blessed with the talent to remember and tell stories and ours isn't.

  20. What interesting gentlemen! I enjoyed reading this.

  21. I really like how you weave personal memories from your friends and acquaintances in the retelling of these experiences. Sort of brings history and the characters alive. I can see a leap to fiction...

    Spent a lot of time at China Lake... and the range. Have to say I spent more time dropping stuff on the desert than actually walking around in it! But I loved flying there...

  22. How do you remember everyone you've ever met? :)

  23. Any information on Jim Shed that lived in a cabin near Goler Gulch?

  24. I just came back from there this AM (went out to enjoy the meteor shower) and had to google the Goler Gulch school of which I was prowling around this morning and couldnt believe there had been an actual school there. How great to come across your story of someone who actually attended it. Also familiar with all the places you have pics of, cool to now know more about them. Hope people can restrain from damaging more so we can all see the history of our desert.

  25. Thanks so much for leaving this link at my blog. I loved it. This is the kind of story that is VERY bittersweet to me. I love hearing stories from the old days, but it makes me sad to think that as each day passes there are less old timers around to share them with us. I saw another blog post on Goler about a week ago. I liked it, but it because you know (and knew) these folks, your story made the place come to life. Now, I CAN'T WAIT to get up because I'll know something about the things I'm looking at. These are type of people that my granny knew and introduced us to as we traveled around the desert. Once again, I loved this post!

  26. I almost forgot...
    Did you friends talk about or show you any petroglyphs while you were there?

  27. Pat, glad that you liked the post. I don't remember any mention of petroglyphs but I do remember discussion of native artifacts that came from around the area-I know Ralph had a few grinding stones.

    At the end of the article, I gave links to a number of other articles I'd written about Ralph. With your interest in deserts, you might want to check out a few such as Randsburg (the bartender in the picture is now also dead, shortly after turning 100), Treasure City (a ghost town in Nevada) and the "hole in a rock road." I saw Ralph's widow when I was in Cedar City in July and she said that Ralph's first grade teacher at the Goler Gulch school is still alive and well over a 100! Right before his death, Ralph had reconnected with her.