The Desert Studies Center

The Desert Studies Center (HMYQO)

Location: Riverside, CA 45431 San Bernardino County
Country: United States of America

N 35° 8.552', W 116° 6.26'

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[Panel #1]
1776 - 1830: Early Explorers

Francisco Garces
1776 - As the Revolutionary War broke out, California was still a province of Spain, and the Spanish government decided to help feed a hungry Mexico by farming the fertile valleys around Monterey and San Francisco bays. While Juan Bautista de Anza explored a possible trade route south of here, Father Francisco Garces followed the Colorado River northward. He eventually met Mojave tribesmen who led him west, across the Mojave Desert to Mission San Gabriel. Garces, probably the first European to cross the Mojave Desert, stopped with his guides at this dry lake on their way west.

Jedediah Strong Smith
1826 - Trapper and horse trader Jedidiah Smith is the first known Anglo-Saxon to visit this area. A soft-spoken, Bible-carrying mountain-man, Smith passed these springs on his way to the Pacific coast. The following year, while on another westward journey, he again took advantage of this refuge.

Christopher "Kit" Carson
1829 - As word of trails and water across the dreaded Mojave spread, other trappers and explorers were drawn towards the coast. Several such parties made camp at these springs the next few years. The Ewing Young and Yount-Wolfskill group was among those guided by frontier scout Kit Carson.

[Panel #2]
1830 - 1860: Pioneers and Settlers

The War with Mexico
When eastern pioneers arrived in what is now California, they found a sparsely-settled land with a few Spanish ranchers and a Russian settlement that farmed mammals from the sea. In 1846, following the successful "The Bear Flag Revolt," American settlers removed these powers. Two years after a major 1848 gold strike east of Sacramento began to draw emigrants westward, California was made a state.

Government Survey Teams
Roads for wagons were scarce, so survey teams were sent to locale suitable routes, find reliable water supplies and eventually to survey railroad alignments. In 1853, Robert S. Williamson's survey team stopped here. During another railroad survey in 1854, Lt. Amiel Whipple first named Soda Lake, from which Soda Springs gets its name.

The Army's Great Camel Experiment
In 1857, one year before the Butterfield Overland Mail began running between Missouri and California along the great Southern route, Edward Fitzgerald Beale established the Mojave Road, a more-northerly freight and postal route across the desert. Camels, imported from the Middle East, were used as pack animals along the Mojave Road as part of the U.S. Army's Great Camel Experiment.

After walking from Texas over rock-strewn trails, Beale's camels were pronounced capable. The Army, however, abondoned its "ships of the desert," partly because the great shaggy, spitting beasts scared every horse and mule they met half out of their wits!

[Panel #3]
1860 - 1870: Army Outpost

Hancock's Redoubt was a temporary stronghold built here by the U.S. Army in the 1860s along the Mojave Road, which stretched west from Prescott, Arizona Territory, through the mountains, beyond the Colorado River, and across the Mojave Desert to the Cajon Pass. Redoubts offered protection to civilian as well as military travelers. Hancock's Redoubt is mentioned in dispatches written to Major James E. Carlton of the 1st Dragoons at Camp Cady from 1st Lt. Milton T. Carr, Detachment Commander:

"May 1st Left camp at daylight and marched to Soda Springs, where I arrived at 11 o'clock a.m. ... Found plenty of tule grass and water here. There are three springs, one large and two small. The water is impregnated with some alkaline substance and is unpleasant to taste. The redoubt erected at Soda Springs is about the same size as that erected at Bitter Spring: it is called Hancock's Redoubt. (Named in honor of Army Quarter Master Winfield S. Hancock.) Should small parties hereafter be required to operate from this point, five or six men on foot in this redoubt can guard the supplies during the absence of the scouts.

"June 4th ... Loop-holes are arranged around the top, that men inside of the redoubt can command all the ground around, without exposing themselves to the fire of the Indians. Had the front traverse so arranged, also, that it will afford secure shelter for three or four horses."

By 1867, the original "series of breastworks and corrals" had fallen into disrepair and was replaced by a more substantial stone structure, believed to resemble the above illustration. From August 21, 1867 until May 23, 1868, Army personnel were stationed here as a full-time outpost of Camp Cady, 35 miles to the east. Three men were usually posted at this lonely station. Remains of larger, similar fortifications, erected along the Mojave Road at Rock Springs and Piute Springs, can still be seen.

[Panel #4]
1870 - 1905: Soda Station

Soda Springs existed as a rest stop and refuge for eastbound and westbound travelers on the Mojave Road for about 30 years. Its name was changed temporarily to "Shenandoah Camp" in 1885 but was soon named "Soda Station" by its operator, George Hetzel. He rebuilt the outpost into a trading post, commonly called a "way station." Similar to rest stops along modern freeways, Hetzel's way station offered welcome relief to travelers crossing the desert.

To make the springs more usable, Hetzel lined a pool with rocks. Water at Soda Springs reaches the surface at a fairly constant 76?, proving a refreshing dip in summer and welcome warmth during the winter.

In 1900, Frank and Sarah Riggs lived at Soda Station, which they had renamed "Hetzel's Mill Site." The Riggs ran a mill in which steel balls pulverized ores for processing. Unfortunately, the ores from this mountain contain very few valuable minerals, and the claim was abandoned.

[Panel #5]
1905 - 1916: The Soda Works

The Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad
Tracks of the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad, called the T&T, were laid by Francis "Borax" Smith to carry ore, cargo and passengers on a north/south alignment through the desert, reached Soda Springs in November of 1905. This line connected the rich mining districts of Goldfield and Bullfrog...and towns like Shoshone, Tecopa, Death Valley Junction and Beatty...with the outside world. It carried minerals, freight, mining equipment, and passengers between the east-west rail lines at Ludlow and mines scattered along the Amargosa River and Death Valley.

Just What is Soda?
Included in the loose term "soda" are several chemical compounds: washing soda (sodium carbonate), baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and caustic soda (sodium hydrate) are only a few.

The Soda Works
To extract chemicals from sub-surface lake brine, spring water was channeled through ditches and trapped in shallow ponds where it was evaporated by the sun. The resulting "trona" sludge was scraped from the ponds, spread for further drying, and shipped on the T&T for final processing.

The operation, owned by The Pacific Salt and Soda Company, was never financially successful. By 1912, the cost of refining solar-dried sludge into separate usable chemicals forced the company to abandon the project.

In 1914, another attempt at mining the playa began, but in 1916, flood waters inundated the dry lake for two years, forcing the miners to "pull up stakes." Soda Springs slowly crumbled into the desolate desert from which it came.

Ditches and dikes from the Soda Works can still be seen on the dry lake bed, but the narrow-gauge rails, mine cars and buildings that were once here are now only memories.

[Panel #6]
1916 - 1944: Period of Abandonment

Desert rains often produce some very destructive floodwaters where, only minutes earlier, dust-devils danced beneath a blazing sun.

Severe flooding in 1916 not only ended mining here, it also inundated the T&T Railroad grade. Between 1910 and 1920, and again in the 1930s, Broadwell Lake, the Mojave River Sink, Silver Lake and the Armagosa River all experienced floods and washouts, and the railroad never fully recovered.

As mines served by the railroad became depleted, the T&T barely remained solvent. On June 14, 1940 it ceased operation forever. Little remains since its rails were used for scrap iron during World War II. The elevated railroad grade can still be seen, heading north toward baker.

Over the years, the wooden buildings once built here were salvaged for use elsewhere in the desert. Meanwhile the stone structures crumbled into piles of rubble, overgrown with mesquite.

During these years, a few sportsmen, historians and archaeologists occasionally stopped at Soda Springs and noted the area's resources that would someday be recognized as "something special."

[Panel #7]
1944 - 1974: Zzyzx Mineral Springs

Just before the end of World War II, Evangelist Dr. Curtis H. Springer, who operated a mission for the down-and-out in Los Angeles, filed a series of mining claims on public lands at Soda Springs. Here in the desert, at what they once described as "a mosquito swamp," he and his soon-to-be wife, Helen LeGerda, created Zzyzx Mineral Springs, a religion-oriented health resort.

Over the next 30 years, the Springers modified the natural springs and constructed numerous buildings on the site. Rows of Tamarisk and Palm trees were planted, Zzyzx Road upgraded, and ponds excavated. Soda Station was rebuilt from its ruins, and later used as part of a larger building which still stands.

Springer had great plans for the 12,800 acres of barren desert land between the oasis and what is now Interstate 15. A mobile home park was to be built where you are standing. There was just one problem with Dr. Springer's plans; the land did not belong to him.

The validity of Springer's "mining claims" were eventually challenged in court by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Springer's lost their claims and were evicted from the property in 1974, which ended Zzyzx Mineral Springs.

[Panel #8]:
1974 - Present: The Desert Studies Center

After the Zzyzx era, increased public awareness encouraged the Bureau of Land Management to protect the memories of Zzyzx and the natural and cultural resources of Soda Springs. A plan was developed to manage the site so that these unique resources could be studied and appreciated, yet protected from abuse and vandalism.

That plan led to the establishment of the Desert Studies Center at Soda Springs in 1976. The BLM and a consortium of California State University campuses manage the site as a field station, classroom and research facility.

Students, teachers and scientists stay here temporarily to conduct studies and then share the knowledge they gain about desert flora, fauna and habitats. Indoor and outdoor laboratories are available to classes of all grade levels. Weekend classes, open to the pubic, are offered for those who wish to learn more about the Mojave region through hands-on training at the Desert Studies Center.
Series This marker is part of the The Mojave Road (Old Government Road) series
Placed ByBureau of Land Management
Marker ConditionNo reports yet
Date Added Thursday, September 4th, 2014 at 9:22am PDT -07:00
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Locationbig map
UTM (WGS84 Datum)11S E 581590 N 3889216
Decimal Degrees35.14253333, -116.10433333
Degrees and Decimal MinutesN 35° 8.552', W 116° 6.26'
Degrees, Minutes and Seconds35° 8' 33.12" N, 116° 6' 15.60" W
Driving DirectionsGoogle Maps
Area Code(s)937
Closest Postal AddressAt or near 3101-3299 Zzyzx Rd, Riverside CA 45431, US
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