1915 Historical Statement: Searles Lake Potash

The saline deposits at Searles Lake were discovered by John W. Searles in 1863, but no attempt at utilization was made until about ten years later. In 1873 a part of the deposit was located for borax by Searles and associates, and application for patents (later allowed) was made in 1874. Production of borax commenced in 1874 and continued until the development of the colemanite deposits in the 1890s rendered the operation of the Searles Lake property no longer profitable. In 1878 the San Bernardino Borax Mining Company was organized to take over the Searles interests and the patented land at Searles Lake still stands in the name of this Company, now a subsidiary of the Pacific Coast Borax Company, of Oakland, California. Searles and his associates were aware of the presence of soda and other valuable salines on the property, but made no effort to utilize anything except borax.

During the activity of the San Bernardino Borax Mining Company several smaller borax companies operated for brief periods on different parts of the deposit and the Superintendent of one of these, Whitman Symmes, attempted in the late 1890s to secure capital for the exploitation of the deposit as a source of saline materials other than borax. The attempt was unsuccessful.

About ten years later (prior to 1908) C. E. Dolbear became interested in the possibilities of the deposit as a source of soda and arranged for financial support, resulting in the organization in February, 1908, of the California Trona Company, a California corporation with its offices at Oakland, California, and having a capital stock of 1000 shares of a par value of $1000 each. On January 1, 1908, Dolbear located the property in more than 250 association placer claims of 160 acres each, in the names of himself and seven others. On January 7, 1908, the seven associates transferred their interests to Dolbear, and on February 21, 1908, Dolbear transferred the locations to the newly organized California Trona Company. On November 5, 1908, the California Trona Company obtained from the San Bernardino Borax Mining Company a restricted lease on the 2240 acres of patented land belonging to the latter Company, for a period of five years, with the right of renewal for a second period of five years.

In order to obtain capital for development, including the completion of a soda works, the California Trona Company made, on August 1, 1908, and November 5, 1908, with the Foreign Mines Development Company of London, England, contracts providing for a loan of $50,000 or more, secured by a mortgage on the Searles Lake property. The Foreign Mines Development Company is a subsidiary of the Consolidated Gold Fields of South Africa. As consideration for making the loan, the California Trona Company gave the Foreign Mines Development Company 100 shares of the capital stock of the former Company and agreed that the Foreign Mines Development Company should receive a percentage of the gross sale value of the products of the property for a certain time.

The soda plant was not successful and much trouble arose between the representatives of the California Trona Company and the Foreign Mines Development Company, involving charges of incompetence, fraud and conspiracy on both sides. On September 7, 1909, the Foreign Mines Development Company began action to sell out the property for the debt. This was contested by the California Trona Company and on September 27, 1909, the case was transferred to the United States District Court, Ninth District of California. On December 16, 1909, this Court appointed S. W. Austin as Receiver and since that date Austin has been in possession of the property. In this action the Foreign Mines Development Company sought and obtained judgment for more than $100,000 money loaned to the California Trona Company, for more than $100,000 in profits from a stipulated production which did not materialize, and for money advanced and costs ; the whole aggregating more than $250,000. The findings of the Master in the case were filed with the Court January 28, 1911, but the Court’s decree and order for sale was not issued until February 10, 1913. Since that date no action has been taken in the matter. Concurrently with the foreclosure proceedings the Foreign Mines Development Company sued for and obtained a decree holding the individual stockholders of the California Trona Company liable for the debt.

Meanwhile, by a series of transactions during 1909, 1910 and 1911 representatives of the Foreign Mines Development Company had obtained a majority of the stock of the California Trona Company and the control of the Board of Directors of that Company. On November 8, 1911, this Board sold out nearly all of the minority stock of the California Trona Company for alleged non-payment of an assessment. These transactions have led to a large number of actions in the California Courts, some of which are still pending. Among other matters the legality of the transactions leading to the sale of the minority stock of the California Trona Company has been and is being contested, first by C E. Dolbear and later by E. H. Merril, of San Francisco, and others representing some of the minority stockholders.

During this period and in advance of the realization of the value of the property for potash, many efforts were made by the California Trona Company either to sell the property for a moderate sum, or to raise money with which to pay off the claims of the Foreign Mines Development Company and to provide for operation. From February, 1910, until July 1, 1911, E. H. Merrill held a valid option, ratified by a large majority of the stock, to sell the property at a price to net $800,000. This option was extended beyond July 1, 1911, by an alleged Board of Directors opposed to the Foreign Mines Development Company, but the validity of this extension is in controversy. On December

6, 1911, the Board of Directors representing the stock controlled by the Foreign Mines Development -Company, authorized Guy Wilkinson, then Managing Director of the latter Company, to sell the property at any price that would pay the debt of the California Trona Company. In connection with these or other efforts at sale or re-financing, technical examinations of the property were made by representatives of the Solvay Process Company, by Smith-Emery and Company, of San Francisco, by S. P. Sadtler and Son, of Philadelphia, and others. No sale or re-financing was effected by any of these efforts.

During this time no effort was made to patent any of the property. Until August, 1910, the title of the California Trona Company rested upon the original locations made by Dolbear and seven others in January, 1908. During

July, 1910, Dolbear and seven others, all stockholders of the California Trona Company, relocated the property in 257 association placer claims of 160 acres each, known as Trona No , Letter …. These claims were recorded on August 8, 1910, and transferred to the California Trona Company on August 11, 1910.

During October, 1910, T. W. Pack and seven others located a large part of the property in 175 association placer claims of 160 acres each, known as Soda No These parties were represented by H. E. Lee, of San Francisco, and T. O.Toland, of Los Angeles, as attorneys, and by Rasor and Valjean, of Los Angeles, as engineers. It was claimed that the locations of Dolbear and his associates in 1908 and 1910 were fraudulent and void because made by dummy entrymen. These adverse locations are commonly known as the Lee-Pack claims and were the cause of the sensational “potash war” which attracted so much attention in the California newspapers during the winter of 1912-13 and later. Several actions to determine the rights of the parties to this conflict are now pending in the California Courts, perhaps the most important being an Adverse (San Bernardino County Sup. Ct. No. 13274) filed by R.

Waymire and D. Smith (two of the locators) against the first application for patent filed by the California Trona Company June 23, 1913, and covering six of the association placer claims under the Dolbear locations of July, 1910.

Since the filing of this Adverse, parties supposed to be acting in the interest of the California Trona Company have acquired the interests of D. Smith and one other locator, being together a one-fourth interest in the Lee- Pack claims as a whole.

During May and June, 1912, following the demonstration of the importance of potash in the deposit, S. W. Austin, Receiver of the California Trona Company, located the entire supposed valuable portion of the deposit as 1392, more or less, 20 acre placer claims, in his own name. On November 12, 1912, he transferred these claims to the California Trona Company.

On February 21, 1913, all public mineral land on the Searles Lake deposit, not then covered by valid locations, was withdrawn from entry by Presidential order- This withdrawal is still in force.

In the fall of 1914 the California Trona Company filed two additional applications for patents ; the first for one association placer claim under the Dolbear location of July, 1910, the second for four 20 acre placer claims under the Austin locations of 1912. There are no adverse claims to any part of the land covered by these applications for patent.

It is impossible to assign with any certainty the credit for the first discovery of potash at Searles Lake. During the control of the property by John W. Searles an examination was made by C. N. Hake and it is said that he was the first to recognize the presence of potash and its possible importance. From the recollections of his surviving associates, it seems probable that John W. Searles himself knew of the presence of potash in the deposit quite early in the history of his work with the property. Its presence was undoubtedly known to the mineralogists and chemists who examined the samples from the deep wells drilled by Searles in 1887 and 1895, and was probably known later to Symmes and to Dolbear. It appears, however, that all projects for the utilization of the property prior to the summer of 1911 were directed exclusively toward the recovery of borax or soda, and that the presence of potash, if known, was regarded as commercially unimportant.*

During the winter of 1910-11 there arose much agitation and public interest concerning the dependence of the United States upon the German mines for the supply of potash, and this resulted in considerable general activity in prospecting for this substance. The United States Geological Survey and the United States Bureau of Soils both took up the matter and after preliminary investigation of possibilities both Bureaus began active work in the spring of 1911. These investigations are still in progress. This governmental activity and the great public interest in the matter also induced a search for potash by many private parties, of whom the chief, in magnitude of operations undertaken, was the Railroad Valley Company, of Nevada. The field operations of this Company began in the spring of 1911 and extended until June, 1914. Important investigations have been carried out also by the Pacific Coast Borax Company and the Solvay Process Company.

The general interest and activity in the search for potash was not without effect on the Searles Lake situation. In the spring of 1911 Smith-Emery and Company, of San Francisco, had made an investigation of the property on behalf of outside capitalists, in the course of which investigation they collected and analyzed a large number of samples. Originally these samples were not tested for potash, but after the growth of general interest in that material a single brine sample was analyzed and found to contain 4.49 per cent, of potassium chloride. Knowledge of this analysis came to the two Government Bureaus interested in the potash search and representatives of these Bureaus examined the property on March 5-7, 1912. On March 21, 1912, the two Bureaus issued simultaneous bulletins giving the results of the field examination and announcing that the deposit had been found to contain a large amount of potash believed to be in commercial form.

Though in no sense a “discovery” of the potash, the estimate by the governmental officers was the first adequate study of the deposit from that point of view and was probably the first definite proof of the existence therein of potash in commercial quantity and character. With the acceptance by all parties concerned of the essential correctness of the governmental estimate, efforts to dispose of the property ceased immediately and the California Trona Company began serious efforts toward development and operation. These efforts have been continued without important interruption and are stated to have resulted in the development of a successful process for the extraction and refining of the valuable salts.

In June, 1913, there was organized the American Trona Corporation, a Delaware corporation, having an authorized capital of $12,500,000 and financed mainly by the Consolidated Gold Fields of South Africa. The American Trona Corporation now owns the majority of the stock of the California Trona Company and holds and operates the Searles Lake property under contract with the California Trona Company. The American Trona Corporation has constructed and is operating an experimental refining plant, and, through a subsidiary corporation, has constructed the Trona Railway from the plant to the Southern Pacific Railway at Searles Station, 48 miles north of Mojave.

Up to the present time the deposit at Searles Lake is the only known source of potash within the United States, the commercial importance of which can be considered established or strongly indicated. Furthermore, the desert regions of the United States have been so fully and carefully examined that the existence of another deposit of the Searles Lake type must be considered extremely doubtful. It remains possible that buried deposits of similar character exist somewhere, but extensive borings in several of the most probable areas have failed to disclose any such buried deposit. Much money has been spent in the effort to produce useful potassium compounds from feldspar, alunite and sea kelp, but so far none of these projects has come to commercial success.

The only valuable portion of the Searles deposit, so far as is now believed, is the brine which permeates the salt body. Essentially this is a lake of brine, the salt body itself being no more than a loose skeleton of crystals in the interstices of which lies the valuable brine. This brine will flow quite freely through the salt body and it is probable that a well sunk anywhere in the main brine area would draw its supply, if pumped, to some extent from the whole deposit.

The important salts present in the brine are potassium chloride, sodium carbonate (and bicarbonate), borax, sodium chloride and sodium sulphate. Only the first three are regarded as commercially important.

*The Solvay Process Company, in the course of its examination during the summer of 1910, determined the existence of commercial amounts of potash at Searles Lake and made experiments in extracting and refining the various minerals. These facts were unknown to the California Trona Company, and have never heretofore been published.

by E. E. FREE

Mining and Engineering World , Volume 42 1915


  • June 10, 2013

    […] Joe Whitelaw’s aunt, Mary Margaret “Peggy” Gauslin, lived in Trona  about 1915. She  joined the Ninety-Nines, an association for women pilots, soon after she soloed in February 1930. She was a member until 1936, and was active in air shows. Amelia Earhart was a charter member of the Ninety-Nines. Peggy probably never knew Amelia but it is an interesting coincidence. Peggy was born in 1905 and lived in Trona from about 1914 to 1918 while her father was building and then managed the California Trona Company plant. […]

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