To Trona, Calif., residents, that awful smell spells $$$

Trona, Calif. (AP) – You won’t find it in any travel brochures. But there’s beauty in its backdrop of craggy blue mountains, in the desert daisies that bloom amid scrub.

Trona is an unincorporated town of 4,500 in the Upper Mojave. It sits in a bowl of windswept desert ringed by the Argus, Slate and Panamint mountains and squints out at Searles Dry Lake, a luner landscape 35 miles square.

Some Tronans cheerfully call it “the Siberia of the High Desert.” Some cheerfully call it ugly. But cheerfulness is not the inevitable reaction of newcomers.

When she first laid eyes on the place, Eleanor Rockdale cried. Genel Wokal’s mother cried. Elert Bow’s wife cried.

“When we made that turn and smelled that smell,” Bow recalls, “she started crying and she cried for a month.”

Says Doris Bray editor of the weekly Trona Argonaut: To people that don’t live here, Trona smells like rotten eggs. But to people who do it smells like money.”

That eau de Trona smell has the same source as the money: the dry lake, chock full of decayed organic matter and a chemical feast for Kerr-McGee Corp., by far the biggest provider in this blue collar town.

The nearest “big” town is Ridgecrest, population 25,000, 25 miles away. Los Angeles is 200 miles to the southwest. Los Vegas is 215 miles to the east. The county seat, San Bernardino, is 135 miles to the south.

Winter brings dust storms. Summer brings 118 degrees. Spring brings the year’s rainfall – three inches, enough to keep the rattlesnakes, scorpions and tarantulas alive and breeding for another year.

But there is that dry lake.

One of the things that folks around here will tell you is that more wealth has been taken from Searles Lake than from all the gold mined in California since the Gold Rush of 1849. Buried beneath the lake’s crust are 98 of the 104 known chemical elements, valued by Kerr-McGee at $150 billion.

The sodium sulfate, borax, soda ash and other products made here find their way into the detergent in your cupboard, the insulation in your attic, the car in your driveway.

The chemicals of Trona also are used in the manufacture of fertilizer, baking soda, newsprint, brown paper, enamel, pottery glaze, cotton, rayon, leather, vacuum bottle liners, gypsum wallboard, laboratory and cooking glass, paper towels, tissues, tableware, sugar, beverage  bottles, starch, charcoal briquettes, and grocery carts.

There’s a little bit of Trona all over the place.

In Trona, there’s a great deal of Kerr-McGee all over the place.

Kerr-McGee owns the golf course, the movie theater, the community swimming pool, the water company, a block of the business district, and about 75 houses that belonged to workers the company laid off.

Kerr-McGee also owns mineral rights to a goodly chunk of the lake. The federal government owns the rest, which it leases to Kerr-McGee.

The Trona school system, which as 760 students, receives $2.5 million in royalties every year from minerals mined in the part of the lake the government owns.

As a result teachers are paid more than any other public school teachers in California: none earn less than $20,000 and some earn more than $40,000.

Kerr-McGee employs 1,050 workers, about 20 percent ot Trona’s population, and pays between $13.52 and $14.20 an hour. The company’s annual tax bill comes to $5 million; because land values are low. Trona’s other residents pay low property taxes, $414 for a $68,000 three-bedroom house.

Folks live in one-story stucco or wood houses, their small dirt yards landscaped with hardy shrubbery or in some cases, junk cars.

Kerr-McGee’s three chemical plants dominate the main drag, which they share with the Long Branch Saloon and the Elk’s Club, Cowboy Bob’s Restaurant and the library, Reed’s Casino and an ice cream parlor, a VFW and a Western Auto.

There’s a supermarket, a barbershop, a clothing store, a motel. There’s one of everything an American outpost might need with one exception. There is not McDonald’s.

Forget Venice and Disneyland and the Golden Gate Bridge. Forget the California most tourists visit. This is the other one, the California of rattlesnakes, sagebrush and ghost towns, of grizzled prospectors, wild burros and scorched desert.

In this California, you must tell someone where your’re going so they’ll know where to start looking if you don’t make it back. You travel with water, food, blankets, flares, first aid kits, tires, gas, oil, fan belts and maps warning: “Beware of vertical mine shafts and unexploded military shells.”

In this California, the newspaper editor is also the honorary mayor, town hostess and historian. When Mrs. Bray plays host to an out-of-town reporter, the visit merits a front-page story in the Argonaut, a welcoming bottle of champagne and a seat at the head table of the Community Council’s monthly luncheon meeting.

Mrs. Bray, 77 who has lived many places, calls Trona “a wonderful place to end up. If people can’t see the beauty here I feel sorry for them.”

Elert Bow agrees, 27 years 27 years have passed since his wife shed those tears and the bows are still here. He’s the athletic director at the high school, she works in the elementary school office. “Trona grows on you,” says Bow.

Those with cabin fever, though might make an appointment with Al Walker. He’s a San Bernardino psychiatrist flown in once a month by the county, in accordance with state law that requires each county with more than 100,000 people to provide mental health services. Walker says Trona’s isolation probably contributes to a slightly higher than normal rate of family Violence and drinking. He also thinks people watch lots of TV.

“On the hottest days, when it is 120 degrees and your feet are burning through the pavement, you cringe a little he says. “ When you come over the hills and you smell that smell you wonder, How do people live here?”

The answer for most: Happily.

They like it here.

They like the sunsets and stars and wide open spaces, the absence of crime and crowds. “Every sunset is different. And the mountains are beautiful every night,” says Mrs. Bray.

They psychiatrist sees Trona as a study in self-sufficiency. “People tend to solve their own problems.” Walker says, “There’s very little bowing and facing Mecca and looking to Washington to shell out bucks.”

Trona’s problems get solved quickly and democratically by the Community Council. Legally the council’s 98 members can’t raise taxes, change speed limits or issue parade permits. Legally they can’t really do anything.

Yet they manage to run a mini-bus and senior center for old people, a Community Chest and thrift shop for the needy, and a volunteer ambulance service for the sick.

This is an Associated Press story that appeared in The News and Courier Jun 19, 1983: To Trona, Calif., residents, that awful smell spells $$$

A similar but different version of this article appeared in The Palm Beach Post  July 27, 1983 with the name: Trona’s Hearty Citizens Find Beauty in Desert.  This version of the article includes several interesting pictures.

Dry Lake Provides Smell and Money from The Waycross Journal-Herald June 27, 1983  is yet another version of the same story.


  • May 16, 2013

    […] To learn more about Trona women crying visit : To Trona, Calif., residents, that awful smell spells $$$ […]

  • Have there been many cancer deaths for people living in Trona in the 1920’s to 1930’s? I’m researching pancreatic/liver cancer instances. It could be asbestos in the air. Can you help with this?

    Melinda HartshornDecember 2, 2015
  • I was born in Trona 1952 , last name Quethera, Joseph Quethera , is my father…… Is there anyone still around from that time,,,,, ? Than you Marie Quethera

    Marie quetheraMarch 12, 2016

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