Searles Lake, with a historic background almost parallel to that of Death Valley, is the seat of one of the biggest industries of San Bernardino County, but it was not particularly about industry that I first thought as our car dropped down a rugged canyon, and there came into view that weird region. Rather my mind was groping to pick up the threads of the story 15 or 16 years ago when millions match millions in a flare-back of the old claim jumping feuds of the California frontier.
As a reporter I had known and written details of the struggle for the ownership of the deposits of Searles Lake. The rival factions actually represented the great chemical combines of the world. Out of Oakland came a small army of gun-men with orders to jump the claims. It was the last big clash of the claim-jumpers on the Mojave Desert. A man by the name of Lee headed the invaders. As the story of the time went several of the claim-jumpers perished, not from bullets, but from thirst and exposure. S. W. Austin was in charge of the location work for the Trona interests. He hurried to San Bernardino and flied 1,500 location notices. Joe Hutchinson was an eye-witness to phases of the struggle. He died a couple of years ago in Paris.
The clash with the claim jumpers was merely the opening battle that later turned to the courts. The Trona Company’s locations were attached by rival interests. The trial was conducted before Judge H. T. Dewhirst, who later joined the religious cult of the House of David in Michigan. The hearing of the case occupied many months. Wealth estimated into the millions of dollars was at stake.
I have never seen an authoritative statement of just how many millions of dollars been poured into the region. It must be a staggering sum. But at last the wealth that has been invested in one of the big potash ab borax works of the world is paying returns. This industry has created a town of 1000 people at Trona. The entire works and the town itself are the product of the American Potash & Chemical Corporation.
To picture just how great is the magnitude of this San Bernardino County industry it is necessary to indicate that the production schedule for 1929 calls for 90,000 tons of potash and 50,000 tons of of borax. These figures perhaps mean little to the reader until it is added that this is approximately 20 percent of the potash consumption of the United States and 40 percent of the borax consumption of the world. At Trona is produced 95 percent of the potash produced in the United States. Potash production in the United States is an infant industry. Not until the war was there a serious effort to produce potash in the country. Inefficient plants were the result of the haste to produce potash for the market. The Trona plant was no exception. It had be almost entirely rebuilt to provide an economical method for the production of potash. That work has been completed.
No one has sung praise for the achievement of the American Potash & Chemical Corporation. At least Trona’s neighbors in San Bernardino should sing it. This is the story, and it is based on information received from sources other than officials of the corporation who may not even be concerned with the plaudits for their feat: When the World War [WWI] ended the German and the French potash combination, which controlled in pre-war days the potash market of the world lost no time in rushing back to its markets. With its lower cost of production, the world potash trust soon closed most of plants that the war had developed in the United States. Potash is chiefly used in fertilizer and because of the nation-wide sympathy for the plight of the farmer, the American potash industry could not secure tariff protection. With tariff protection an impossibility and without subsidy of any kind from a Government that worries about its own source of supplies only when a great war looms, the Searles lake potash industry worked out its own destiny in the typical American spirit. Those were trying days as engineers of the American Potash & Chemical Corporation sought for new methods and new machinery to produce potash at a cost that would be competitive with German and French potash. The engineers succeeded and the result is that the farmers of the nation are buying potash at a price even cheaper than they bought it in pre-war days. Without the production at Trona the European potash trust would be able to fix and enforce the price for the markets the world over. This is contribution of the industry of Searles Lake to American accomplishments. An industry that could not have the protection of a tariff, went ahead and fought its own battles and brought cheaper prices for the American farmer in whose interest the tariff had been denied. It is a spirit deserving the commendation from high places in the nation’s business and governmental organizations.
J. A. G., San Bernardino County Sun, 27 February 1929