Podcast Episodes

Apostle of the Cacti

If you’re a National Park buff—and you probably are if you listen to this podcast—you probably know of some of the famous people responsible for the very creation of many of our greatest parks. People like John Muir, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Teddy Roosevelt, and Stephan Mather. But we’re guessing you haven’t heard of Minerva Hamilton Hoyt, the hero of the Joshua Tree National Park and the California Desert who made sure they were protected for many lifetimes to come.

Minerva Hamilton was born on March 27, 1866 on a plantation near Durant, Mississippi to an upper-class family. Genteel finishing schools and music conservatories were the routine. She married Dr. Albert Sherman Hoyt, and moved for a time to New York, and then Baltimore, where she gave birth to two sons. In 1897, the family moved to South Pasadena, California, where Minerva immersed herself in southern California high society and civic causes. She developed a talent for organizing charitable events, and eventually became president of the Los Angeles Symphony and head of the Boys and Girls Club of Los Angeles.

She also developed a passion for gardening, which introduced her to some of the native desert vegetation commonly used in southern California landscaping. It was an alien terrain that fascinated her. She had another child, but it tragically died as an infant in 1918, followed by her husband’s untimely death. Among the Joshua Trees of Southern California she found comfort and solace. “During nights in the open, lying in a snug sleeping-bag, I soon learned the charm of a Joshua Forest,” she wrote in 1931 noting the scent of the California juniper, the eerie night winds, and the bright desert constellations. “This desert…possessed me, and I constantly wished that I might find some way to preserve its natural beauty.”

She was awestruck by the beauty and the inventiveness of desert plants that developed unique ways to thrive in the harsh climate. But she also saw the thoughtless and widespread destruction of native desert plants by people who dug up, burned, and otherwise destroyed so many of the cacti and Joshua trees that she found so beautiful.

She became alarmed by the rapid growth of the greater Los Angeles area, as more and more people and automobiles began to roam the Mojave desert to collect exotic desert plants. Whole regions were stripped bare as collectors transplanted palm trees, barrel cacti, and Joshua trees to their gardens.

The Joshua tree, once deemed “the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom,” had become revered for its unique appearance, it’s clustered groupings, and its ability to thrive where few other plants could. The twisted, spiky Joshua trees are a member of the Agave family. Years ago the Joshua tree was recognized by Native Americans for its useful properties: tough leaves were worked into baskets and sandals, and flower buds and raw or roasted seeds made a healthy addition to the diet.

By the mid-19th century, Mormon immigrants had made their way across the Colorado River. Legend has it that these pioneers named the tree after the biblical figure, Joshua, seeing the limbs of the tree as outstretched in prayer. Ranchers and miners also arrived in the high desert with hopes of raising cattle and digging for gold. These homesteaders used the Joshua tree’s limbs and trunks for fencing and corrals. Miners used them as a source of fuel for the steam engines used in processing ore.

The Joshua tree’s life cycle begins with the rare germination of a seed, its survival is dependent upon well-timed rains. Spring rains may bring clusters of white-green flowers on long stalks at branch tips. In addition to ideal weather, the pollination of flowers requires a visit from the yucca moth. The moth collects pollen while laying her eggs inside the flower ovary. As seeds develop and mature, the eggs hatch into larvae, which feed on the seeds. The tree relies on the moth for pollination and the moth relies on the tree for a few seeds for her young. The Joshua tree is also capable of sprouting from roots and branches.

The increasing popularity of the Joshua Tree was hurling it towards extinction as whole groves were moved to gardens or harvested for the pliable wood that made great splints and Hollywood prop furniture. At nearly 50,000 square miles, the Mojave Desert may seem almost unchangeable as its ecosystem survives one of the harshest climates on earth. But Joshua trees are anything but permanent when man gets involved.

Following the deaths of her son and husband, Minerva Hamilton Hoyt dedicated herself to the cause of protecting desert landscapes. She was a large, stately, and cranky Mississippi woman, hardly a weatherbeaten outdoorsman. But she used her wealth and social standing to raise public awareness of these growing threats to the desert.

At the time, the conservation of wooded wilderness, rivers, and other natural resources was becoming more important to people, but the desert was still seen as either a wasteland to be avoided or a barrier to be crossed. When Roger W. Toll, Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, inspected the area with Hoyt in 1934, he jokingly asked her when they would arrive at her “park.” Hoyt replied that Toll needed to learn to recognize natural beauty beyond that found in waterfalls, lakes, and forests.

Hoyt organized exhibitions of desert plants that were shown in Boston, New York, and London. She founded the International Deserts Conservation League with the goal of establishing parks to preserve desert landscapes. She was tapped by noted landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. to serve on a California state commission formed to recommend proposals for new state parks. She prepared the commission’s report on desert parks and recommended large parks be created at Death Valley and in the Joshua tree forests, among other places.

Her work helped transform an entire generation’s attitude toward the desert. It was said that after hearing Hoyt speak “No one who heard her talk could ever again regard the subject of conservation of desert flora with indifference.”

The International Deserts Conservation League prodded Mexico to announced the creation of a 10,000-acre cactus forest. The President of Mexico dubbed Hoyt the “Apostle of the Cacti.” At that point it was clear to Minerva that a California state park wasn’t enough for her vision. She needed to inspire the nation with a national park.

She hired well-known biologists and desert ecologists to prepare reports on the virtues of the Joshua Tree region. The Governor of California sent a letter of introduction on her behalf to President Franklin Roosevelt, and she flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with him. She sat on the White House steps until the president would see her. Roosevelt’s New Deal administration became active in the establishment of national parks and monuments as a jobs-creation initiative.

Minerva Hamilton Hoyt’s work paid off when President Roosevelt asked the National Park Service to prepare a recommendation on the site. Problems with the inclusion of certain railroad lands forced a reduction in the size of the proposed park from over one million acres to a more modest 825,000 in the final proposal, but on August 10, 1936, President Roosevelt signed a presidential proclamation establishing Joshua Tree National Monument. Minerva had her grand desert park.

“I stood and looked. Everything was peaceful, and it rested me” reads the inscribed plaque at Inspiration Point on Quail Mountain, the highest peak in Joshua Tree National Park. More than 2.8 million people visit the park every year, and many summit that mountain and read the inscription, but the woman who spoke those words is not widely known. As a country, the United States has canonized the creation of our national parks as a masculine, Gilded Age venture to tame the wild frontier. But it is thanks to the overlooked work of Minerva Hamilton Hoyt that the United States preserved a desert bigger than the state of Rhode Island—a space that is increasingly at risk today.

Near Quail Mountain is the second tallest peak in Joshua Tree, now named Mount Minerva Hoyt.


In 1950, Joshua Tree lost one-third of its acreage due to mining interests. It took the work of more women to reclaim much of that land upgrade Joshua Tree to a National Park. Kathryn Lacey, legislative aide to Senator Alan Cranston, drafted the original Desert Protection Act in 1986, and Senator Dianne Feinstein steered it through Congress in 1994.

In fact, the rugged, masculine, outdoorsman image that Teddy Roosevelt championed has long been the lens through which we’ve seen the creation of many of our national parks. When in fact, women have led the charge for conservation and environmental protection for well over a century in the United States.

Two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, come together in Joshua Tree National Park. A fascinating variety of plants and animals make their homes in a land sculpted by strong winds and occasional torrents of rain. Dark night skies, a rich cultural history, and surreal geologic features add to the wonder of this vast wilderness in southern California.

This spring, Joshua Tree National Park is piloting a free shuttle service, called the RoadRunner Shuttle bus. This service runs throughout the day throughout the northern section of the park. During the two year trial period, all entrance fees are waived for park entrance for shuttle riders.


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Music

Music for this week’s episode is provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

Podcast Episodes

The Lost Horse Mine

Even before the California Gold Rush of 1849, prospectors were finding gold in Southern California. As the rewards from the mines in the Sierras began to wither, miners headed toward the deserts, where hot summers, scarce water, limited wood sources, and the difficulty and high cost of transporting equipment and provisions created a challenging mining environment. But a few hardy adventurers endured, and about 300 mines were developed in what is now Joshua Tree National Park.

Few of these mines produced much, but one certainly did — the Lost Horse Mine.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode.

Joshua Tree National Park – National Park Service Website

Lost Horse Mine Trail – Modern Hiker


Transcript

Even before the California Gold Rush of 1849, prospectors were finding gold in southern California. As the rewards from the mines in the Sierras began to wither, miners headed toward the deserts, where hot summers, scarce water, limited wood sources, and the difficulty and high cost of transporting equipment and provisions created a challenging mining environment. But a few hardy adventurers endured, and about 300 mines were developed in what is now Joshua Tree National Park.

Few of these mines produced much, but one certainly did.

Here’s Abigail Trabue

Johnny Lang and his father drove their herd of cattle into the Lost Horse Valley in 1890, having been forced to move west after his brother and six other cowboys were gunned down in New Mexico. One night, while camped in the Valley, the Langs horses disappeared. The next morning Johnny tracked them to the camp of a group of unsavory cattle rustlers, the McHaney brothers, at their oasis encampment.

The oasis that now makes its home as an entrance to Joshua Tree National Park was first settled by the Serrano people, who called it Mara, meaning “the place of little springs and much grass.” Legend holds they came to the oasis because a medicine man told them it was a good place to live and that they would have many male offspring. The medicine man instructed them to plant a palm tree each time a boy was born. In the first year, the Serrano planted 29 palm trees at the oasis. The palms eventually provided the Serrano with the materials for food, clothing, cooking implements, and housing. They were able to successfully cultivate the oasis with corn, beans, pumpkins, and squash, utilizing the life-giving waters that rise along a mountain fault.

The McHaney brothers arrived at the oasis that is now known as twenty-nine palms to hide their stolen cattle trade. They hid cattle that had been poached from other ranchers in isolated rocky coves nearby.

Johnny Lang met up with a man named “Dutch” Frank who had also been intimidated by the McHaneys. Frank had discovered gold – and he was certain that it was a very profitable claim, but he was afraid to begin developing it because of the threat of the McHaneys taking it over. Jim McHaney and another gang member had already forced, at gunpoint, a man named of Frank James to sign over his claim to the Desert Queen Mine, and after he signed, they shot and killed him.

Lang was willing to take the risk of running afoul of the McHaneys for the chance at riches. He and his father bought the rights to Frank’s mine for $1000 and called it Lost Horse. To protect the claim, and protect himself from being outright killed by the McHaney Gang, Lang took on three partners. After filing their claim, they set up a two-stamp mill and began to process gold – lots of it.

A stamp mill consists of a set of heavy steel stamps, loosely held vertically in a frame, in which they can slide up and down. Miners would bring up ore from the mine, and then the stamps would be lifted and dropped onto it, crushing the rock to reveal mineral inside. Mills were categorized by how many stamps they had. Lang’s two-stamp mill had a pair.

The claim was profitable, but Lang and his partners needed a larger financed operation to fully extract the abundance of riches, so they sold their claim to a wealthy rancher from Montana, J.D. Ryan. Ryan found a steam-powered, ten-stamp mill near the Colorado River and had it dismantled and hauled to the mine site. To provide the required steam for the mill, he ran a two-inch pipeline 3.5 miles from the wells at his ranch to an earth and stone reservoir near the mill. Steam engines fueled by trees from nearby mountains were used to push the water up the 750-foot elevation gain where it was then boiled to power the stamp mill. Heating the water at both the ranch and the mill required a lot of wood, and the results of the timbering can still be seen today in the sparsely vegetated hillsides at both sites.

The booming of the ten 850-pound stamps could be heard echoing across the valley 24 hours a day as the ore was crushed. Water added to the crushed rock made a slurry, which washed over copper plates covered with a thin film of mercury. The gold particles clung to the mercury and the debris washed away.

The amalgam of mercury and gold was smelted to separate the two metals. The mercury could be reused and the gold was formed into bricks. These bricks were carried to Banning every week, concealed in a 16-horse freight wagon. The 130-mile trip to deliver the gold and return with supplies took five days.

Johnny Lang stayed with the mine, working for Ryan to supervise the night shift at the mine. The day shift was regularly producing an amalgam the size of a baseball while Lang’s night shift was producing something closer to the size of a golf ball. It took a private detective to determine that when Johnny removed the amalgam from the copper plates, he kept half for himself. Ryan gave Lang a choice: sell out or go to jail. Lang sold, then moved into a nearby canyon where he continued to prospect.

The Lost Horse Mine continued producing until 1905, when the miners hit a fault line, crumbling the rock and forever losing the ore-bearing vein. The mine was leased to others who continued to look for gold over periods of time, but often laid dormant until 1931. During the great depression, gold prices were skyrocketing, so miners went back to Lost Horse to try and recover more gold from unprocessed chunks of material laying around the site with a new process that involved cyanide. They were able to produce a few hundred more ounces of gold.

During one of the mine’s periods of abandonment, Lang returned and set up residence in the cookhouse. Much of the gold he had stolen was still hidden at the mill site, and he had returned to retrieve his stash. He was able to recover some of it and sell it off, but in the winter of 1925, he caught ill. Unable to walk out for help, Lang died of exposure along Keys View Road. His body wasn’t discovered for another two months.

The Lost Horse Mine delivered more than 10,000 ounces of gold and 16,000 ounces of silver — worth approximately $5 million today — between 1894 and 1931.

With the creation of Joshua Tree National Monument just a few years later in 1936, Lost Horse Mine came under the protection of the National Park Service. Over time, the wooden portions of the cabins and the headframe of the mill, which supported the massive stamps, collapsed.

In the later 20th century, the 500-foot mine shaft, with horizontal tunnels at each 100-foot level, began to collapse. The combination of unstable mine workings and earthquakes created a sink hole near the mill that eventually threatened the entire structure. Even the cable netting and concrete caps that were installed to protect visitors were consumed by the ever-expanding hole.

In 1996 a new technique for capping mineshafts was tried. An expanding polyurethane foam was injected into the hole to provide a stabilizing plug. The plug was then covered with fill material to protect it from UV damage.

Even with the toll that time has taken upon the mine, Lost Horse is still considered one of the best-preserved mills of its kind.

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Two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, come together in Joshua Tree National Park. A fascinating variety of plants and animals make their homes in a land sculpted by strong winds and occasional torrents of rain. Dark night skies, a rich cultural history, and surreal geologic features add to the wonder of this vast wilderness in southern California.

There are few facilities within the Joshua Tree’s approximately 800,000 acres, making Joshua Tree a true desert wilderness. About 2.8 million visitors come to the park each year to enjoy hiking, camping, photography, rock climbing, and soaking in the serene desert scenery.

The busy season runs from October through May, as the summer is incredibly hot. Campgrounds usually fill on weekends through most of the busy season, and in the spring, they’re full all week long. During the quieter summer months, all campsites are first-come, first-served.

There is no water available in the park. Bring at least one gallon per person, per day, especially if you will be hiking or climbing. There’s also little to no shade in most places. Protect your skin from the elements and your body from dehydration. Sunglasses, long-sleeved shirts and pants, and a wide-brimmed hat are a must in the desert.

The Lost Horse Mine is a popular hiking destination. The trailhead is located off Keys View Road, and the trail, which is a four-mile round-trip, follows the road developed by the miners to haul ore and supplies. Mine shafts are dangerous, and historic structures are easily damaged. While the Lost Horse site has been stabilized, it is still not safe to walk on.

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

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