PRESERVING HISTORY IN A CLASSIC LANDSCAPE
Two Possible Futures for the Old Dutch Cleaner Mine
by Mark R. Faull
One of the most endearing aspects of our California deserts is our ability to witness firsthand the raw and brute force of powerful geology at our fingertips. Elsewhere in the state, increased moisture adds layers of life that conceal that raw earth beneath our feet. Unveiled in the deserts is the majesty of rock sculpted over the eons by the interplay of tectonic forces and the limited, but consistent, etching of water (sometimes accompanied by wind).
Red Rock Canyon represents one of the most spectacular and dramatic examples of that interplay. It is a unique theater where the drama of desert adapted lifeforms, many of which are locally endemic, gives way to inspiring and expansive geologic vistas. From massive rock monuments and parapets, towering several hundred feet overhead, down to the very intricate, we marvel in awe at the forces which shape our planet.
This exposure of readily accessible raw earth also avails another opportunity – easier access to minerals. And thus, it is not surprising that many of our most prized desert landscapes have in tandem a rich mining history. Such a circumstance is abundantly true at Red Rock Canyon State Park.
Most of the Red Rock mine sites have long ceased production and now lie protected within the park, as one more layer of the cultural heritage associated with this landscape. Nevertheless, there do remain a few private inholdings left over from past endeavors where ever-hopeful owners envision riches to come.
The largest modern inholding includes the remains of the Old Dutch Cleanser mine, where room and pillar underground mining from 1923 to 1947 excavated 120,000 tons of pumicite (under the tradename of “seismotite”). This fine volcanic ash was used as the abrasive element within the extraordinarily popular and successful scouring powder Old Dutch Cleanser. Since 1947 when the popularity of Old Dutch Cleanser faded, these mines have sat nearly idle. But these juxtaposed societal uses, heritage preservation and mining, remain on a collision course today.
Chalk white volcanic ash (pumicite) interior of the Old Dutch Cleanser mine workings - room and pillar mining.
Photo by Mark Faull
What is historically intriguing is that both the effort to preserve Red Rock Canyon and the creation of the Old Dutch Cleanser Mine occurred in close chronologic proximity. This makes the story of the preserving the amazing heritage contained in Red Rock and Last Chance Canyon and the extraction of the minerals for Old Dutch Cleanser a parallel journey.
The movement to preserve Red Rock Canyon as a State or National Park began in earnest in 1919, predating the Old Dutch Cleanser Mine by nearly four years. That movement was spearheaded by a former City Editor for the Los Angeles Times, John Von Blon, who built a coalition of citizens interested Red Rock Canyon. . Using his skills as an author, Von Blon published several pivotal articles about Red Rock Canyon: a multi-page article in his former newspaper (October 12, 1919), an article in the October 4, 1919 issue of Scientific American, and a third in the December 1919 issue of the very popular The Wide World magazine.
In all three, Von Blon praised the attributes of the canyon, called for its formal sequester as a park, and cultivated people’s curiosity when he initiated many fanciful place names for of the canyon’s sculpted architecture. Most of those names survive today. Von Blon liberally used photographs that later became early staples of the Red Rock postcard trade.
Only one year after Von Blon’s efforts, another writer joined in singing the praises of Red Rock Canyon. In 1917, Ruth Thompson became the first schoolteacher hired at Red Rock Elementary School in Cantil immediately south of the proposed park. While living there, she was captured by the beauty of the local desert landscape as well as its inhabitants, and in 1920 she published “Comrades of the Desert,” a novel meant to inspire adolescents. The book’s popularity was instantaneous, and in it she introduced young readers nationwide to Red Rock Canyon and the early 20th Century’s rugged life on the ranches near Koehn Dry Lake. Considered by scholars to be an American classic, the novel boasted early photographs of the canyon with chapter five devoted to the awe and reverence that the four young lead characters felt upon entering Red Rock’s rugged ramparts.
These back-to-back publications unveiled the mysteries and beauty of Red Rock Canyon to early 20th Century America. Whereas Ruth Thompson’s prose introduced Red Rock Canyon to readers far and wide who never witnessed the canyon firsthand, Von Blon’s promotion and articles started a movement of people visiting the canyon, touting its attributes and calling for its preservation. Fueled by the “ease” of early automobile travel, artists, adventurers, and even the motion picture industry began to flock to the canyon.
With a public desire to preserve Red Rock Canyon for posterity already under consideration, interest in Last Chance Canyon joined the cascade in 1924 with the discovery of a fascinating Petrified Forest. The local remains of fossilized trees had first been noted by miners in late 1893 and were well known to local, early 20th Century prospectors. Nevertheless, it took two brothers, Charles and Ben Brewer, to turn this Petrified Forest into a paid tourist attraction in 1924, complete with a guided tour. The new daredevil tourists, bouncing along the dusty desert dirt roads of the day, would utilize the new haulage road, created the year before to transport “seismotite” from the Old Dutch Cleanser mine, to access this stone forest which lay only a little over a quarter of a mile away from the mine.
Almost immediately, this stone forest added to the chorus calling for local preservation. By November of 1925, word had leaked that the forest would be preserved as a National Monument, but then the good news evaporated. One overly optimistic headline in the November 24, 1925, eddition of the Bakersfield Californian read “Kern’s Petrified Forest Declared National Park.”
With federal protection failing, scientists, artists, garden clubs, and adventurers turned their attention towards the embryonic California State Park System of the late 1920s and managed to insert both Red Rock Canyon and neighboring Last Chance Canyon into the first prioritized listing of terrains to be acquired for the public good. A document, prepared by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. for the State Park Commission and released in January of 1929, provided a formal recognition of the conflict between heritage preservation and societal consumption.
When the State first sought to purchase the property in 1930, the owner was Rudolf Hagen. Although willing to sell, his exaggerated belief in the canyon’s vast mineral wealth (placer gold) led him to demand a prohibitive sum of money. He died in 1937, but a deal could not be accomplished with his heirs until legislation appropriating funds passed the State Legislature in 1968. By 1947, work at the Old Dutch Cleanser Mine had ceased, and in 1948, it was sold to new owners, the Purex Corporation. Unfortunately the Petrified Forest was disappearing into private collections, and without protections, the stone forest would be gone. In fact, it wasn’t until late 1994, with the passage of the California Desert Protection Act, that a large majestic Red Rock Canyon State Park finally became a reality. In the wake of this fulfillment, the 240 acres of the Old Dutch Cleanser mine remained as a private inholding surrounded by the newly expanded park.
Although the Old Dutch Cleanser Mine ceased operation in 1947 and faded into an idle state, Matcon Corporation, the current owner of the mine site, would like to reverse that fate and return profitability to this acreage. To do so, Matcon is trying to use language from the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA) of 1976 that exempted preexisting mining ventures from many of the new mining regulations, granting these earlier ventures "vested rights.” While the original “intent” was obviously not to grant these rights 46 years later, other modern mining ventures have had recent success convincing County Planning Commissions to ignore their staff recommendations and grant such vested rights (see San Bernardino County in particular).
Cliff with the Dutch Cleanser Mine. The top would have to be removed for an open pit mine.
Photo by Mark Faull
Earlier this year, Matcon nearly convinced the Kern County Planning Commission to do just this. The Commission fortunately postponed their decision until their May 12th meeting in order to investigate possible legal jeopardy.
In recent years, Kern County has already reviewed Matcon’s case in detail and has stated that their mine meets the legal criteria to be considered both “idle” and “abandoned” and has even suggested that “restoration" of the mine should potentially commence. Thus, Matcon wants to accomplish an end run to avoid these determinations, while simultaneous removing certain environmental restrictions which would ease development or potential sale of the property.
The Old Dutch Cleanser Mine is situated atop a spectacularly beautiful 400-foot cliff in the Last Chance Canyon portion of Red Rock Canyon State Park. Whereas, the 24 year operation of the mines in the first half of the Twentieth Century involved subsurface mining that minimally impacted this vista, Matcon's application for modern mining involves open pit access which necessitates taking off the top of this beautiful cliff.
The Kern County Planning Commission will likely render a decision prior to this article’s arrival. Ultimately, the only REAL solution to this recurring dilemma is to convince California State Parks and the current Administration to purchase this mine inholding and preserve this magnificent landscape for all time. This could easily be envisioned as a part of the California 30x30 visioning process.
If we cannot achieve the funding necessary to eliminate this perpetually juxtaposed conflict during significant budget surpluses, when can we accomplish protection? Matcon is actually a willing seller to ANYONE, including State Parks. It is time we acted to resolve this issue once and for all.
The modern threat in the State Park.
Photo by Mark Faull
The vista from the Old Dutch Cleanser Mine is both breathtaking and spectacular. Photographs alone cannot do it justice. It must be experienced, just like the rest of this magical landscape. This duality of scenery and science versus products for society and profit deserves resolution for all parties involved.
Please consider contacting California State Parks directly, or perhaps indirectly through your legislative representative, to express your opinion on this valuable and long overdue acquisition. Let’s complete that 1920’s vision!
A native of northern California, Mark Faull moved to the eastern Kern County region in 1984. For 20 years Mark worked at Red Rock Canyon State Park before retiring from California State Parks in 2004. His passion for and understanding of the importance of park values to society continues, as well as his study of the fascinating local human history and its connection to the richness of the desert environment.