By Kathleen McKevitt – Special to the Pahrump Valley Times
Typically, area residents know something about the town of Shoshone, only 30 miles from Pahrump. It is a gateway to Death Valley National Park and was a thriving miners’ center during the late 1880s and early 1900s.
It is, according to Bridgett May at the Shoshone Museum, “A place that people find so fascinating they return to the bookstore, the town and Death Valley again and again finding something amazing and new to them every time.” Americans frequent it mostly in the winter months, and Europeans and Asians in the summer, according to May.
One of the places tourists and locals find of interest in Shoshone are the Dublin Gulch ash caves in the Shoshone area, which were carved out by miners looking for boron and talc starting in the early 1870s.
Whether or not they hit the source they were hoping for, some used the caves they dug for exploration as dwellings that provided shelter from the heat, as well as from the wind land cold. The caves, on the California Highway 178 at Shoshone, are shallow compared to the Dublin Gulch caves.
The primary site that tourists come to see is the Dublin Gulch caves (once community) just behind and up the hill from the Shoshone Post Office. There, for decades, they were the living quarters for the sturdy and the brave, carved into the sides of mounds. Some dwellings were multi-level and in their prime they had hardwood floors, fireplaces, cook stoves, refrigeration, windows and doors, landscaping and even a garage.
Nearby is also a “two-seater” outhouse. Some were even landscaped on the outside and at one time had foliage and gardens according to local sources.
Ventilation pipes were placed to allow steam and smoke out, and clean air in. Miners came on burro, horse and wagon and even on foot during gold rush days, and after the rush as well looking for elements that could be milled for various products.
The stories are often richer than many realities of those days but some of the ones that still intrigue and fascinate and bring tourists from all parts of the world to visit center around Shoshone.
According to Susan Sorrells, local historian and owner of the caves property as well as the village of Shoshone, it is only oral history that links her great-grandmother as a good friend of Diamond Lil’s (named for the diamond she had fitted on a front tooth).
Diamond Lil ran a brothel and was a friend of women in the area despite the dictates of their religion or peer pressure that would typically cause them not to be seen with the likes of Lil. Still, her prominence and her personal warmth made her both a close friend and ally on many occasions.
Sorrells is a steward, with her husband, Robert Haines, of the lands and the town. She and her husband are presently working on, “rescuing the Dublin Gulch caves from vandalism, and putting in a walking/interpretation trail through the dwelling area,” said Sorrells.
It is the family’s hope adding this historical interpretive walk will help to protect what is a national historical treasure.
Most of the Dublin Gulch caves now have locked wooden doors, but have screened openings so people can still see inside.
Sorrells said, “We left all the rusted cans where they lay so people could get a distinct understanding of how people lived.” Hundreds of rusted cans of all sizes and shapes litter the front of the main dwelling where it appears the occupants simply tossed trash out the front door.
There are also larger remains of prior occupants, including box springs (bare of fabric); backs, fronts and sides of stoves, refrigerators, and cabinets; shards of bowls and dishes, and remnants of wooden chairs and tables.
No official record remains of the people who lived in the Dublin Gulch caves but known names are Dobie Charlie Nels (prospector and miner), Jack Norman, “Squaw Tom;” Joe Volmer, a miner who fought in WWI in Bismarck’s army and played the Victrola. Jack Crowly was the one who carved a garage for a truck when he finally had the cash to buy one; Jack Norman “Deafie Jack;”
Henry Ashford, Harold or Louis Ashford (brother of Henry), “Papa Jim” or James F. Dallas and Johnny Sheridan were all miners who lived in the caves.
Joseph W. Allison, James F. Belfield, “Whitey” Staley, “Shorty” O’Bannon and Oscar Haskins are on the list. These men also had wives and children in the caves during the early and mid-1900s, according to oral history.
What would the cave dwellers say, or what did they talk about when they conversed with each other sitting outside their caves on a summer evening? Local speculation has it mining was probably a major topic for daily conversation. Where to get necessities and how, was primary. And, according to existing writings about the cave dwellers, they talked about whose cave was better and, like most of us in the Death Valley area, talked about the weather.
One thing discussed that is known with some certainty was when one dweller or household would leave, neighbor dwellers would move from their own cave to the one just vacated. Was it really better, or just different? More upscale? Better neighborhood? (Was it “cave envy?”)
Sorrell’s family goes back four generations in the Shoshone area and town. The life and times of pioneer mining men and women and their families is well documented at the Shoshone Museum in books, maps and various documents for sale. The present population, according to the 2010 census, is 101, but that varies on any given day.
Sorrells sees the area becoming even more of a prized historical site where people can come to learn, stay, and explore the town, Death Valley National Park, the Tecopa Hot Springs area and certainly the ash cave dwellings. Here, for decades of mining history, a rowdy crowd of intrepid early citizens carved out a home, mined, explored and lived as well, it is said, as anyone with any kind of home in those times.
While it remains a popular notion, convicted felon Charles Manson of the 1969 actress Sharon Tate killings by the Manson family, Charles Manson and his “family” never lived in these, or any of the Shoshone caves.
Manson did live at the now burned-out Barker Ranch, where he and the family were arrested in October 1969. Park Service authorities made the arrest based on illegal occupation of a national park site and only found later that they had apprehended the famed Charles Manson and the Manson family. Many years later all structures at the Baker ranch burned to the ground due, it is believed, to heat lightening.
For more information, call the Shoshone Museum at 760-852-4514. The museum is open from 9 a.m to 4 p.m. daily.