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Lee (Lees Camp), Echo-Lee District, Funeral Mts (Funeral Range), Amargosa Range, Inyo Co., California, USA

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A locale (former mining camp).

An integral part of every self-respecting mining boom, regardless of size, was the establishment and promotion of a town. The Lee District was no different from any other boom area in this respect, and was actually slower that most in starting a town. But eventually, a group of enterprising individuals decided to cash in on the boom spirit. Starting a town, however, was a little more difficult than it seems. On the surface, all one had to do was to locate and claim a parcel of land, within comfortable distance from the mines which he wanted to serve, and then just stake out lots for sale. But unless the townsite promoter could persuade people to buy his land, he would go broke, and since everyone was living on free land before he came, he needed a powerful incentive. That incentive was business. If the promoter could get the business houses, especially the saloons, boarding houses and restaurants, as well as the grocery and hardware stores, to locate in his town, then his townsite could offer the advantages which would overcome the cost of buying a lot. Thus the town promoters would normally enter into reciprocal agreements with merchants, and would offer them prize locations at cheap prices or even for free. The merchants, who were just as anxious to be the first into a new town, and who wanted locations near the center of the future town, were usually more than happy to enter into this kind of deal.

Such was the case of the Lee District. With the start of the Lee boom, in late 1905 and early 1906, miners and prospectors who came into the area merely pitched their tents wherever they wished, and set up housekeeping--provided, of course, that they were not or anyone's claim. It was not until November of 1905, when the Lee District was first beginning to experience a real boom, that rumors of a new townsite were heard, and sometime during the next month a town was laid out. In early January of 1907, the Lee Townsite & Mining Company was organized to promote this new town of Lee, named after the district and the Lee brothers who were instrumental in opening the district. The townsite was platted, and tents, building materials and supplies were sent in. The company announced that it would be ready to accept inhabitants by January 10th. The town was situated twenty-five miles from Rhyolite, and advertised that it would soon have a telephone connection, a corral and feed yard, a restaurant, rooming house, and, of course, a saloon. The new town was located in Nevada, just east of the California state line, and thus outside of the Death Valley National Monument boundary.

But more than one group of promoters had the same idea, and another townsite was soon started. Interstate rivalry played a part, for the second town, which was situated inside California, was named Lee, California, and was promoted by the Lee Hidden Treasure Mining Company, upon whose property the townsite was platted. As the Bullfrog Miner observed, "it is claimed that a camp is never fairly certain of a good future until it has a townsite fight," and such a fight was now on.

The timing and the location was right for Lee, California, and the town quickly began to grow. Rhyolite merchants established branch stores and other individuals opened up places of business, hoping to capitalize on the new mining boom. By February 8th, the town boasted of a restaurant, a rooming house and a saloon, as well as a general store, and plans for a feed lot, a lumber yard, a grocery, a liquor store, and a general merchandise store were in the works. Twenty-six people had purchased lots towards the middle of town, all under agreement that wooden buildings would have to be erected, and one eighteen by thirty foot frame building and seventeen temporary tent stores and houses were already in the town. The Kimball Brothers of Rhyolite established regular service to Lee, with thrice-weekly stages leaving Rhyolite every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning.

By mid-February, the papers reported that both Lee, Nevada and Lee, California were booming. About 150 people were in the two towns already, lumber was coming in by the wagon load, and tent buildings were given to frame structures. F. S. McArthur established a daily auto service between Rhyolite and the two Lee towns, in competition with the Kimball Brothers' stages, and the autos were scheduled to leave Rhyolite at B A.M. each day and Lee at 10 AM. for the return trip. Lee, California, was platted and plans were laid for the establishment of six business blocks, with the residential district surrounding them.

As February moved into March, and the Lee boom went into full swing, the two towns heightened their competition. Newspaper ads were placed, extolling the virtues of each townsite, and much behind the scenes bargaining took place between the two groups of townsite promoters and the merchants coming into the district. By March 1st, Lee, California seemed to be winning the tight, with an estimated population of 100 citizens, although the only real difference between the two towns, as the Death Valley Chuck-Walla pointed out, was that gambling was legal in Nevada and was not in California. Even that, however, made little difference, as no one seemed particularly concerned with controlling gambling in California. Indeed, neither town had any peace officers or county officials appointed as yet, so a certain freedom from restraint was definitely present.

On March 1st, in its special Lee-Echo edition, the Bullfrog Miner described the towns in some detail. Lee, California had forty tents and several frame houses at the time, and included businesses such as two restaurants, two rooming houses, three saloons and a bakery. Water cost $3 per barrel, already down from the $5 of the previous year, and would get cheaper as soon as some new wells were dug. The telephone line into town was expected to be completed within a week. On March 5th, the plat of Lee, California was approved by the Inyo County Board of Supervisors. The townsite was roughly in the shape of a squat triangle, with a width of five blocks at the base, and a height of five blocks. Provisions were made for the sale of 400 lots.

By the end of March, the Rhyolite Herald predicted that Lee, California would win the townsite battle, as it "seems to have the call." In reality, the mines around Lee, California were showing greater promise than those around Lee, Nevada, which was of primary importance. Between sixty and seventy tents and buildings were in the California town, and additional structures were going up as fast as carpenters could work A new lumber yard was established, and another saloon and a fresh meat market headed the list of new businesses. An ice house was added the next week, making the preservation of meats, produce and drinks much easier for all concerned, and an average of six buildings were started each week during the latter part of March and the first of April.

Then, on April 19th, the fatal blow to the hopes of Lee, Nevada, was struck, S. J. Hernstadt, who was a principal owner of the Hidden Treasure Mining Company as well as a chief promoter of Lee, California, struck pure water at a depth of 120 feet, 3-1/2 miles east of Lee. Since Hernstadt was so closely connected with Lee, California, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that none of his water would find its way to Lee, Nevada. Hernstadt immediately announced plans to lay a pipe line and build a pumping station to bring the water into Lee, California.

By mid-April, the town of Lee had grown magnificently. A post office had been established in the Colorado House, which was already Lee's leading saloon and gentlemen's club. In addition, the town had four restaurants, one meat market, four general stores, three feed yards, four office buildings, four saloons--including one which was built of corrugated iron and measured twenty by forty feet--one dry goods store, one assay office, two lodging houses, one ice house, a miners supply store, one barber shop, one surveying office, one brokerage office, two lumber yards, and a stage station. Not to be left out the Death Valley Miners Union was just beginning to erect a Union Hall, a traditional ingredient of any western mining town.

In addition to all these frame or iron buildings, the downtown business district was literally surrounded by a sea of white tents, the homes of miners and business men recently moved into the district. Lots were selling from $30 to $450 each, depending upon location, and the population was put at 300 men and twenty ladies. According to the Bullfrog Miner, these twenty ladies were "very much contented and happy with this new camp life. . . ." Dances were held "every time a new building is dedicated, which is quite often indeed." [54

But such prosperity was not to go unchallenged. On April 19th, "one of the largest townsite and mining property transactions yet consummated in the history of southern Nevada trading was made, when the L, P. McGarry Brokerage Company of Rhyolite, which we have already met as the operators of the Bullfrog West Extension Mining Company, secured control of the Hayseed Extension Mining Company, the North Bullfrog Lee Mining Company and the Gold Shield Mine. Since, as McGarry announced to the papers, the Lee, California townsite lay in a wash which was unsuitable for a real town, McGarry planned to start a new one, called Lee Addition, upon his new land. The new town was described as being "one of the prettiest" sites in that portion of the country. "The people of the old town," McGarry boldly told the papers, "are moving just as rapidly as they can to get locations, and the new town of Lee [Addition] is a lively rival" to both Lee, California and Lee, Nevada.

Within a week, McGarry's Lee Addition was taking shape, with fifteen to twenty tent sites upon the ground, and a boarding house. But the promotors of Lee, California were not worried, and asked "the Herald to state that the town is just where it always has been, and always will be; in other words, that Lee, Cal., is doing business at the same old stand." Despite its new rival, Lee, California had the upper hand, and continued to grow. The new well did a "land office business," with men lining up to draw water, and the flow was sufficient to satisfy their demands. Preparations were made to put in the pipe line from the well into town, and to build the pumping station. Late in April, realizing that his town was now big enough to require some sort of governmental authority, S. J. Hernstadt submitted a petition with eighty signatures to the Inyo County Board of Supervisors, asking that a Justice of the Peace be appointed for Lee.

During May of 1907, with the Echo-Lee boom in its fullest bloom, Lee continued to grow. The Death Valley Miners Union reported a membership of seventy miners, and stepped up construction of its union hall. The telephone exchange was finally completed, which linked Lee to the outside world, and J. P. Nelson announced plans to build a $5,000 hotel. By this time, the Bullfrog Miner reported that Lee, Nevada had "all but given up and moved to California," but the Lee Addition remained as a rival to Lee, California. The two townsites, however, were so close together that the Miner predicted that instead of slugging it out, they would eventually grow together and become one town. A new general store was built, J. E. Saunderson announced plans to open a bank in the fall, the Pacific Express Company moved into town, another saloon opened, and C. E. Kincaid was appointed as Justice of the Peace and deputy tax collector for Lee and its environs.

As May progressed, the rivalry between Lee and Lee Addition continued to keep pace with the district's boom. The plat of Lee Addition was approved by the Inyo County Board of Supervisors on May 6th. McGarry was even more optimistic concerning his town than the promoters of Lee, California had been, as his plat shows a townsite eight blocks long and five blocks wide, with over 800 lots staked out for sale. One week later the two townsites came to an agreement whereby the water from Hernstadt's well would be shared between the two towns, since there was sufficient for both. On May 17th, the Miners Union at Lee gave an informal dance as a house warming for their "magnificent Hall," a frame structure measuring twenty-eight by sixty feet. The hall was big enough for six sets to dance at one time.

As summer began, and the boom at Lee showed no signs of abating, the Kimball Brothers increased their stage service into town to a daily schedule, and reported that their stages were "loaded down each trip." The stage left Rhyolite at 7:30 each morning and returned about 6 P.M. Recognizing the need for law and order, the Inyo County Board of Supervisors let out bids in late June for the erection of a jail at Lee. Late in that month, the Lee, California citizens also organized themselves for government by the establishment of a Board of Trade. A charter membership was appointed to look after the general welfare of the camp. Like those at Rhyolite and many other mining camps in the west, such a board of trade exceeded its legal authority in assuming the right to govern a town, but no one seemed to complain, given the need for some sort of civic direction.

In late July a two-story, ten room wooden hotel building was completed at Lee, and Hernstadt's well was cased up and the pump put in. The Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad, which was then building into Rhyolite, sent a representative to assess the freight potential of the district, and announced that it would run a spur track into town in the near future, "if conditions justify it." The Rhyolite Herald in conjunction with S. J. Hernstadt, announced that arrangements were almost completed for a paper to be started at Lee, which would be published at the Rhyolite office until a printing plant could be brought into town. Just to complete the requirements of the town, Dr. D. C. Parnsworth moved in towards the end of July, giving the miners and their families the promise of medical attention. As a final note depicting the prosperity of a booming mining camp, on August 17th, the Lee Board of Trade passed a resolution restricting the redlight district to two blocks and warned that the restriction would be rigidly enforced. Lee had arrived.

As the fall of 1907 began, the town of Lee, California had reached its height, although its inhabitants did not yet know it. Indeed, signs seemed most promising, especially when the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad came into the vicinity and established a station, known as Leeland, along its main line into Rhyolite. With the tracks now a reality, General Manager John Ryan of the railroad visited Lee to assess the freight situation and left, saying that "little doubt is entertained but that the branch will be built into Lee. A week later, the Ash Meadows Water Company, a corporation formed to pipe water into the booming districts of Lee and Greenwater, finished the survey of its pipeline into Lee. Water would be brought to Lee, the company announced, before the line was built into Greenwater.

In early October, Lee even had its own newspaper, as the Lee Herald a branch publication of the Rhyolite Herald issued its first paper. Although it was only a six-page folio newspaper that was printed at Rhyolite and shipped to Lee, that was enough to establish the prestige of any mining camp. On October 15th, Leeland Station on the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad opened for service. With the railroad now only six miles from camp, freight and transportation costs between Lee and the outside world were cut considerably. But the rail service had a drawback. With the new railroad, stage demand for the Lee-Rhyolite line dropped drastically, and the Kimball Brothers cut back on their operations. Since the Kimball stages had brought the mail into Lee as an optional service, Lee was suddenly left with no regular mail delivery, and it began to pile up in Rhyolite.

By late October and early November, the effects of the Panic of 1907 began to be felt in Lee. As mines began to shut down and miners left to find work elsewhere, the town slowly began to lose its population. Even though Lee was estimated to have 500 citizens in early November of 1907, the decline had started. Nevertheless, the town carried on. A daily stage service between Leeland and Lee was established, with the six miles being covered in one hour In late December a new mail contract was let, and the Leeland stage also began to bring in Lees mail, which made the inhabitants seem much less isolated.

And there were still a few people migrating into Lee, helping to ease the flow of migrants moving out. One such was the town's second doctor, who was described by the Rhyolite Herald "Mrs. Dr. Sellier," as she was called, was lately of Rhyolite, and opened an office in Lee on December 27th. "Dr. Sellier uses electricity in the practice of her profession, and is said to be very successful. She is also a phrenologist, palmist and telphthist [sic], and is endowed with physic and magnetic power to a wonderful degree, and being a thoroughly posted mining expert is able to give advice in matters connected with this industry." Medical help was not always the best in a mining camp. [56]

Storekeepers and other merchants, who depended upon a stead flow of cash to stay solvent, usually left a dying camp sooner than did the miners and prospectors who were willing to live on bacon and beans while digging for gold. Lee was no exception to this rule, During the first half of 1908 most of the town's business establishment sold out, packed up, and departed for other booming camps, to try again. Although there were still eleven mining companies active to some degree in the Echo-Lee District in June of 1908, the town had dwindled to only three stores, a saloon and a restaurant. The camp was described in an understatement as being quiet, although those who were left were expecting "better days when the universal hard times are over."

Many of those stores which had survived closed for the summer season, as the heat caused most of the mining companies to shut down work for several months. The Lee Hotel, for example, was closed sometime in the spring of 1908 and did rot reopen until early December, when its proprietor returned from San Francisco. One of the lumber yards also reopened in early December, as a winter work in the mines called for a limited supply of timbering material. Although the town had dwindled drastically, its post office was still functioning at the end of 1908.

Very little is heard from the town of Lee for the next few years. Mining camp newspapers, such as those at Rhyolite, were much more eager to cover the growth of a new mining town than the death of an old one. It was bad business to give publicity to a mining district which was dying, and the Rhyolite papers soon began to ignore Lee, hoping that its troubles would go away. Thus mentions of the town are few and far between during 1909 and 1910, and it is much more difficult to keep track of the rate of decline. We do know that Lee had at least one store left in October of 1910, as it was used as a polling place in Inyo County's general election that fall.

The next mention of the town is in January of 1911, when a short article describing Lee's social life was printed in the Rhyolite Herald During that month, Mrs. D. C. Brown had given a card party at her home, with eleven guests, and W. H. Lillard, proprietor of Lee's last store, held a party complete with dancing, music and light refreshment. In June of 1911, Lee was again in the newspapers, but this time for less fortunate reasons. The Lee Hidden Treasure Mining Company, the owner of the Lee townsite, was listed in the Inyo County papers on the delinquent tax list. The Hidden Treasure Company, like many others, had patented the land upon which its mine and Lee townsite lay, and was now no longer able to pay its taxes.

Lillard's store was again listed as a polling place or the Inyo County election in the fall of 1911. Lillard, who was one of the last to give up on Lee, told the Rhyolite Herald in January of 1912 that the camp had "never looked better than at present." But it was just wishful thinking, for by this time even the post office had left town, and had been reestablished at Leeland station. Lillard's wishful quote in January of 1912 was the last mention we have of Lee, California. Sometime shortly after that, even an optimist like Lillard found it necessary to pack up and leave a busted desert mining town. Within a few years, all the lumber, metal and other useful materials that could be salvaged from an abandoned town had been hauled away, and the former bustling camp reverted to its original quiet and forlorn state.
Latschar, 1981

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Latschar, John A. (1981), U.S. National Park Service, Historic Preservation Branch, Pacific Northwest/Western Team, Denver Service Center, Death Valley – Historic Resource Study – A History of Mining, Volume II (Parts 1 and 2): IV.B.6.b).

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