Monday, August 15, 2016

Visiting Trona

Article and photography by Natasha Petrosova 

After visiting Ballarat, we drove 30 miles to Trona.  Trona is a mysterious place located at the northwest corner of San Bernardino County in Searles Valley.  Trona is home to the Trona Pinnacles National Monument, Searles Valley Minerals and The Gem-O-Rama Mineral Show. You know that you are approaching Trona when you feel this disgusting rotten egg smell.  Don't worry, thought, it's just a smell of chemical plants and from what i was able to tell the smell  does not stick to your clothing.    When you first visit Trona you may likely feel depressed, disgust and overwhelmed by feelings of pity.  Trona is in a middle of nowhere , left in economic woes.  Trona is not a ghost town but almost every second building here is abandoned.  Some seem to be just burnt down by a fire.   Despite that Trona has a very rich and interesting history.   I am personally impressed that this town continues to survive, and that the people who live here have a true sense of community that is missing from much of modern day America. Trona is a town where people would want to know where you are going , so they know where to start looking in a case  you would not make it back. 

  Town of Trona was established in 1913. The town is named  after a mineral trona abundant at the lake.  Trona  stands near Searles dried up lake.  The mining in Searles lake begun in 1874.  John W. Searles and his brother Dennis first discovered dried up lake in 1862 while they were searching for gold in the Panamint Mountains.  John did not think much of his find but he took a sample of crystal encrusted crust and stuck it in his ore sack.  Many years went by when  John met Francis Boarx Smith and learned that Smith was recovering borax from almost identical crystal as the one he found at Searles Lake nearly 10 years ago.    John Searles hurried back to the dry lake  and staked claims to 640 acres and formed San Bernandino Borax Mining Company.  In his first year of operation, the company produced 1 million pounds of borax.    

John Searles ended up selling his San Bernardino Borax Mining Company in 1895 to Francis Borax Smith and his Pacific Coast Borax Company. Smith was working diligently to corner the borax market and ended up shutting down the plant after making the purchase.  

In early 1990s many of promoters and miners were trying to recover soda ash from the dry lake's surface.  But no one seemed to be able to succeed  , everyone failed.  The California Trona Company gave this its best shot.  They borrowed $2million  to build two plants to recover soda ash, potash, borax and sodium sulfate.  Unfortunately, they went under before they even were able to complete the facilities because of their debt.  

The failed California Trona Company was received by S.W. Austin.  Austin began building roads onto the lake and  was future exploring the possibilities.  He discovered that majority of lake's minerals actually were beneath the surface.  Austin's first discovery was of the mineral-rich layer of salt found 100 feet beneath the surface.  Prior to this discovery all the miners only focused on the crystals from the surface.  

The American Trona Company acquired California Trona Company in 1913.  The American trona Company had funnds, they build previously abandoned Trona railway, completed work on unfinished processing plants and established the company town of Trona.   American Trona Company did what nobody else before them was  able to do.  They begun production of potash.  They produced 250 tons of potash in the year of 1915.  

Being a town company meant that American Trona owned all the business and housing in town.  the company supplied housing to its employees and paid in script rather than US Currency.  The script could be used around the town at other company-owned business such as fo profit script accepting grocery store.  American Trona company also provided public library, a school for children and other recreational facilities.  

Trona begun to flourish during World War I.  Searles Lake was America's only source of potash at the time.  Potash is an important element in the creation of gunpowder.  Potash production at Searles Lake grew to 36,000 tons in 1916.  After the war, efforts the price of potash plunged , causing American Trona to improve is a recovery process.  

"With the roaring 1920s and 1930s came the buy out of the American Trona Company by American Potash & Chemical Corporation, and the return of Borax Smith with his newly formed West End Chemical Company. In 1956 West End would merge with Stauffer Chemical Company, and Kerr-McGee would purchase American Potash & Chemical Corporation in 1967. Seven years later, Kerr-McGee would become the only game in town with the purchase of Stauffer’s Westend facility. Kerr-McGee would operate the plants until 1990".

Since 1990 the plants would change several ownership.  That year the operations were purchsed from capital investor D. Gearoge Harris and Associates wich formed the north American Chemical Company. "Ownership changed yet again in 1998 when IMG Global Incorporation acquired North American Chemical Company".     

In 2004 Sun Capital parteners purchased IMG Global Incorporation and renamed it Searles Valley Company.  But they did not own it for long.

Today Searless Valley Company belongs to India as of November 2007.  Nirma based in Ahmedabad, India purchased the company from Sun Capital Partners.   

Nirma leads major operations in Searless Valey and Trona, California.  It is a town's largest employer, employing well over 800 individuals from Trona and the nearby community of Ridgecrest. They currently extract and ship 1.75 million tons of chemicals per year.  As it operates on goverment owned land Searless Valley Minerals INC. pays royalties of millions of dollars each year to both federal and    state governments. Much of those royalties cover the expences of local school districts.  Trona school system has about 760 students and receives 2.5 million in royalties each year.  As a result of that, Trona's public school teachers are paid more than in any other public school teacher in a state of California,  

One of the things that folks around here will tell you is that more wealth has been taken from Searles Lake than from all the gold mined in California since the Gold Rush of 1849. Buried beneath the lake’s crust are 98 of the 104 known chemical elements, valued by Kerr-McGee at $150 billion.

The sodium sulfate, borax, soda ash and other products made here find their way into the detergent in your cupboard, the insulation in your attic, the car in your driveway.

The chemicals of Trona also are used in the manufacture of fertilizer, baking soda, newsprint, brown paper, enamel, pottery glaze, cotton, rayon, leather, vacuum bottle liners, gypsum wallboard, laboratory and cooking glass, paper towels, tissues, tableware, sugar, beverage  bottles, starch, charcoal briquettes, and grocery carts.

There is a little bit of Trona in every American household.  

Trona is known for its strenuous weather conditions.  Summer brings 118 degrees and winter brings dust storms.  spring brings the year's rainfall - three inches, just enough for rattlesnakes, scorpions and tarantulas to stay alive and breed for another year.  Searles valley historical museum in Trona displays a road sign to promote a local sign company that reads"End of the World, 10 miles: Trona, 15 miles" . Trona has the only dirt American football field in the United States.  It also has a dirt golf course.  The only green you see is  on the hills with a green painted sand.  Grass does not grow in Trona due to regions heat and salty soil.  

Many buildings are abandoned , mostly left due to delinquent  taxes.  The county does not want to take over or be responsible for them.  So those abandoned houses literally have no owner, they just left there to collapse on their own.  those collapsing buildings with broken windows give Trona an impression of becoming a ghost town.    

On a common question, why would people continue  to live in Trona the locals will tell you " We like it here".  Located near the Death Valley , many locals hope to turn Trona into travel spot.  However , it is unlikely that developers will ever come here due to restricted water rights.  Trona's small population is unlikely to attract retail investment.  However, the city of Trona is full high hopes and  expectations.  Locals will tell you that Trona's hey - days are yet to come. "We can see this place becoming a tourist town.  We’re the gateway to one of the most incredible things in the world, we’ve got people driving through this place all the time."We can not only rely on a plant, We can think bigger and we can do better "  .   One may say that the  city of Trona is a city of hope   


"Searles Valley Timeline". Searles Valley Historical Society.
Justis, Ruth (May 31, 2007). "Royalty cut a mixed bag for Trona". The Daily Independent.
Justis, Ruth (November 28, 2007). "New owners for Trona plant". The Daily Independent.

To Trona, Calif., residents, that awful smell spells $$$ :

The first abandoned house in Trona that we entered 

abandoned house interior: living room with a fire place  was a nice touch



 this house seems just burnt down 

inside a purple house 

 Another abandoned house that seems to just burnt in fire 

 yellow house interior 

Searles Valley Minerals

Abandoned houses 


this building was for lease or sale for a few years now.  Any takers?  

 Abandoned Bar

Abandoned bar , interior 

More abandoned trona houses 

 abandoned brick house, not sure what it was but it does not have a wall in a back 

Trona's abandoned gas station 

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