Beauty of desert oasis sparked curiosity


You have to tip your cap to Thomas W. Brooks. He was a man who took his beauty where he found it.

Back in 1886, he found beauty in Nevada.

That’s not so strange, you say. The Silver State has no shortage of stunning scenery. The so-called “Big Empty” in reality is filled with rugged beauty and postcard moments.

But that’s part of what makes Brooks’ observations worth remembering. He didn’t write a paean to the alpine wonders of Lake Tahoe. He didn’t marvel at the majestic Ruby Mountains. He didn’t stand on the banks of the raging Colorado River and consider saving a little for future generations.

Nothing so tame. Starting out by horse-drawn buckboard from Pomona, California, the U.S. Army colonel wandered through Death Valley until he came upon a place known as Oasis Valley. Now there’s a title that’s bound to capture the imagination of weary wanderers and adventure-seekers of every stripe.

Once encamped at a ranch owned by William Stockton, Brooks marveled at the beauty so close to the parched realities of nearby Death Valley.

Brooks later recounted in a series of newspaper stories, “It is properly called Oasis (a fertile spot surrounded by barren waste or desert); innumerable springs of cold and hot water; a rich soil that will produce in large quantities any of the varieties of field or garden produce; and a never-failing meadow, densely covered with a good quality of grass.”

Sounds almost too good to be true so close to one of the most inhospitable places in the world.

Brooks continued, “Of minor matters I may mention that on Mr. Stockton’s ranch there are twelve large springs of fine water, which appear in a half circular shape in a cove to the east of the ranch and just at the foot of an abrupt, craggy mountain hanging over the twelve springs and at such elevation as to command a view of many miles of the valley. The immense projecting parts of the mountain and their peculiar shape so excited my curiosity that I climbed the mountain to make an examination. Unacquainted with an easy and proper way to the cliffs, the route selected was difficult and hard, but I succeeded, and to my astonishment found them to be dens — the homes — of many Indians, and that they had been frequented, possibly, for many thousands of years.”

Brooks’ discovery surely astounded readers. In rereading them many years later, most recently in the work of historian Robert McCracken, the writer’s memories crackle in the travelogue. The stories no doubt also bolstered the curiosity of prospectors and other treasure hunters.

Historian Lydia Cornett of Princeton University wrote in 2015, “For a personal memoir, Brooks goes into great detail about why Death Valley was physically and geographically able to support and sustain a mining town. He writes that throughout much of the nineteenth century, western explorers avoided Death Valley because of the few known routes through the valley, the extreme heat, and the lack of nearby water sources. However, during Brooks’ time, Death Valley promised ‘to be one of the principal sources of wealth in the country … a more thoroughly mineralized county of ore exposed or more accessible I have never seen.’” Just where was this oasis in the desert that filled Brooks’ thoughts and sparked the imaginations of future generation of miners and speculators?

These days, you’ll find Brooks’ dreamscape in close proximity to Beatty. It’s 117 miles north on U.S. Highway 95, and is better known as a gateway to Death Valley and to the moribund Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project.

But to Thomas Brooks, who would have made a great chamber of commerce president, it was a paradise found.

Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Contact him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.