Eichbaum Toll Road Historic Context Report

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Picture of the Eichbaum Toll Road
Sign at the Western Entrance to the Eichbaum Toll Road, 1927, Photo No. MEN-71b, Courtesy of County of Inyo, Eastern California Museum

Eichbaum Toll Road Historic Context Report

What is the Eichbaum Toll Road

The Eichbaum Toll Road ran approximately 35.5 miles from Darwin Wash, east of the town of Darwin, over the Argus Range via Darwin Canyon, across the Panamint Valley, over the Panamint Range via Towne Pass and into Death Valley ending at the Stovepipe Wells Resort. Several sections of the Eichbaum Toll Road were incorporated into, paved, widening, and improved to be the current State Route 190, while other sections and segments of the original toll road were bypassed by the state highway and have fallen into disuse or, such as the section in Darwin Canyon are current four-wheel drive roads, or bypassed and abandoned segments near Towne Pass.

History of the Toll Road

Picture of Toll Road from the west entrance.

H.W. Eichbaum built the Eichbaum Toll Road in 1925-26 from just outside the town of Darwin, California, to Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley, within the current boundaries of the Death Valley National Park. Up until this time, commercial and settlement activity in this remote and sparsely populated desert area had principally revolved around mining. In the midst of the auto-tourism trend of the 1920s, Eichbaum built his toll road primarily for use by motorists to visit his Stovepipe Wells Resort, constructed at the same time.

Herman William Eichbaum

Herman William (H.W.) Eichbaum moved to California in 1905 from the eastern US upon earning an engineering degree from Blacksburg College in West Virginia. Eichbaum’s training and desire for adventure led him west to the mining boom then occurring in the Death Valley region. Eichbaum eventually settled in Rhyolite, Nevada, northeast of Death Valley, where he engaged in mining activity in the Rhyolite/Goldfield region. He is also credited with designing and building the first electricity plant in Rhyolite in 1906, providing power for the mining operations and the town. During this time, Rhyolite was at the peak of its boom and had a population of about 5,000 people. Eichbaum remained in the Rhyolite region until 1911, by which time the mines had played out.

Following Eichbaum’s experience in the desert mining industry, he moved to western Los Angeles County where he met and married Helene Neeper on October 31, 1914, and entered into the tourism business. The young couple settled on Catalina Island and Eichbaum started a company that took visitors to the island on sightseeing tours. Called the Catalina Jaunting Car Company, Eichbaum utilized a fleet of Moreland Roadrunners to take visitors around the island. A unique and innovative vehicle for its time, the Moreland Roadrunner was an open-topped bus that could seat 20 passengers. Built on a truck chassis, the Roadrunner had the power and carrying capacity to haul the weight of 20 people and handle the rough and steep roads of the island, and its capabilities help make Eichbaum’s endeavor a success. Eichbaum also played a role in the establishment of the Eagle’s Nest hunting lodge, another element of Catalina Island’s tourism industry. On the mainland, Eichbaum became involved in transportation in Venice, California, developing a patented design for electric trams and owning the Venice Tram Company. Eichbaum appears to have maintained some of these business interests until around 1930.

Despite having success with his enterprises on Catalina Island and Venice, Eichbaum’s entrepreneurial spirit led him back to Death Valley in 1925. Recalling the beauty of this desert landscape, Eichbaum believed that many others would share his fondness for the desert if given the opportunity to experience it and envisioned building the first hotel and resort in Death Valley at Stovepipe Wells. By this time, Eichbaum had become savvy in the marketing and transportation aspects of tourism. Eichbaum’s engineering background and knowledge of the Death Valley terrain would also prove useful in his endeavor.

Accessing a Dream: Getting Approval

Picture of Toll Road from the east entrance.

In order to realize his dream, Eichbaum first had to build a road to reach the site of his planned Stovepipe Wells Resort. As discussed above, Death Valley in 1925 had no automobile roads suitable for general tourist traffic. Eichbaum, however, wanted broad appeal and knew from his experience on Catalina Island that the average tourist on vacation would not find traveling on these crude and bumpy tracks a pleasant experience. Eichbaum began his efforts for a new road into Death Valley in 1925 with a series of appeals to the Inyo County Board of Supervisors to build, maintain, and operate a toll road. At his first appearance before the Board on May 4, 1925, he proposed a route into the north end of Death Valley from Lida Valley Road via Sand Springs. The Board minutes from this meeting describe Eichbaum as a “promoter of sightseeing tours” from Catalina. The Board took no action and voted to carry the matter over to the next meeting. Lida Valley is in the vicinity of Rhyolite, Nevada, and Eichbaum was familiar with this area. The Board likely rejected this route because it was in a remote part of eastern Inyo County and would not have generated traffic through the main towns in the Owens Valley. About one month later, on June 1, Eichbaum again went before the Board and proposed a different route entering Death Valley from west. This route is described in the minutes as from the “end of Darwin Wash, through Townsend Pass into northern Death Valley.” Darwin Wash was just east of the small mining town of Darwin, about 40 miles southeast of Lone Pine. At that time, a county road existed to Darwin Wash and Eichbaum’s proposed road would begin where it ended. The Board again took no vote and no action on the matter during this meeting.

It is not known why Eichbaum’s first two proposals to build a toll road did not gain Board approval. One individual, John Salsbury, heard about Eichbaum’s first two appeals and sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors dated July 15, 1925 in which he wrote he objected “as strongly as possible” to “the granting of any franchise for a toll road.” Salsbury described Eichbaum as a “Los Angeles promoter” and called this attempt by Eichbaum “confiscation.” Salsbury had been a mine owner with mining property in the northern Death Valley area who had built a road to access his mine via the north end of Death Valley in about 1907. By 1925, this road had been taken over the Inyo County, but was in very poor condition. Salisbury suggested the county improve this road rather than allow Eichbuam to build a new road. That Eichbaum was being referred to by Salsbury and in the Board minutes by the somewhat pejorative term “Los Angeles promoter” suggests local objections may also have been rooted in a general disdain at the time for outsiders from Los Angeles, as this was during the period of the “water wars” between the City of Los Angeles and the people of the Owens Valley. Other objections may have been rooted in the general lack of popularity of toll roads by 1925, which had proven problematic in the past. By the 1920s, very few privately owned and operated toll roads still existed in California as the public had come to expect free use of roads, and that counties and the state were the best entities to undertake road construction and maintenance.

USGS maps ca. 1913 shows major topographical features, roads, places, and the Eichbaum Toll Road alignment.

After the June 1st Board meeting, Eichbaum appears to have engaged in some lobbying of local Inyo County residents to muster support for this project. Eichbaum came back to the Board on August 3 with an application to build two roads that would reach Stovepipe Wells. One of the proposed routes was from the west beginning at Whippoorwill Springs (in Darwin Wash), up Darwin Canyon, east across Panamint Valley, over Towne Pass, and into northern Death Valley, terminating at Stovepipe Wells. The other proposed road entered Death Valley from the south and went north past Furnace Creek Ranch to Stovepipe Wells, continued north and terminated at Mesquite Spring, near the far north end of Death Valley. At the meeting many testified in favor of the proposal including G.W. Dow, owner of the Dow Hotel in Lone Pine, a businessman who would profit from increased tourism; R.R. Henderson, editor of the Mt. Whitney Observer; and local residents R.W. McCrea and Peter W. Smith. But many presented testimony in opposition as well, specifically C.M. Rasor, chief field engineer for the Pacific Coast Borax Company, and Fred Corkill, superintendent of the company’s borax mine, who presented a petition of objection. The above-mentioned John Salsbury also appeared at the meeting to express his objections in person. In a close vote of three against and two in favor, the motion to grant Eichbaum permission for the toll road failed.

The feeling that Eichbaum was an outsider from Los Angeles with a scheme to coffer profits from Inyo County as expressed by the likes of John Salisbury may have been shared by many local residents. But Eichbaum, having spent many years in the Death Valley region upon arriving in the west in 1905, was not a true outsider, and not a typical Los Angeles profiteer. Those years in the desert as a young man instilled a deep love and appreciation for the beauty and allure of the desert. Eichbaum once said, “You can see lots of things in Death Valley, and you see something different every day.” How else to explain the motivation of a man with a successful business and home on Catalina Island to pursue this endeavor to build a road and the first hotel resort in one of the most inhospitable environments in California.

USGS base maps ca. 1913 shows the Eichbaum Toll Road, the Stovepipe Wells Resort, and the Furnace Creek Ranch, location of the Furnace Creek Inn.

Eichbaum’s motivation kept him focused on his objective and despite standing before the Board three times and still not having approval for his project, he pressed on. Needing only to swing one more Supervisor, Eichbaum sought the advice of the two Supervisors who voted in favor of his latest proposal, Amos P. Hancock and C.E. Johnson. The two appear to have recommended that Eichbaum obtain more local support, particularly from the powerful Pacific Coast Borax Company. Eichbaum met with C.M. Rasor who informed Eichbaum that the company had no objection to the proposed road entering Death Valley from the west between Darwin Wash and Stovepipe Wells, but that the road must terminate at Stovepipe Wells and that Eichbaum must abandon plans for the road into Death Valley from the south via Furnace Creek. Rasor’s objection to the southerly route likely stemmed from the fact that this course passed directly through the heart of the company’s borax territory in Death Valley, and Rasor wanted nothing to interfere with the mining operations. It is also likely that with borax mining waning in Death Valley, the Pacific Coast Borax Company was already entertaining its own tourism scheme, and eventually would build the Furnace Creek Inn in the southern part of Death Valley in 1927.

Eichbaum readily agreed to Rasor’s suggestion and also sought out support from residents of Death Valley and Lone Pine before appearing before the Board of Supervisors a fourth time on October 5, 1925. At the meeting, Eichbaum submitted an application to the Board “for authority to take the necessary land and construct a toll road in Death Valley.” Attached to the application were documents of support including a petition signed by 384 people, as well as testimony in favor from representatives of the Pacific Coast Borax Company, and eight other individuals. A letter of support from the Automobile Club of Southern California read by Dr. M.A. Williamson of Lone Pine furthered Eichbaum’s case. Following the hearing of testimony, the Board unanimously voted in favor of the application. The act was formally codified as Inyo County Resolution No. 25-16, which authorized Eichbaum “to take the necessary real property necessary for the construction of said toll road.” The proposed route was 40 miles long and had a 100-foot wide right-of-way. The Board appointed G.W. Dow of Lone Pine, Cash C. Clark of Darwin, and Peter W. Smith of Lone Pine as road commissioners to oversee the surveying and construction of the road. Eichbaum hired Burkett E. Sherwin, who was also the Inyo County Surveyor, to survey the route. While this road is commonly called the Eichbaum Toll Road, in the official county documents at this time it was called the Death Valley Toll Road.

The route of the Eichbaum Toll Road was not completely laid out on untrodden land. The section through Darwin Canyon had several springs, and its route, therefore, likely followed a Native American trail that existed prior to Euro-American exploration and settlement. In 1871, Captain George M. Wheeler of the US Army Corps of Engineers led an expedition of this area and a member of his party, Lieutenant D.A. Lyle, traveled through Darwin Canyon into the Panamint Valley, then tacked southeast to cross the Panamint Range via Wildrose Canyon and Emigrant Canyon. Lyle did not go over Towne Pass. With the mining activity at Darwin in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, this route through Darwin Canyon continued to be in use as a trail, and then as a crude road by 1913.

Owing to the steepness of Towne Pass, it never became a popular travel route until Eichbaum built his toll road. On the east slope of the Panamint Range, through Emigrant Wash, Eichbaum’s Toll Road closely followed the route of the Wildrose Canyon/Emigrant Canyon Road, which also followed Emigrant Wash into Death Valley.

Certainly the route that Eichbaum chose, and that the Board of Supervisors approved, had something to do with the personal interests of the Board of Supervisors, and the interests of their constituents. Other routes, such as the Lida Valley route, or routes accessing Panamint Valley and Death Valley from the south, may have been easier and cheaper to build, but Eichbaum understood that he needed the approval of the Board of Supervisors to build a toll road and such a southern route would not pass through any of the commercial centers in the county. Eichbaum, therefore, proposed a route that began at Darwin Wash and would bring traffic through Lone Pine, one of the main towns in Inyo County at the time along with Bishop. The many tourists passing through the area would benefit business owners, and provide new business opportunities.

Building the Road

Survey work and construction commenced on the road soon after the Board’s approval on October 5th, 1925. Eichbaum hired a Mr. Miller (first name unknown) to be construction superintendent. The work crew consisted of six to eight men, including a team driver, a grader, rock throwers, and a cook. The workers lived in tents, migrating across the desert as work progressed. Construction began on the west end at Darwin Wash and moved eastward. A main implement of construction was a Caterpillar tractor pulling a seven-foot road grader that cut the road through the terrain. In an effort to save money, Eichbaum did not use dynamite for blasting; instead, the road went around immovable rocky outcroppings. This decision led to the road being, in places, very narrow, steep, or with severe curvature, particularly through Darwin Canyon and Towne Pass. Through the winter of 1925-1926, rain and landslides delayed construction, but by Christmas 1925 the crew had reached the summit of Towne Pass. With the most difficult sections behind them, the crew had about 16 miles of road to build down the gently sloping Emigrant Wash to the Death Valley floor. In addition to challenges presented by the wet weather, the remoteness of the region made it difficult to obtain construction supplies, and drinking water for the workers had to be hauled to the work camps from various springs. By the spring of 1926, road construction had progressed over the 4,962-foot-high Towne Pass summit and down Emigrant Wash onto the floor of Death Valley. Here, Eichbaum encountered another obstacle, the deep and constantly shifting Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, which stymied all attempts to establish a road and halted construction. Eichbaum, realizing the futility of building a road on sand dunes, made the difficult decision to end the road four and one-half miles short of his objective, the Stovepipe Wells spring. Although he did not make it to the actual Stovepipe Wells, Eichbaum still applied the name to his resort.

Following an inspection of the road by Amos P. Hancock, Inyo County Supervisor and ex-officio road overseer, the county issued a Certificate of Completion for the Death Valley Toll Road on May 4, 1926. The road’s total distance was about 35.5 miles and, at this time, it was not surfaced with gravel or any other material. Rather, the surface was whatever natural materials the road passed over. Helene Eichbaum later stated that the exact cost of construction was unknown because Eichbaum did not account for road’s cost separately from the Stovepipe Wells resort. Upon its completion, the Board of Supervisors set the toll rates for the road. Rates for trucks, trailers, and wagons ranged from two dollars to ten dollars depending on weight, automobiles cost two dollars, and there was an additional fifty-cent charge for each occupant of any vehicle, though animals cost one dollar. The toll schedule specified that county employees traveling in the line of duty could use the road free of charge. To provide water for the travelers, Eichbaum developed several springs along the road. Although somewhat crude by modern standards, the Death Valley Toll Road when completed was a vast improvement over any existing local road and the best road into Death Valley at the time. It also became a convenient route from most parts of California including Los Angeles, the San Joaquin Valley, and the Owens Valley. Following its construction, Eichbaum employed a small crew that maintained the road, grading away blown sand and repairing damage caused by storms to keep the road passable.

Building the Resort

Advertisement for Easter at Stovepipe Wells.

After construction of the toll road, Eichbaum proceeded to build his resort in Death Valley, known as the Stovepipe Wells Hotel and Bungalow City. The facility opened in November 1926 and originally consisted of twenty small cabins or "bungalettes" and a handful of larger buildings supplemented with tents. The resort boasted electric lights, running water, and first-class service. Eichbaum advertised the resort regularly in the Los Angeles newspapers and travelers destined for it accounted for the majority of the travel on the Eichbaum Toll Road. The first tourist buses that Eichbaum operated from Los Angeles passed over the road on November 4, 1926. By 1927, the Automobile Club of Southern California had signed the route, an important endorsement with broad public reach that made travelers aware of the road, reduced fears of traveling in Death Valley, and fostered additional traffic. One newspaper article proclaimed that “Eichbaum is making it possible for Californians and visitors to see” Death Valley. Eichbaum’s importance to tourism was later echoed in 1933 by John R. White, the Superintendent of Sequoia National Park and first administrator of Death Valley National Monument, who lauded Eichbaum for “pioneering the tourist business into Death Valley.”

An important component of Eichbaum’s resort development plans in Death Valley included providing transportation service between Los Angeles and Stovepipe Wells. Eichbaum’s service enabled tourists who did not want to drive their own vehicles to buy a round trip fare on a bus, called a “stage” at the time, from Los Angeles to Bungalow City at Stovepipe Wells. To conduct this aspect of his business, Eichbaum formed a separate company called the Mount Whitney-Death Valley Transportation Company. The buses ran daily leaving Los Angeles each morning, arriving at Lone Pine by evening where the tourists would stay overnight, and continue on to Stovepipe Wells the next day. Once at Stovepipe Wells, Eichbaum also operated a 125-mile sightseeing motor stage tour of Death Valley that took in all of the major points of interest. Eichbaum’s route from Los Angeles to Death Valley passed through Lone Pine, located at the base of Mount Whitney. Eichbaum routinely used in his promotional literature the close proximity of Mount Whitney and Death Valley, the highest and lowest points in the US, as a lure for tourists, suggesting both could be experienced on the same vacation. Eichbaum published regular advertisements in the Los Angeles Times promoting his resort at Stovepipe Wells and his bus service.

Advertisement for Thanksgiving Dinner at Stovepipe Wells.

Death of a Man and His Toll Road

H.W. Eichbaum died on February 16, 1932, in Los Angeles from a sudden attack of meningitis and did not live to see the final chapter of his toll road written. By this time, the end of the toll road was nigh owing to the steadily increasing popularity of Death Valley that Eichbaum played a central role in creating, and then generally decreasing popularity of toll roads. Death Valley tourism and awareness of its attractions had steadily increased from 1926 through 1932, largely because of Eichbaum’s toll road and Stovepipe Wells Resort, and his vigorous promotion of Death Valley as a tourist attraction. Death Valley’s many unique and precious attributes appreciated by thousands of tourists each year also came to be recognized by National Park Service Director Horace Albright. On February 11, 1933, at the urging of Albright, President Herbert Hoover designated Death Valley a national monument to be administered by the National Park Service for the public enjoyment.

Picture of Toll Road from the west entrance.

The creation of Death Valley National Monument (DVNM) hastened the end of the Eichbaum Toll Road. The opening of DVNM led to more tourist, and, therefore, more complaints about paying a toll. Furthermore, many found it inappropriate for a private toll road to exist within a public national monument. In 1933, John R. White, Superintendent of Sequoia National Park, who initially administering Death Valley National Monument, began urging the sale of the toll road to either the State Division of Highways or Inyo County. At the time, the Division of Highways was in the process of studying the toll road route to determine its feasibility as a state highway. White, believing that such studies might take years, felt that the most expedient course of action would be for Inyo County to buy the road. White wrote to Joseph Scott, the attorney employed by Helene Eichbaum to administer the estate of the deceased H.W. Eichbaum, and advised Scott that if Helene Eichbaum wanted to dispose of the toll road quickly, Scott should contact the Inyo County Board of Supervisors with a proposition. Scott did just that and wrote to the Board of Supervisors in November 1933, but Inyo County balked at the idea and did not purchase the road.

The State Division of Highways was also actively pursuing acquisition of the Eichbaum Toll Road by early 1933. J.W. Vickrey, Division of Highways District 9 Engineer, met personally with Helene Eichbaum to discuss sale of the toll road to the state. Eichbaum traveled from her home in Los Angeles and met Vickrey on July 17, 1933, at the Dow Hotel in Lone Pine. After the meeting, Vickrey stated that Eichbaum was “quite anxious that the state take [the road] over.” Joseph Scott followed up immediately with a letter to Division of Highways District 9 suggesting that the state buy the road. Scott concluded by saying, “Anything you can do for us in this matter will be appreciated.” S.W. Lowden, the Acting District 9 Engineer, replied to Scott that the Division of Highways was analyzing various route options and would conduct a field survey of the Eichbaum Toll Road over the winter of 1933-34.

It is easy to understand the Eichbaum Estate’s eagerness to sell the toll road at this time. With more good roads into Death Valley in 1933 than existed in 1926, tourists and local residents not wanting to pay a toll could simply choose another route. This declining use of the road is reflected in the revenue from the road between 1929 and 1933. From 1929 through 1931, the tolls from the Eichbaum Toll Road earned about $6,000 per year. Income dropped in 1932 to $4,581, and in 1933 Eichbaum collected only $2,823 in tolls. Subtracting the average maintenance expenses for the toll road of $1,475 per year left for a very small profit indeed. Eichbaum was also facing the possibility of the Division of Highways building a new road along an entirely different route into the Stovepipe Wells area, a scenario that would render the Eichbaum Toll Road virtually worthless for sale.

Picture of Toll Road from the west entrance.

By this time it appears Helene Eichbaum had completely lost interest in the road. Engineer Lowden inspected the Eichbaum Toll Road and examined alternate routes in 1934. On October 31, 1934, he reported that the condition of the Eichbaum Toll Road was “very poor” with washouts and in need of “intensive maintenance work.” Lowden noted that it appeared the road was no longer being maintained by Mrs. Eichbaum. However, Lowden gave the road high grades from an engineering standpoint, noting that for the purposes of a state highway the road alignment was “very good” and the grades generally “within reasonable limits” as laid out by Eichbaum and his surveyor, B.E. Sherwin. The only exception was the Darwin Wash segment at the west end. Lowden specifically cited excessive grade and curvature through Darwin Wash and Darwin Canyon to Panamint Springs. Lowden recommended this section be entirely bypassed by a new route over the Argus Mountains. Lowden noted the road as a whole had an average road width of 16 feet, with the widest sections about 20 feet, and the narrowest 15 feet. The surface in 1934 consisted of “natural materials” of “excellent quality” with the exception of two miles in the Panamint Valley that had been surfaced with gravel. The road had no drainage culverts or pipes; rather, drainage was “by means of dips in the grade line.”

Death Valley as a Destination: The Rise of Auto-Tourism

Advertisement for New Years Eve in Death Valley.

Virtually no tourism existed in the Death Valley region until the 1920s and the rise of automobile ownership and auto-tourism. The dry, hot, and remote area was largely the realm of hardy miners. Tourists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries tended to prefer ocean- or lake-side hotels, hot springs resorts, or cabins in the Sierra Nevada forests. Deserts, generally at this time, did not register in the minds of people as vacation destinations, and, certainly, the name “Death Valley” did not have immediate appeal for the typical tourist. A charting crew of the Automobile Club of Southern California visiting Death Valley in 1921 put the public perception of Death Valley succinctly, calling it the “terror of the west” and “the most maligned natural attraction America has to offer.” Another article written of the experience of motorists in 1922 called it “hell on earth” and a trip made only by “daredevils.”

To raise interest in Death Valley, the Automobile Club of Southern California and others in the tourism trade employed a vocabulary not previously used to describe destinations. Promoters defined the desert landscape in unique terms in an effort to entice the public to see something they had never seen before. Words like “weird and enchanting” and “mysterious” were common in articles about Death Valley. Interestingly, the perils of the valley and stories of past travelers who died in the valley were also recounted to stir morbid curiosities, or to provide a comparison for the increasingly safe conditions brought about by better mapping and signage produced by the auto clubs. For scenic value, writers and promoters often compared Death Valley to Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Parks. These articles, however, and many others like it printed in newspapers and magazines around this time, served to change public perception, create intrigue, and raise the public’s appreciation of deserts by calling to attention the unique and beautiful aspects of the desert, effectively marketing deserts as tourist destinations.

The federal government furthered the appeal of places like Death Valley by encouraging and accommodating recreational activities on public lands. Agencies such as the National Park Service (NPS) and US Forest Service (USFS) began promoting tourism on the public lands in the 1910s and building hotels, campgrounds, trails, bathrooms, and other facilities for the public enjoyment. Included in these lands were desert locales such as the Natural Bridges National Monument (Utah-est. 1908), Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona-est. 1916), Zion National Park (Utah-est. 1919), Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah-est. 1924), and Chiricahua National Monument (Arizona est. 1924). At the same time, rustic vacation accommodations such as tents and rudimentary cabins had become more acceptable to the general public, and “roughing it” had become fashionable for even the wealthy. The automobile played a large role in this travel trend, not only allowing people to reach remote destinations, but providing motorists the means to carry camping supplies with them on the road. These touring motorists often pitched tents wherever they found themselves after a day of driving, and the term “auto-camping” entered the American lexicon.

Advertisement for Christmas Dinner at Stovepipe Wells.

As Death Valley started to come into the public’s consciousness as a tourist destination, automobile ownership in the US skyrocketed. In the decade from 1920 to 1930, the number of registered automobiles went from approximately 8 million to 23 million, and Americans were doing more than just driving to work. So long confined by the restrictions of distance and locale of horse and train travel, excited drivers enthusiastically embraced the freedom, convenience, and limitless range of the automobile. Auto-tourism during the 1920s became a de rigueur way to spend leisure time. Places not previously thought of as travel destinations were now open for consideration; virtually anywhere was within reach. Death Valley was tailor-made to fit this trend, as it was the type of place that was best experienced with an automobile. Prior to the 1920s, tourists would travel to a single destination such as an ocean-side hotel—usually by train—and remain at that hotel for the duration of their vacation. And while the Tidewater & Tonopah Railroad had reached Death Valley in 1908, Death Valley had a variety of attractions and sights located across long distances that could only be seen using an automobile.

The first tourist resort in Death Valley was H.W. Eichbaum’s Stovepipe Wells Resort completed in 1926. Inspired by Eichbaum’s successful resort venture, and in light of the waning borax mining in Death Valley, the Pacific Coast Borax Company built the second area resort at their Furnace Creek Ranch. The company completed the Furnace Creek Inn in 1927 in an elegant Spanish architectural style that contrasted sharply with Eichbaum’s rustic complex of tent cabins at Stovepipe Wells. Tourists were encouraged to take the company’s Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad and the Death Valley Railroad spur line to the inn. The Furnace Creek Inn offered tourists open motor coach tours of the valley and deluxe accommodations. The hotel experienced immediate success and constructed multi-room additions each of the first four years it was in business. While the hotel flourished, the railroad transportation aspect of the endeavor failed and the railroad stopped running in 1930. Guests visiting the inn largely traveled via automobile, and most of these took the Eichbaum Toll Road.

The combination of the construction of the Eichbaum Toll Road, Eichbaum’s Stovepipe Wells resort, the Furnace Creek Inn, and publicity in newspapers and magazines helped to establish Death Valley as a tourist destination by 1930. During this period, the Death Valley tourist season was regarded as only the winter months and data was kept accordingly. In the winter of 1928-29, more than 10,000 tourists visited the valley, an increase from virtually none prior to construction of the toll road. Tourist visitation steadily increased to 21,500 during the winter of 1933-34--the first full winter tourist season following the establishment of Death Valley National Monument--and about 45,000 in the winter of 1934-35.

USGS base maps ca. 1950 showing the alignment of the Eichbaum Toll Road and places and features relevant to construction of the road.

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