Trona California: portrait of a mining town

This photographic survey looks at the town of Trona, located along state highway 178 near Death Valley California. Trona developed around the Searles dry lake, a natural resource containing the world’s richest deposits of chemicals including 98 of the 104 known naturally occurring chemical elements. The mining industry first set up around searles dry lake in the late 1800s to mine borax, and the playa has attracted investors ever since.

The company town of Trona was officially established in 1913 as a unique self-contained town operated on a cost basis by the mining company for the benefit of its employees. The company created its own currency, and built a library, grocery store, school, housing and recreation facilities for its residents. The history of Trona is defined by the booms and slow contractions of the mining industry, leaving bits of occupation strewn far away from its original gridded center. One of its largest booms occurred during WWi, as a German embargo of potash fertilizer sharply raised prices, Trona was the only American source of potash at the time, an important element used in the production of gunpowder and a key to victory.

A drive around Trona provides you a unique look at an early example of a master planned community. It was created as a model for urban development on an empty plinth, an abstract gridded development with commercial, residential and recreational districts. It was an urban experiment necessitated by the desolate and inhospitable landscape that held little attraction to settlers except for the employment at the mines. No longer a company run town, Trona's streets show the signs of its shrinking population, down nearly 50% over the last decade, to around 1885 residents. Today, IMC Global Chemical company remains Trona's largest employer at its soda ash processing plant. Other operations nearby include salt extraction from the playa surface through evaporation, and a lime quarry. Trona remains strongly tied to the Searles dry lake and the unique geology of the region, it is a planned town slowly dissolving back into the desert

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