| A trackless, barren
expanse of sand left by the receding of ancient Lake Lahontan some 12,000
years ago, the Black Rock Desert stretches for more than a hundred miles
across the vastness of northwestern Nevada. Ancient peoples first occupied
the area 7,000 years ago, and their descendants were still there when
Captain John C. Fremont and his men came down High Rock Canyon in late
December, 1843, to become the first outsiders to lay eyes on the large
Clarence King's Fortieth Parallel Survey mapped the
southern section in 1867, and Israel C. Russell of the U.S. Geological
Survey extended the work to the northern part in the early 1880s, producing
a monograph which has become the basis for all subsequent studies.
Overland immigrant parties passing west on the
Applegate-Lassen Trail in the 1840s and 1850s knew the rigors of the Black
Rock, as did horse soldiers operating out of Fort Churchill during the Civil
War. A brief silver mining flurry led to the establishment of the camp of
Hardin City on the north end of the Black Rock in 1866, but the mining of
sulphur has been the principal economic activity in the area in recent
In November of 1909, the construction of the Western
Pacific Railroad across the southern end was completed, l but the oddest bit
of history associated with the Black Rock Desert is the filming of The
Winning of Barbara Worth near Trego on the southern end during the summer of
Based upon Harold Bell Wright's best-selling saga of the reclamation and
settlement of California's Salton Sink, Barbara Worth was the third in a
series of classic silent westerns filmed in Nevada during the 1920s. Both
The Covered Wagon, shot on location at Skull Valley in White Pine County,
and John Ford's The Iron Horse, filmed at Dodge Flat, just north of
Wadsworth, were received with popular and critical acclaim, proving to other
producers that the "big western" was no mere flash in the pan.2
Wright's novel had cast the settlers of the Salton Sink
as 20th-century pioneers, and Samuel Goldwyn himself, producer of Barbara
Worth, spoke of his film as "taking up the history of the West where
Covered Wagon leaves off."
As adapted for the screen by Francis Marion, however,
the production became a showcase to exploit the appeal of Ronald Colman and
Vilma Banky, whose appearance in Goldwyn's The Dark Angel in 1925 created
Hollywood's first "love team."
Goldwyn also had loftier pretensions. In an interview
with Grace Kingsley of the Los Angeles Times on June 18, 1926, he asserted
that the success of The Covered Wagon demonstrated the popular interest in
films of more substance than the general run of western productions up to
that time, "something educational if it is made entertaining," as he put it.
"Barbara Worth will be a great epic," he predicted. "It
shows and proves what a great menace the desert can be without water, if not
properly controlled by dams. In this picture will be shown an entire town
swept away because of the faulty dam construction. The menace of the
elements is a real life problem of everyday and 10 times more impressive to
people than the menace of all the villains who every played in pictures."
Goldwyn was also interested in a realistic location for
filming, as was his director, Henry King, who had traveled to Italy to
produce The White Sister and Ramola,
and had ridden out Atlantic storms aboard ship for 17 days to get footage
for Fury, a tale of the sea.
In his interview with Grace Kingsley, Goldwyn said that
he had chosen the Black Rock Desert because of its resemblance to the Salton
Sink, but it was Henry King and two associates--Rostin Clampitt and Robert
McIntire--who did the leg work to select the site.
In February of 1926, they had set out on a 4,000-mile
trip through southern California, Arizona and New Mexico. But they were
still looking for a suitable film location when they debarked at the
Southern Pacific Railroad depot in Reno on April 14.
After talking with some locals familiar with the desert
country to the north, King decided to rent an automobile and take a jaunt
out to the 40-Mile Desert between Wadsworth and Lovelock. Departing the next
morning, they looked the area over and went into Lovelock. King decided to
push on to Jungo before dark, but the men got lost near Haystack Butte and
spent the night driving around aimlessly.
At daybreak, they found themselves at Sulphur, west of
Jungo on the Western Pacific Railroad, where the cook for a railroad crew
invited them to breakfast on pork and beans before they set out west for
Their radiator boiled over just outside of Trego, but the only water they
could find was a thermal spring so hot that their driver burned his hands.
Cooling enough water in an old washtub they found, they finally filled the
radiator and got on their way, arriving at Gerlach at 10:30 that night with
only one can of beans and two swallows of water between them. After finding
lodging for the night in the small railroad community, they ate dinner.
Early the next morning, they drove 10 miles out on the
Black Rock, returning to Gerlach by way of Trego. King was impressed with
the location possibilities, and Gerlach had all the facilities and
accommodations the large film crew would require. Sending the car back to
Reno with their driver, they caught the Western Pacific for Oakland that
evening and were back in Hollywood two days later.4
Shortly after King's return, Goldwyn contacted the
Winnemucca Chamber of Commerce and Winnemucca Mayor Carlton E. Haviland for
assistance in finding office space and scouting out likely filming locations
near the community. H. C. Oastler, manager of the American Theatre, offered
to take care of other details, and Lovelock rancher W. H. Cooper was
contacted about furnishing livestock, horses, pack mules and burros for the
The June 7 edition of the Humboldt Star announced the
expected arrival of the film crew and gave more details of the picture.
Three false-front cities were to be constructed-one at Trego, to be known as
Barbara Worth, another at the sand dunes, near Blue Mountain west of
Winnemucca, and a third at Gerlach.
King was planning on a location time of six to eight
weeks, according to the Star story, and had already made contacts in town to
rent 25 farm wagons and buggies and several large freight wagons. Editor
Stanley Bailey also announced that he and United Artists publicity director
H. F. Arnold would begin publishing the Barbara Worth Times, a semi-weekly
supplement to the Star, on June 25." 6
King and four associates--Karl Borg, art director;
Friend Baker, cameraman; Edward Sowders, King's assistant; and Lewis King,
the director's brother--arrived in Winnemucca the next day. Lewis King
remained behind to hold a press conference while the others caught a Western
Pacific special west to Trego where lumber was being unloaded to begin
construction on the film city.
Thanking the people of Winnemucca for their
cooperation, he announced that he had set up an office in the Hotel Humboldt
to interview locals who would be interested in a few weeks of work as extras
on the set. Forty to 50 men, women and children would be needed for the
initial work, he said, and as many as 300 later on.7
W. H. Cooper had meanwhile been making contacts with
several Lovelock ranchers to hire horses and purchase feed. He had also been
as far east as Battle Mountain seeking livestock and had been arranging to
rent wagons, carts and buggies. On June 10, the Star carried a notice that
he was also seeking farm animals--hogs, goats, chickens, cows with calves,
mares with colts and horse teams--and wagons in poor condition.8
Goldwyn had completed casting by that time, with the exception of the second
lead, Abe Lee, a role which was to go to Gary Cooper a few days before
Neither Ronald Colman nor Miss Banky was enthusiastic
about coming to Nevada. Colman had just completed Beau Geste at an isolated
desert location in Arizona, and his co-star had only recently returned from
the making of Son of the Sheik with Rudolph Valentino. However, United
Artists had both of them under contract, and they had no choice in the
The carpenters, plumbers and other set-construction
personnel left Los Angeles by rail for San Francisco on June 11.
Transferring to the Western Pacific at Oakland the next day, they arrived in
Gerlach on June 13. Part of the crew remained in town to begin the
construction of false fronts on the buildings to be used in the film
segments shot there, while the remainder motored out to Trego to start work
on sets, buildings and dining and sleeping facilities.
Western Pacific laborers were putting in new water
mains at Gerlach for the flood sequences, and railroad officials announced
on June 16 that Luthur Greybanc had been appointed station agent for the new
movie town at Trego. Sidetracking had been completed by that time, and the
carpenters were at work nailing up the prefabricated building sections which
had been cut to specification in Oakland.10
In Lovelock, rancher Cooper had arranged for the
renting of 50 horses from Ray Clemmens, F. B. Salinas and B. A. Preston. He
also secured 25 Fresno scrapers and 20 wagons of various types in the
valley. P. A. Quigley sold 100 tons of hay to Cooper for the livestock to be
used in the film. Several men from Lovelock got work as extras,
among them P. H. Wolf, W. H. Orton, Jack Wycoffe, Ray Cahill, Lawrence Lang,
Joey Olaeta and Virgil and Albert Smith.
Pershing County officials appointed three men--E. A.
Perez, Wilbur Springer and W. H. Cooper himself--as deputy sheriffs at Barbara
Worth since the location site was just inside the northern boundary of their
jurisdiction. United Artists officials agreed to pay the men $4.50 of their
$5-a-day salary, with the county picking up the remainder.11
Barbara Worth had taken on all the trappings of a
frontier community when editor Bailey of the Star came out on June 18. He
noted that a hundred head of cattle and several dozen horses had been
brought out, as had horse-drawn conveyances of every description.
Thirty-five extras from Winnemucca and Lovelock were also on hand, and the
stars and technical personnel from Hollywood were scheduled to be in town
within a day or so.
Henry King had named himself mayor of the town, Bailey
reported, and had appointed other company personnel as city councilmen.
Their first official act on June 18 was a resolution supporting the rules
drawn up by camp manager I. N. Liner: no liquor or profane language, quiet
after 10 p.m., meals in the mess tent only and no visitations of men and
women to each other's quarters. Liner also laid down strictures regarding
the conservation of water, keeping horses outside the living areas and the
reporting of all illnesses and injuries to the infirmary.12
A postal facility was also established at Barbara
Worth, as was a bank and an office for the Barbara Worth Times. Extras and
other film personnel were housed in large tents, and every effort was made
to assure their comfort and safety. Dr. L. A. Eshman, a Los Angeles
physician, had been bought up to establish a clinic. Director King also
hired H. S. Anderson, a San Francisco chef, to supervise the commissary and