Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
ASH MEADOWS NWR: Refuge Once Home to Whiskey Bootleggers
California-Nevada Offices , February 25, 2014
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Sunset view from the Collins Ranch area of Ash Meadows NWR.
Sunset view from the Collins Ranch area of Ash Meadows NWR. - Photo Credit: Cindy Sandoval/USFWS
Whiskey Wash where Steve Collins hid stills.
Whiskey Wash where Steve Collins hid stills. - Photo Credit: Cindy Sandoval/USFWS
Salt turns the dirt white in portions for the refuge as spring water evaporates in the desert sun.
Salt turns the dirt white in portions for the refuge as spring water evaporates in the desert sun. - Photo Credit: Cindy Sandoval/USFWS
Old whiskey barrel rings rust at the bottom of Whiskey Wash.
Old whiskey barrel rings rust at the bottom of Whiskey Wash. - Photo Credit: Cindy Sandoval/USFWS

By Cindy Sandoval,

Travelers to Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in the Mojave Desert visit the area to see rare desert fish species, endemic plants or to simply escape the neon lights of Las Vegas.

As their cars crisscross the refuge roads visiting desert springs and seeps many do not realize they are driving past a former bootlegger’s paradise. In January of 1920 the Eighteenth Amendment made the manufacture, sale and transportation of “intoxicating liquors” illegal within the United States. As the government tried to eradicate alcohol, portions of the public started to sidestep federal Bureau of Prohibition agents and build stills to brew alcohol. For a successful business bootleggers needed two things, privacy and water and Ash Meadows had both.

An oasis in the desert, fresh water springs dot the harsh dry Ash Meadows landscape. The area is still fairly desolate, but was especially rural in the 1930s. The landmarks that surround the area and present day refuge include Death Valley to the west and the Funeral Mountain Range. These ominous formations and a reputation for outlaw hide-outs kept unwanted visitors away. According to local residents in Nye County oral histories, even the sheriff of nearby Tonopah was too scared to venture into Ash Meadows after bootleggers.

Steve Collins was a typical farmer in the area, and a northern portion of Ash Meadows NRW still bears the name Collins Ranch. He sold chickens, eggs and produce to workers in nearby mining camps but he also had a side business. Collins filed a homestead application for 40 acres with the U.S. Land Office in the 1930s but found that the soil was too alkaline to support crops. The salty ground of Ash Meadows is caused by extensive evaporation of ground water in springs as it is exposed to the dry climate and hot desert sun. As a result of this evaporation, dissolved salts form on the grounds surface and at shallow depths within the soil. The salt concentrations on the land contain trace elements like arsenic, boron, and molybdenum making it difficult to cultivate the area. Collins was able to farm 4 acres of his land but only after he “washed” the salts out of the soil, an action that required a large amount of water.

In 1932 Collins applied to the Nevada State Engineers for more water to irrigate his fields and remove the salty top layer of soil, the state approved the request. But Collins had other plans for this water, making whiskey. Along with providing the vapor used to make and vent alcohol, the spring water that seeped out of Collins Ranch had slowly formed a small canyon over many years and this canyon would provide cover for Collins’ still.

“The area became known as Whiskey Wash as Collins used the canyon to hide the still used for bootlegging,” said Refuge Manager Sharon McKelvey. The Whiskey Wash area still shows small traces of the areas outlaw past as rusty barrel rings and old pipes can be seen laying in the salty dirt. The Nevada West & Pahrump Valley Times reported that Collins still was so well made that after prohibition ended it was sold to a legitimate brewing company.

Today, little remains of the areas rum-running past but legends and rusting whiskey barrel rings. Other Ash Meadows legends tell the story of bootleggers hiding their product in sand dunes to avoid detection, but when they returned, the ever shifting dunes had swallowed the alcohol forever. Still others say that Collins was actually the outlaw Jesse James hiding out in Nevada looking for a fresh start. These stories cannot be verified and as time passes the stories much like the rings are buried and forgotten. But they provide a colorful past for the desert oasis known today as Ash Meadows NWR.

Cindy Sandoval is a public affairs specialist at the Pacific Southwest Regional Office in Sacramento, Calif.

More photo from Ash Meadows NWR
Contact Info: Cynthia Sandoval, 916-978-6159, cynthia_d_sandoval@fws.gov
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