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From Beatty to Ballarat, On the Trail of Shorty Harris

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(Excerpted from Desert Dancing)

Beatty, Nevada, is nestled between desert mountains along the main route between Las Vegas and Reno. It's the eastern entrance to Death Valley, which gives it some tourist trade; otherwise, the town lives off mining and cows. It is a western town filled with easygoing, hardworking people.

"Nothing much ever happens here," said the young lady at the registration desk at the Burro Inn. The Burro Inn is an older place, a Nevada style motel with a restaurant and casino that is open 24 hours. There's a wooden Indian outside the door to the restaurant, a friendly-looking character in full Native American dress and with a bent nose. He belongs. Beatty is a step back in time and place, a quiet little town. It's a wide spot on the edge of nowhere, and in the spirit of young people everywhere, whose juices are flowing and whose questing spirit is yearning for experience and adventure, our clerk would rather be where there was some excitement.

The Panamints and the road to Ballerat

But excitement is just what Beatty was all about a hundred years ago, when just over the hill in the Bullfrog district tent cities arose with the speed of a flash flood. Gold was found, gold was there, and so were hundreds, even thousands of prospectors and camp followers.

Shorty Harris was part of it from the get-go. It was his strike, with his partner Ernest Cross, that touched off the run to the Bullfrogs, and created the town of Rhyolite, Nevada. Located over the hill and a few miles west of Beatty, Rhyolite and a few other camps sprung up almost over night and became the sensation of Death Valley when the boys found gold in a green rock in August 1904.

Shorty Harris is a name that is heard all over Death Valley. He was a controversial character at times, a little loose with the truth, a single-blanket-jackass-prospector with a taste for whiskey and a habit of spending a little too much time with a bottle of O, be Joyful. He was born as Frank Harris in Rhode Island in 1857, and was an orphan at the tender age of seven. In the 1870's he rode the rails west to make his fortune, and spent time in mining camps from Leadville to Tombstone, and the Idaho country, before coming to Death Valley. He stood all of five feet, four inches tall; he had big ears, sparkling blue eyes and a bushy mustache.

Shorty Harris was the exemplary rainbow-chaser. As his nickname implies, he was a man of small stature, who usually had to wear pants and coats that were too big for him. He was a character known throughout the region as a prospector who had found several good claims, but never developed them. He never worked a mine; he was mostly famous for the workings of his jaw. Shorty loved to talk, and he loved the conviviality of saloons much more than the hard labor of mucking ore. The veracity of his stories might be open to question— truth wasn't his strong point, and most of his stories made him out to be quite a hero— but he was well-liked in spite of that.