Tuesday, September 18, 2007

My Favorite Ghost Town In California

I love visiting the sites of ghost towns and have visited quite a few in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Texas. I'm going to start posting photos of some of my favorite sites here.

Many criteria go into making a ghost town a favorite of mine. Certainly how well a site is preserved and how scenic it is plays a big role, but I also have a bias toward places that aren't that well known and are difficult to visit-----if a ghost town can be visited in a family sedan, odds are that it will soon be vandalized and receive a coating of graffiti. Remote places also give you an idea of the isolation the residents endured; on those days when I've been the only visitor, such sites almost take me back to those distant times.

California has a surprising number of ghost town sites in its mountains and deserts, and my favorite is Cerro Gordo. Cerro Gordo is located in the Inyo Mountains at an elevation of over 8500 feet; access is via a graded dirt road off Highway 136, midway between Death Valley National Park and Lone Pine, CA. The road proved a challenge for my 4WD Toyota 4Runner; a passenger car doesn't have a chance in hell of making it to Cerro Gordo.

But the trip is worth it. Take a look below at the American Hotel in "downtown" Cerro Gordo. This view is looking west across the dry bed of Owens Lake to the Sierra Nevada range. The American Hotel is a two-story structure. On the ground floor is the kitchen, dining room, and gaming parlors; on the second floor are four private rooms and a large open area where guests slept on cots. It might not sound luxurious, but it beat sleeping outside in the middle of winter at 8500 feet!

The only residents of Cerro Gordo today are two caretakers; the entire site is privately owned. The photo below shows the posted rules for visitors that you see at the front entrance to the site. As you may be able to discern, admission is $5 (or was when I visited in 2002) and you stay in your car and honk until the caretakers arrive to collect your money and admit you. Yes, the caretakers pack guns and trying to sneak in is definitely not a good idea.

Cerro Gordo provides numerous jaw-dropping vistas; the contrast between the crumbling structures and the backdrop of the Sierras and the Owens Lake drybed is spectacular. It also supplies a near-constant wind coming up from the Owens Valley. I hate to think of how cold that wind must have been on winter nights!

Cerro Gordo came into being around 1865 with the discovery of gold and silver in the mountainsides around the site. Growth was explosive; by 1875 over 4700 lived in the town. While many of the miners were single and lived in communal tents and crude rock shelters, some families lived in substantial homes. Note the horse "hitching posts" in front of the one below!

With so many single miners around, there was also plenty of prostitutes. I was told the buildings below were former brothels. Violence and gunfights were common. To prevent the gold and silver bullion from being stolen as it was transported down the mountain, it was smelted into 400 pound bars carried on wagons drawn by horse teams. The weight of the bars made it impossible for them to be stolen by thieves on horseback, and robberies were rare as a result.

The mines were connected to Cerro Gordo by an extensive tram rail system; remnants of tracks and cars surround the town site. A portion of the tram system is shown below. There are also ruins of a smelter, mine shafts, etc. to explore. One day really isn't enough time to see everything there is to see.

By 1877, the production at Cerro Gordo's mines began to sharply decrease; by 1895, the post office had closed and only a few people remained. There were brief flurries of renewed activity----especially with zinc mining in 1911-----but by 1930 Cerro Gordo was totally deserted. Now only a couple of caretakers, several interesting buildings, and a lot of memories remain. I'm glad I had the opportunity to visit it.