Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Ghost Town Of Ballarat, California

Ballarat, California is a long way from anywhere. It's wedged between the Panamint Mountains that form the western border of Death Valley and the eastern face of the Sierra Nevadas. It is located on Highway 178 between the small town of Trona and the junction of Highway 190 (the Panamint Springs entrance to Death Valley National Park). This is extremely isolated country; cell phones don't work out here and the nearest gasoline (or any other services) is over 30 miles away in either Trona.

Ballarat was named after the Australian gold mining town in Victoria. It was founded in 1896 as a supply point for the gold mines found in the Panamints that loom over the town site. By 1905, its population had grown to 500 and was supplemented by a larger transitory population of prospectors who "wintered over" in town before returning to the mountains in spring. Ballarat had several saloons, a Wells Fargo office, and a post office, but no church. The population began a slow decline as the mines played out, and the World War II ban on gold mining effectively turned Ballarat into a ghost town. Today, Ballarat is the permanent home to only a couple of people who serve as caretakers for the property and operate a small store selling soft drinks and snacks. However, the area has seen renewed mining activity, and the nearby Briggs Gold Mine is currently the largest producer of gold in California. However, its workers are transported in from Trona each day via bus.

Ballarat is reached via a graded dirt road from Highway 178 and the turn-off is clearly marked:

The elements have not been kind to Ballarat. Summer temperatures usually top 100, and winter lows can sink into the teens. The desert wind is merciless. The result is that almost all buildings in Ballarat are in a state of advanced decay; wood is splintering and collapsing while adobe structures and walls are dissolving away back to the dirt:

Here are two examples of how adobe structures are being worn away in Ballarat. The first shows an adobe wall being propped up, while the other shows all that remains of an adobe building. It won't be too much longer until the desert reclaims both of these and they will be no more:

The former general store below is the best preserved adobe building remaining in Ballarat:

The Ballarat cemetery is well preserved and maintained, although the wooden headstones atop many graves have collapsed or worn away:

Ballarat may not have the human population it once did, but its wild burro population is doing just fine. The fellows below descended from the burros used by prospectors over a century ago; they have adapted quite well to the desert:

In the late 1960s, Ballarat achieved a bit of fame (or infamy) because Charles Manson and his "family" were frequent visitors there. The Barker Ranch used by Manson and his followers is located in the hills above Ballarat and the Manson family had to travel through Ballarat on their way to and from the outside world. Ballarat was the staging area for the raid on the Barker Ranch conducted by the California Highway Patrol and Inyo County Sheriff's Department which resulted in Manson's arrest; Ballarat was the last place Manson saw as a free man. Before the raid, one of Manson's followers, Charles "Tex" Watson, fled Barker Ranch in a green Dodge truck that made it all the way to Ballarat before breaking down. You can see it in the background of the photo below. The Manson family carved their insignia, five stars, above the Dodge nameplate on the hood. The road to the Barker Ranch site has not been maintained for years and the site can only be reached by a hike of several miles. But Watson's getaway truck is still in Ballarat and can be easily visited, at least until it rusts away into the desert: