Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Ghost Town Of Darwin, California

Darwin, California isn't a "true" ghost town; as the sign shows, a handful of people still remain. But it's a "zombie" town that seems populated almost exclusively by those on disability or engaged in activities they wish to keep away from the eyes of local, state, and federal law enforcement agents.

Darwin is located on Highway 190, the western entrance to Death Valley National Park (this is the so-called Panamint Springs entrance). It is reached by taking the Highway 190 exit east off Highway 395 just south of Olancha, CA. The road to Darwin is on the right from Highway 190 eastbound, although it is poorly marked and it's easy to zoom right past it------as most visitors to Death Valley via this entrance do.

Darwin in named for Dr. Darwin French, a prospector who discovered silver in the area in 1874. By 1877, Darwin had over 3500 people with water pumped down from springs in the surrounding mountains. There was a silver smelter, a Wells Fargo office, two general stores, a hotel, several saloons and eating establishments, and a weekly newspaper. Because the site was isolated and populated by miners with little to do for recreation but drink, gunfights were common; outbound silver shipments were frequently the targets of robbers. But in 1879, the miners staged a violent strike for higher pay, culminating in a large fire, believed to be arson, that hit Darwin on April 30 of that year. Many buildings were destroyed, including mine offices, and the results were predictable: the mine operators quickly pulled out. and the now permanently unemployed miners had no choice but to do the same. By 1880, the population of Darwin was only 85. But it never completely died.

In 1908, some new lead and copper strikes were made in the area and people began to return to Darwin. By the 1920s, the population was back up to 1000 and remained around that level until all non-essential mining activity was curtailed in 1942. By the time World War II ended, Darwin had less than 100 people. In the early 1950s, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company greatly expanded its lead mining operations in Darwin, even building a new mining camp (complete with housing facilities for workers) that dwarfed Darwin. For a period in the late 1950s, Darwin was the largest producer of lead in the United States. But the mine began to play out, and Anaconda shut down its operations in the mid-1970s. Today, the remains of their large facilities can be viewed in the distance from behind a fence, as shown below. Being a security guard for Anaconda at this facility seems to be about the only source of employment in Darwin:

Much of Darwin looks like the scene below, with plenty of boarded-up buildings from the 1920s "rebirth" and abandoned/inoperable vehicles from the 1950s left to slowly rust in the high desert:

There's no place in Darwin to get any gasoline or your car repaired-----heck, there's no place to buy anything to eat or drink!------but there is this cool abandoned service station/general store. Look at those two neat old "gravity" gasoline pumps still standing out front!

For fun, I suppose everyone in town goes to the Darwin Dance Hall. When I looked through the windows, however, I didn't see much room to dance, only a lot of glass bottles and miscellaneous pieces of wooden furniture:

One building which survives from Darwin's original 1874-79 boom period is the wooden building below which has served as a schoolhouse, then a saloon, and, finally, reportedly a brothel. Maybe it was all three at once; if so, I guess everyone was happy when they had a lot of homework:

Most of the remaining population of Darwin lives in ramshackle dwellings like the ones below, although many have whimsical little touches like the Mickey Mouse head at right. The only water supply to Darwin comes through a single six inch pipe from the adjacent China Lake Naval Weapons Center. One of the people I spoke to in Darwin said the water pressure sometimes falls to a trickle, and residents all stockpile water for drinking, etc., for such times. The nearest grocery store or medical attention is in Lone Pine, about 60 miles away.

Like all small, isolated areas of the American West, Darwin attracts its fair share of eccentrics, misfits, and those who are just plain batshit crazy. They live in places like the "house" below; it's a fiberglass, pre-fab fallout shelter from the 1950s. You were supposed to cover it with soil or concrete to block radiation. You weren't supposed to locate it on the west side of Death Valley, install an air conditioner, and make it your home sweet home:

It takes a special person to live in Darwin. I'm not special.