These Canyons Are Full of Ghosts: The Last of the Death Valley Prospectors Emmett C. Harder
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Nowadays tourists from all over the world travel to Death Valley but most all of them never see the romantic and mysterious badlands, the south end of the valley. This area is off the beaten path, remote and dangerous! This book is about the gold hunters that loved to search the southern wastelands, the high hills and deep canyons, come hell or high water. It is about their last days, an era lost forever. The whole valley is off limits now for prospecting. No longer can you hear the distant sound of dynamite nor will you see men or women in tattered denim clothes, with pick and shovel, working their mining claims. However in these pages you can step back to when they were there, and share their excitement and share their dreams–and you will be sure to strike it rich!
This is the history of Death Valley, where that bitter stream the Amargosa dies. It embraces the whole basin of the Amargosa from the Panamints to the Spring Mountains, from the Palmettos to the Avawatz. And it spans a century from the earliest recollections and the oldest records to that day in 1933 when much of the valley was finally set aside as a National Monument.
This is the story of an illusory land, of the people it attracted and of the dreams and delusions they pursued-the story of the metals in its mountains and the salts in its sinks, of its desiccating heat and its revitalizing springs, and of all the riches of its scenery and lore- the story of Indians and horse thieves, lost argonauts and lost mine hunters, prospectors and promoters, miners and millionaires, stockholders and stock sharps, homesteaders and hermits, writers and tourists. But mostly this is the story of the illusions-the illusions of a shortcut to the gold diggings that lured the forty-niners, of inescapable deadliness that hung in the name they left behind, of lost bonanzas that grew out of the few nuggets they found, of immeasurable riches spread by hopeful prospectors and calculating con men, and of impenetrable mysteries concocted by the likes of Scotty. These and many lesser illusions are the heart of its history.
May 1941 The bonanza days in the Death Valley region have long since passed, but grizzled prospectors are still picking away in the hills, confident that rich ledges of gold and silver are yet to be uncovered.
By LeROY and MARGARET BALES Desert Magazine – May 1941
The bonanza days in the Death Valley region have long since passed, but grizzled prospectors are still picking away in the hills, confident that rich ledges of gold and silver are yet to be uncovered. Ballarat was one of the boom towns in that area in the late ‘nineties. Only crumbling walls and a few weathered shacks remain on the treeless landscape to mark the site of the town today but some of the veteran mining men still spend their winters there—and Ballarat will never die while these old-timers remain to recall tales of the past and keep their faith in the new strikes yet to be made.
A ghost town with living inhabitants–that’s Ballarat. Standing on a treeless desert horizon at the foot of California’s Panamint mountains, its roofs are mostly gone, its walls are crumbling away—but in a few of the ancient shacks still dwell men “who knew the town when.”
They are a restless lot, these surviving desert rats of the old days—here today, tomorrow somewhere in the mountains 20 miles away. They come and go like the ghosts of the gala, golden era in which the town sprung into being.
Panamint Tom, the killer Indian; Shorty Harris, the most successful—and the most unlucky—prospector who ever packed a burro; French Pete, and a hundred others—famous and infamous—had a part in the boom day era. And one other, whose name on the desert is synonymous with Ballarat—Chris Wicht—-0l’ Chris, who ran the saloon, kept it open in fact long after the town itself had died.
For four years after the boom’s collapse Chris “fed and drank” the stranded prospectors “because I couldn’t help but feel I owed them something. They always left their dollars with me when they had ’em.”
“I “Kept figuring the town would come back,” he explains, “but when I’d gone broke too and no rich strikes made I knew I’d finally have to fold up.”
He doesn’t think he was generous. “I had it. They needed it. They paid me when they could,” is the way he puts it. Maybe that’s why, whenever you mentionBallaratin a desert mining town, someone remembers Ol’ Chris.
We were 200 miles away, having coffee at Big Rock springs on the edge of the Mojave, when we first heard about him. It was in October, 1940. We were on a hunt for ghost towns in the desert.
Mrs. Howard Bland, an attractive woman and an old-timer in the Mojave, told us about Ballarat and Chris as she served us coffee in the combination grocery store and lunch counter. There were interruptions while she waited on other customers, but we were in no hurry, and as time permitted she came and sat at the table with us and related her experiences in the old mining camp,
“I’ll never forget Ballarat,” she said, “any more than I will forget Chris Wicht and a certain postal inspector who paid the camp an official visit long after its gold had been worked out.”
Ballarat’s heyday was between 1895 to 1907. Then it was a bustling supply center forPanamint valleyprospectors—a link between the borax mines in Death Valley and the outside world. It was 15 years later that Mrs. Bland first saw the old camp. Then it was just a cluster of buildings in a beautiful barren setting. There was a hotel that nobody used, a closed store, a post office where mail never came or went. Ol’ Chris and his saloon were all that was left.
The government had found out that it had a post office that wasn’t being used and a postal inspection must be made. The postmaster who had also been the grocer, had just drifted off after the others. The postal department sent an elderly dignified Bostonian, whose habits of living had made him hopelessly useless according to desert dwellers’ way of thinking. The train dropped him at Randsburg, and since the bus driver was away, Mrs. Bland, whose husband was then the Randsburg grocer, was elected to take him to Ballarat in her Model T Ford.
“It was a cold, threatening day,” she related. “The road over Slate range was just two deep ruts with a high ridge between. There were hairpin turns around cliffs that dropped 600 feet. Buzzards circling overhead.
“The postal inspector was nervous. All he could see were mountains of rock, a few buzzards in the sky, and way below a wide barren flat. You could almost hear him shudder. I pointed out Ballarat – just a speck at the foot of the range on the other side of the valley. He didn’t see how people and animals could live there. What, for instance, could those big birds find to eat?
“I tried to wither him with a look. ‘Any old carcass is a feast to a buzzard,’ I said, and that stopped all small talk till we got to Ballarat.
“It was late afternoon, but the sky was already dark because of the storm clouds. Chris Wicht came out and met us. I liked him right away. He helped us open the old store, and the inspector got out the combination to the safe and started to work. He was pretty sure of himself at first, but after about 10 tries he became a little upset. So was I. I didn’t like the looks of that storm coming on.
‘Why don’t you give it a good cussing?’ Ol’ Chris suggested. ‘That’s the way the grocer used to make it work.’ The inspector wouldn’t even look at him. But he got up and handed me the figures. He said he guessed he didn’t have the right touch.
“Well, I tried it six or seven times I guess—until I was ready to try a charge of dynamite if nothing else would work. Chris was still standing there with that funny little smile of his, so I said, ‘How about you, Chris? Can you remember the words the grocer used?’
“Chris had never herded a burro, but he did all right. But even that didn’t work this time.
“I was ready to start for home. But not the inspector. He took back his figures and started in all over again. Chris watched him awhile and shook his head. ‘I think he needs a drink,’ he said.
“I sat down and chewed my fingernails. Finally I couldn’t stand it any longer. I asked him to look outside and see the storm coming up. And I told him about the water spout that hit Surprise canyon a couple of years before and cut a 20-foot gully where there used to be a road. I tried to make him understand that it doesn’t just rain in this country—it pours. And that even a Model T didn’t have a chance, and the road across the dry lake would be just as slippery as a gravy dish and we had 65 miles of rough desert road before we got back to Randsburg. I must have made an impression finally because he said he guessed we might as well go.
“I helped him into the Ford and we jogged out of town over the long washboard of road that crossed the valley. I couldn’t tell whether the inspector’s teeth or the Ford chattered loudest. I was holding the throttle open as far as was safe. But I needn’t have bothered. The car stopped just before we got to the foot of the range. Ballarat was at least 10 miles behind us.
“I checked the gas, the plugs, even used my nail file on the points. It wasn’t any use.
“The inspector seemed to have lost his voice, but he managed to whisper shakily, ‘You don’t suppose we’ll be stranded here?’
” ‘Unless you know more about the insides of this thing than I do, one of us will,’ I assured him.
“He slipped down in the seat. ‘I never drove a car in my life,’ he said.
“I asked him how he was at walking. He just looked out into the darkness and shook his head. I wondered what the post office department was thinking of—sending a city man to Ballarat.
“There were two chocolate bars in the car pocket. I gave him both of them and warned him to stay put because of the jackals in the hills. When I left him he was shaking all over and all he could say was, ‘Jackals!’
“Well, it was a rough hike, but Ol’ Chris welcomed me at the end of it with a warm fire and a cozy chair. I suspect he enjoyed the inspector’s predicament. He said he’d get a burro out to him. He sent an old prospector and two burros. They returned hours later with a storm-washed inspector whose pince-nez dangled sadly on its chain.
“The next day a man from the Tanks on the other side of the range came over and fixed the Ford. The road had jolted loose all the ignition screws. I took the inspector back to Randsburg, and that was the last I ever saw of him. I don’t believe he ever visited our desert again. Ol’ Chris? They tell me he’s still somewhere around Ballarat. Back up in the hills with his own claim. Look him up. He’s one in a million.”
After hearing her story we wouldn’t have missed seeing Ballarat. Going over the Slate range we knew that except for grading, the road couldn’t have been changed much. There were the same sheer cliffs, the same hairpin turns, even a buzzard circling overhead, with Ballarat a little group of patched up buildings at the end of a ribbon of road across an alkaline flat.
Half a dozen men, a woman and her son, made their homes in the old structures and managed to find a living in the jagged forbidding range of the Panamints. Even the old double-boarded jail had become somebody’s home. It didn’t look as though it had ever been very strong.
“Didn’t have to be,” said Billy Heider, one of the old-timers. “Nobody ever in it but drunks. Didn’t even bother to lock the door on them. What was the use? Why should Ballarat feed ’em when all they needed was to sober up so’s they could go back out and spend their own money again?”
“But weren’t there bandits and outlaws in the early days? Wasn’t it true thatPanamint Cityhad been founded by a couple of stage coach robbers who accidentally discovered the rich veins of silver there way back in ’73—that one of them lived to a ripe old age in Ballarat?”
“Maybe so,” he agreed. “You hear a lot of things. But we don’t ask too many questions about a man out here—just so long as he’s straight with us. Sure, we had our share of outlaws—every mining town does. Had our share of shootings too. But nobody ever got hurt. Generally just playing around, happy and blowing off steam.”
Most of Ballarat’s prospectors pull out when summer comes. The men all have cars of one sort or another, and the High Sierra isn’t too far away. Some of them go up there and fish the summer away. Others have destinations unknown and never mentioned. Like Slim Ferge—Seldom Seen Slim. If the winter was lucky, he just disappears. When he’s broke he comes back—goes into the Panamints a few ore samples—sets up beside the highway in the Mojave, sells the samples to tourists for a new stake and starts all over again.
Most of the prospectors are hunting for gold. The Panamints have low-grade silver, but mining it is not profitable according to Chris Wicht, who has a whole canyon of it and ought to know. Some of the newcomers have found scheelite, which is composed of calcium and tungsten oxides. Tungsten is an important factor in the manufacture of armaments, and with an eye to the future and war industries booming, they know the supply can never equal the demand. The essential part of their equipment” is a violet ray lamp with batteries strapped to their chests. The light picks out the ore in little glowing patches.
But even the scheelite prospectors do not stay in Ballarat during the summer. The only one who is sure to be around is Ol’ Chris Wicht. They told us where to find him—a group of cottonwoods halfway up Surprise canyon where he has a silver claim and a bunch of cabins—”runs a sort of resort.”
That was news! A resort in Surprise canyon.
“How are the roads?” we asked.
“Oh, fine,” Slim assured us. “No bad roads around here. Don’t find bad roads till you get down around Granite wells.”
We didn’t go down around Granite wells, but we decided, bumping along the road up Surprise canyon, that Seldom Seen Slim had a real sense of humor. We even wondered if it wouldn’t be a nice idea to write Henry Ford a letter, providing there was anything left of our car to write about. But, at that, it might not have been so bad if we could have forgotten that the deep ravine beside the narrow ledge of road was where another road used to be and a waterspout took it out. Chris’s place is a little paradise in the Panamints after you get to it.
He has a group of neat furnished cabins and running water the year round. He’s even built a swimming pool where customers can “dehydrate” when the weather gets really hot and, for ultra modern convenience, he’s put in his own electric light plant. Crude, maybe, but it works. He had to use what he could find—a water wheel from an old mine and an old Dodge generator.
Chris thinks there isn’t any place like the Panamints. He doesn’t work his claim much. “If it was gold,” he says, “it would be all right. But by the time I’ve loaded silver onto the trucks, hauled it in and had it smelted, there isn’t anything left.” He still has faith in Ballarat. “There’s plenty of gold left yet in the Panamints.
It runs in ledges in the mountains to the south, lots of good pockets if you can find them. Trouble is, you have to be like a mountain goat to get around. And these automobiles don’t help any. In the old days, with a burro, a prospector could go almost anyplace. Now he either has to hunt around the edges, or leave the car behind and walk. Besides, who ever got any satisfaction out of trying new words on automobiles?”
“Sure,” he said, ” I still think Ballarat will come back some day.” He swept his arm broadly. “The reason may lay two hundred feet deep — but it’s there, hid someplace in the Panamints.”
Shorty Harris and his companion eating next to an automobile somewhere in Death Valley during the 1920s. Rhyolite, Nevada was founded in 1904 after Shorty Harris and Ed Cross discovered Rhyolite Quartz at the Bullfrog mine. By 1906 the town had two railroad lines and a population of 10,000. The mines, however, did not produce as expected and by the early 1910s Rhyolite was abandoned. Aurora, Nevada was a silver mining boomtown founded in 1860. The heyday of Aurora ran throughout the 1860s (Mark Twain briefly lived there), but it slowly declined after 1870. It went through a rebirth in 1912 when a new stamp mill and cyanide plant were built at the mines. In 1917, however, the mill closed down and by the early 1920s Aurora was abandoned. Calico, California was initially founded as a silver mining town in 1882 but by 1890 the cost of recovering the silver became prohibitive. The town, however, continued to exist until 1907 due to the production of Borax.
At Furnace Creek ranch, Mr. Harris learned of the finding of three partially decomposed bodies between Lee’s camp in Echo canon and the Lida C. [sic] borax mine, at the foot of a low hill on the north side of the Funeral range. The presence of the bodies was first reported at Ash Meadows by an Indian, who was attracted to the spot by a band of coyotes and a …
from: Half a Century Chasing Rainbows By Frank "Shorty" Harris as told to Phillip Johnston Touring Topics: Magazine of the American Automobile Association of Southern California - October 1930
The best strike I ever made was in 1904 when I discovered the Rhyolite and Bullfrog district. I went into Boundary Canyon with five burros and plenty of grub, figuring to look over the country northeast from there. When I stopped atKeane Wonder Mine, Ed Cross was there waiting for his partner, Frank Howard, to bring some supplies from the inside. For some reason, Howard had been delayed, and Cross was low on grub.
“Shorty,” he said, “I’m up against it, and the Lord knows when Howard will come back. How are the chances of going with you?”
“Sure, come right along,” I told him, “I’ve got enough to keep us eating for a couple of months.”
So we left the Keane Wonder, went through Boundary Canyon, and made camp at Buck Springs, five miles from a ranch on the Amargosa where a squaw man by the name of Monte Beatty lived. The next morning while Ed was cooking, I went after the burros. They were feeding on the side of a mountain near our camp and about half a mile from the spring. I carried my pick, as all prospectors do, even when they are looking for their jacks—a man never knows just when he is going to locate pay-ore. When I reached the burros, they were right on the spot where the Bullfrog mine was afterward located. Two hundred feet away was a ledge of rock with some copper stains on it. I walked over and broke off a piece with my pick—and gosh, I couldn’t believe my own eyes. The chunks of gold were so big that I could see them at arm’s length—regular jewelry stone! In fact, a lot of that ore was sent to jewelers in this country and England, and they set it in rings, it was that pretty! Right then, it seemed to me that the whole mountain was gold.
I let out a yell, and Ed knew something had happened; so he came running up as fast as he could. When he got close enough to hear, I yelled again: “Ed we’ve got the world by the tail, or else we’re coppered!”
We broke off several more pieces, and they were like the first—just lousy with gold. The rock was green, almost like turquoise, spotted with big chunks of yellow metal, and looked a lot like the back of a frog. This gave us an idea for naming our claim, so we called it the Bullfrog. The formation had a good dip, too. It looked like a real fissure vein; the kind that goes deep and has lots of real stuff in it. We hunted over the mountain for more outcroppings, but there were no other like that one the burros led me to. We had tumbled into the cream pitcher on the first one—so why waste time looking for skimmed milk?
That night we built a hot fire with greasewood, and melted the gold out of the specimens. We wanted to see how much was copper, and how much was the real stuff. And when the pan got red hot, and the gold ran out and formed a button, we knew that our strike was a big one, and that we were rich.
“How many claims do you figure on staking out?” Ed asked me. “One ought to be plenty,” I told him. “If there ain’t enough in one claim, there ain’t enough in the whole country. If other fellows put extensions on that claim of ours, and find good stuff, it will help us sell out for big money.” Ed saw that that was a good argument, so he agreed with me.
After the monuments were placed, we got some more rich samples and went to the county seat to record our claim. Then we marched into Goldfield, and went to an eating-house. Ed finished his meal before I did, and went out into the street where he met Bob Montgomery, a miner that both of us knew. Ed showed him a sample of our ore, and Bob couldn’t believe his eyes.
“Where did you get that?” he asked. “Shorty and I found a ledge of it southwest of Bill Beatty’s ranch,” Ed told him. Bob thought he was having some fun with him and said so. “Oh, that’s just a piece of float that you picked up somewhere. It’s damn seldom ledges like that are found!” Just then I came walking up, and Ed said, “Ask Shorty if I ain’t telling you the truth.” “Bob,” I said, “that’s the biggest strike made since Goldfield was found. If you’ve got any sense at all, you’ll go down there as fast as you can, and get in on the ground floor!”
That seemed to be proof enough for him, and he went away in a hurry to get his outfit together—one horse and a cart to haul his tools and grub. He had an Indian with him by the name of Shoshone Johnny, who was a good prospector. Later on, it was this Indian who set the monuments on the claim that was to become the famous Montgomery-Shoshone Mine.
It’s a might strange thing how fast the news of a strike travels. You can go into a town after you’ve made one, meet a friend on the street, take him into your hotel room and lock the door. Then, after he has taken a nip from your bottle, you can whisper the news very softly in his ear. Before you can get out on the street, you’ll see men running around like excited ants that have had a handful of sugar poured on their nest. Ed and I didn’t try to keep our strike a secret, but we were surprised by how the news of it spread. Men swarmed around us and asked to see our specimens. They took one look at them, and then started off on the run to get their outfits together.
I’ve seen some gold rushes in my time that were hummers, but nothing like that stampede. Men were leaving town in a steady stream with buckboards, buggies, wagons, and burros. It looked like the whole population of Goldfield was trying to move at once. Miners who were working for the big companies dropped their tools and got ready to leave town in a hurry. Timekeepers and clerks, waiters and cooks—they all got he fever and milled around, wild-eyed, trying to find a way to get out to the new “strike.” In a little while, there wasn’t a horse or wagon in town, outside of a few owned by the big companies, and the price of burros took a big jump. I saw one man who was about ready to cry because he couldn’t buy a jackass for $500.
A lot of fellows loaded their stuff on two-wheeled carts—grub, tools, and cooking utensils, and away they went across the desert, two or three pulling a cart and the pots and pans rattling. When all the carts were gone, men who didn’t have anything else started out on that seventy-five-mile hike with wheelbarrows; and a lot of ’em made it alright—but they had a hell of a time!
When Ed and I got back to our claim a week later, more than a thousand men were camped around it, and they were coming in every day. A few had tents, but most of ‘em were in open camps. One man had brought a wagon load of whiskey, pitched a tent, and made a bar by laying a plank across two barrels. He was serving the liquor in tin cups, and doing a fine business.
That was the start of Rhyolite, and from then on things moved so fast that it made even us old-timers dizzy. Men were swarming all over the mountains like ants, staking out claims, digging and blasting, and hurrying back to the county seat to record their holdings. There were extensions on all sides of our claim, and other claims covering the country in all directions.
In a few days, wagon loads of lumber began to arrive, and the first buildings were put up. These were called rag-houses because they were half boards and half-canvas. But this building material was so expensive that lots of men made dugouts, which didn’t cost much more than plenty of sweat and blisters.
When the engineers and promoters began to come out, Ed and I got offers every day for our claim. But we just sat tight and watched the camp grow. We knew the price would go up after some of the others started to ship bullion. And as time went on, we saw that we were right. Frame shacks went up in the place of rag-houses and stores, saloons, and dance halls were being opened every day.
Bids for our property got better and better. The man who wanted to buy would treat me with plenty of liquor before he talked business, and in that way, I got all I wanted to drink without spending a bean. Ed was wiser, though, and let the stuff alone—and it paid him to do it too, for when he did sell, he got much more for his half than I got for mine.
One night, when I was pretty well lit up, a man by the name of Bryan took me to his room and put me to bed. The next morning, when I woke up, I had a bad headache and wanted more liquor. Bryan had left several bottles of whiskey on a chair beside the bed and locked the door. I helped myself and went back to sleep. That was the start of the longest jag I ever went on; it lasted six days. When I came to, Bryan showed me a bill of sale for the Bullfrog, and the price was only $25,000. I got plenty sore, but it didn’t do any good. There was my signature on the paper and beside it, the signatures of seven witnesses and the notary’s seal. And I felt a lot worse when I found out that Ed had been paid a hundred and twenty-five thousand for his half, and had lit right out for Lone Pine, where he got married. Today he’s living in San Diego County, has a fine ranch, and is very well fixed.
As soon as I got the money, I went out for a good time. All the girls ate regularly while old Shorty had the dough. As long as my stake lasted I could move and keep the band playing. And friends—I never knew I had so many! They’d jam a saloon to the doors, and every round of drinks cost me thirty or forty dollars. I’d have gone clean through the pay in a few weeks if Dave Driscol hadn’t given me hell. Dave and I had been partners in Colorado and Utah, and I thought a great deal of him. Today he’s living over in Wildrose Canyon and going blind. Well, I had seven or eight thousand left when Dave talked to me. “Shorty,” he said, “If you don’t cut this out you’ll be broke in a damn short time and won’t have the price of a meal ticket!” I saw that he was right, and jumped on the water wagon then and there—and I haven’t fallen off since.
Rhyolite grew like a mushroom. Gold Center was started four miles away, and Beatty’s ranch became a town within a few months. There were 12,000 people in the three places, and two railroads were built out to Rhyolite. Shipments of gold were made every day, and some of the ore was so rich that it was sent by express with armed guards. And then a lot of cash came into Rhyolite—more than went out from the mines. It was this sucker money that put the town on the map quickly. The stock exchange was doing a big business, and I remember that the price of Montgomery-Shoshone got up to ten dollars a share.
Businessmen of Rhyolite were live ones, alright. They decided to make the town the finest in Nevada—and they came mighty near doing it. Overbury built a three-story office building out of cut stone—it must have cost him fifty thousand. The bank building had three stories too, and the bank was finished with marble and bronze. There were plenty of other fine business houses and a railroad station that would look mighty good in any city.
Money was easy to get and easy to spend in those days. The miners and muckers threw it right and left when they had it. Many a time I’ve seen ‘em eating bacon and beans, and drinking champagne. Wages were just a sideline with them—most of their money was made in mining stock.
Rhyolite was a great town, and no mistake—as live as the Colorado camps were thirty years before, but not so bad. We had a few gunfights, and several tough characters got their light shot out, which didn’t make the rest of us sore. We were glad enough to spare ‘em. I saw some of those fights myself, but I never took any part in the fireworks. “Shorty, the foot racer” was what they called me because I always ducked around the corner when the bullets began to fly. I knew they were not meant for me, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
There was plenty of gold in those mountains when I discovered the original Bullfrog, and there’s plenty there yet. A lot of it was taken out while Rhyolite was going strong—$6,000,000 or $7,000,000—but they quit before they got the best of it. Stock speculation—that’s what killed Rhyolite! The promoters got impatient. They figured that money could be made faster by getting gold from the pockets of suckers than by digging it out of the hills. And so, when the operators of the Montgomery-Shoshone had a little trouble; when they ran into the water and struck a sulfite ore which is refractory and has to be cut and roasted to be turned into money—the bottom dropped out of the stock market and the town busted wide open, She died quick, too. Most of the tin horns lit out for other parts, and that’s a sure sign a mining camp is going on the rocks.
If the right people ever got hold of Rhyolite they’ll make a killing, but they’ll have to be really hard rock miners and not the kind that does their work only on paper. Rhyolite is dead now—dead as she was before I made the big strike. Those fine buildings are standing out there on the desert, with the coyotes and jackrabbits playing hide and seek around them.
from: Half a Century Chasing Rainbows By Frank “Shorty” Harris as told to Phillip Johnston Touring Topics: Magazine of the American Automobile Association of Southern California October 1930
TODAY’S TRAVELER to Panamint sees a crazy quilt of bare foundations and ramshackle walls. He marvels, too, at the old brick mill which for almost 100 years has challenged decay and oblivion. But it is not what he sees that affects the traveler; it’s what he feels. As he stands on the road looking up Surprise Canyon which nestles unpretentiously on the Western slope of the Panamint Range, about 10 miles south of Telescope Peak, the years roll back. Breezes echo gruff, untutored voices, and there is a raucous clang as the 20-stamp mill’s witchery produces precious silver ingots for shipment to “Frisco,” fabled financial capitol of the 70s. The lizard on the big granite boulder is unimpressed that a bearded miner’s pick lay on this same rock many years ago. And now, one looks vainly on the old dirt road for tracks of heavily-loaded desert burros. They’re gone just like the silver city herself.
The story of Panamint probably began in 1859 with the discovery of the Comstock lode. On this date a silver fever began which swept the United States and was especially “fatal” in the Western frontier where curiously every man was a modern day Jason tirelessly searching for his kind of fleece. But after 1859 many frontier men thought of just one thing—to trek the unknown for silver.
William T. Henderson was such a man. Spurred on by the silver news emanating daily from the Comstock, and from legends of the enormously rich lost Gunsight mine, the bearded prospector coaxed his burro across colorful Death Valley. With him were S. P. George and Indian George. S. P. George was weaned on the old gunsight lore. Indian George had long since discarded the ways of the red man and made the hopes of the white man his own.
These three dreamers in I860 skirted the flaming cliffs on the west side of Panamint Mountain. While Henderson found nothing to satisfy his thirst for silver, there was something about the ancient granite and metamorphic rocks of Panamint escarpment that promised wealth untold. So, he returned. This time with a legendary adventurer named William Alvord, a sourdough named Jackson, and the ever faithful Indian George. Again Henderson’s dreams of wealth were stymied. He left Panamint never to return. Alvord, his partner, was more unfortunate still. In the upper reaches of Surprise Canyon he was bushwacked by Jackson and left for vultures. All these anxious probings for silver into the desolate sunscorched Panamints were futile. Silver wasn’t discovered until late in 1872 when two of the most colorful champions of the silver west, R. E. Jacobs and Bob Stewart, wandered up Surprise Canyon and found a huge fragment of rich silver ore.
The great migration to the silver diggings began. Crude buildings sprang up like mushrooms after a spring rain. The most useful Panamint edifice was, of course, the Surprise Valley Mining and Water Company’s 20-stamp mill. It was finished in a matter of weeks while miners with huge stacks of ore chaffed at the bit. Good mechanics, carpenters, and millwrights got top wages of $6 per day. Most popular, of course, were the saloons and Panamint in those days had some fine ones. Like San Francisco, Panamint had its own Palace Hotel. Its barroom was built by skilled Panamint craftsmen and had a beautiful black walnut top. On the side walls were handsome pictures of voluptuous females in varying states of dishabille. But Dave Neagle, the owner of this splendid saloon, was especially proud of his magnificent mirror. It was 8 x 6 feet with double lamps on each side.
Fred Yager early determined that his “Dexter” saloon was going to surpass Neagle’s. Fred especially wanted the finest mirror in town. So, he sent to San Diego for a beauty. The mirror installed was to be a 7 x 12 foot sparkler. Tragedy struck, however, when an inebriated miner fell on the shimmering reflector just as it was being positioned against the wall. Sheltered in the confines of his Palace, Dave must have smiled at his rival’s sore plight—perhaps murmuring encouragingly that breaking a mirror leads to seven years bad luck.
There were two outstanding architectural omissions in Panamint. There was no jail—criminals had to be taken to Independence for incarceration. Further, though it was sorely needed, Panamint never had a hospital. On several occasions Panamint News editors Carr and later Harris cried out in their columns for a community hospital. Interestingly enough, the two crusading editors were mute concerning the lack of a jail.
Although it was not bruited about as such, the building owned and tastefully decorated by Martha Camp, played a significant role in the development of the new town. In Martha’s care was a bevy of attractive, if overly painted, young ladies whose lives were dedicated to two things: to make money and keep miners content.
It cannot be doubted, however, that Panamint prosperity was due to its mines. The two richest were suitably entitled Jacobs Wonder and Stewarts Wonder. Assays of these two mines showed ore values ranging from $100 to $4,000 per ton, the average being about $400. Stewart, a well known Nevada senator, later joined with another Nevada senator, J. P. Jones, to form Surprise Valley’s biggest mining combine, The Surprise Valley Company. Stewart and Jones had other local interests. They owned the Surprise Valley Water Company and a toll road procured from grizzly Sam Tait which trailed up Surprise Canyon. Charges for ascending this road were quite nominal: $2.00 for a wagon, 4 bits for a horseman, and 2 bits for a miner and burro.
The two editors of the Panamint News, at first Carr and later Harris, were rhapsodic in their faith in Panamint’s ultimate prosperity. Late in 1874 the front page of the news throbbed with excitement. “There is reason to believe, the News stated, that a busy population of from three to four thousand souls will be in Panamint in less than a year,” and later, “When we begin to send out our bullion it will be in such abundance as will cause the outside world to wonder if our mountains are not made of silver.” Harris’ beginning enthusiasm must have haunted him later, for his paper of March 2, 1875 modestly informs us that “there were only 600 people at Panamint.”
Despite the fact that the Havilah Miner proclaimed that Panamint City’s silver yield would one day eclipse the Comstock, capital funneled slowly and sporadically into the silver city. Private persons mostly subsidized Panamints mining activities. Senator Jones’ faith in Panamint was shown by hard cash accumulations of partially developed mines. The Senator’s brother caught the silver virus and plunked down $113,000 for a number of claims in the Panamint district. Stock sales never boomed. One wonders if the wildly energetic silver sun of the Comstock lode were not out to eclipse a potential rival. After all, shares in the Con Virginia were flirting a’la Croesus with the San Francisco stock exchange at the $700 mark. More dramatic was E. P. Raine’s method of seeking money for Panamint. He carted 300 lbs. of rich ore across the Mojave to Los Angeles. He staggered into the Clarendon Hotel and dumped the ore on a billiard table. Unfortunately, hotel patrons were more interested in the fact that Raine bought drinks for all than they were in the welfare of Panamint.
Probably the most popular method of getting freight to Panamint was sending goods via Remi Nadeau’s Cerro Gordo Freighting Company. Remi’s swaggering mule teams made daily trips from San Fernando to the Panamint mines. Remi was ever the epitome of optimism. Although untouched by such 20th Century transportation behemoths as the cross country truck and the jet cargo plane, Remi’s corporate slogan was “all goods marked C. G. F. C. will be forwarded with dispatch.”
But most characteristic of Panamint transportation in the early days was the solitary miner who arrived on foot followed by a heavily-laden burro. Within his hair-matted bosom slumbered the lion’s share of the vigor and courage of frontier America. Courage, however, wasn’t always the answer on the torrid road to Panamint. Bleached bones of unlucky prospectors sparkled all too frequently in the Mojave sun. When Panamint hearts were at their lightest and silver ore seemed to stretch like a ribbon of wealth to the center of the earth, the people of Panamint, spear headed by their grey-haired champion, Senator Jones, attempted to build a railroad from Shoo Fly (Santa Monica) to Independence. This railroad was to make Panamint the silver empire of the world. Already England was being heralded as an inexhaustible market for Panamint silver. Unfortunately, however, the railroad was to remain a dream railroad. The project clashed with the wishes of the great Southern Pacific quadrumvirate of Stanford, Crocker, Hopkins, and Huntington. The proposed Shoo Fly to Independence railroad won some initial battles—Senator Jones’ Chinese laborers soundly trounced a corps of General Huntington’s forces in the Cajon Pass, but the good Senator lost the decisive battle for his beloved railroad in the hallowed halls of Congress. The Southern Pacific, sans Winchester, had a clear blueprint for winning the West.
Recreation for Panamint’s thrifty merchants and boisterous sourdoughs centered, of course, in the city’s saloons. Whiskey was excellent and surly Jim Bruce dealt in a neat hand of faro. Whether tired miners came into Dave Neagle’s to ogle at pictures of nude ladies, to have a few drinks, or to chat with lovely, but garishly painted young ladies, all present usually had a good time. Rarely was there serious gun play. Once a Chinese window washer served as target for the six gun of a frolicsome and intoxicated miner, but usually life in a Panamint bar did little to disturb the city’s reputation as an “orderly community.” In their more gentle moments, some men attended the Panamint Masonic Lodge.
For the respectable female, recreational possibilities were severely limited. Legendary is the dance that Miss Delia Donoghue, proprietress of the Wyoming Restaurant, threw in honor of George Washington, the father of her country. To a four piece combo led by learned Professor Martin and paced by the twangs of a soused harpist, doughty men danced with 16 lovely ladies, almost the entire female population of the city.
Panamint certainly wasn’t as wicked as Tombstone, but it had its share of crime. Crime in this petulant silver metropolis ranged from writing threatening letters and petty thievery to infamous murder. The anonymous letters were sent to editor Harris. They criticized his reporting of the murder of Ed Barstow, night watchman for the Panamint News building, by gun fighter and chief undertaker Jim Bruce. This murder took place in Martha Camp’s pleasure house on Maiden Lane. Ed learned that his pal Jim was making time with Sophie Glennon who, demimonde damsel or not, was his girl. He burst into the bedroom firing his six gun blindly. Jim, drawing from his wide experience in such emergencies, sighted his target carefully and pumped two bullets into his erstwhile friend. A sentimental wrapping was given the whole affair when on his death bed Barstow confessed that he was drunk at the time and that his friend was guiltless. More sentiment was piled on when editor Harris used the crime as an excuse for moralizing on the dangers of drink.
A woman figured in one Panamint murder. Sleek Ramon Montenegro resented the words Philip de Rouche used to his comely escort. Montenegro, as lithe as a rattlesnake and with all its speed, knocked down the offender. For revenge, de Rouche later used the butt of his gun to play tattoo on Montenegro’s face. However, the handsome Latin won out in the end. Panamint sreets were a sea of flame for one moment as Montenegro’s gun flashed and killed the Frenchman. Taken to Independence for trial by Deputy Sheriff Ball, Montenegro was tried by a Grand Jury and, although pleading guilty, was acquitted.
Panamint’s most celebrated crime would probably never have been committed if Panamint were a stable community and due process of law an accepted way of righting wrongs in the silver city. A. Ashim was a respected member of the Panamint community. He belonged to the local Masonic Lodge and ran the town’s largest general merchandising business. But like most town males, Ashim had a six gun and had experience using it. So, when Nick Perasich ran off to Darwin leaving behind an unpaid bill of $47.50 at his store, Ashim walked into a Darwin restaurant. There Ashim shot Perasich three times, killing him instantly. The vendetta which resulted was not inferior to Mafia revenge killings of our day. Perasich’s brothers, led by the volatile Elias, pressed to kill Ashim. They almost succeeded. Hiding behind cornstalks along the roadside, they intercepted the stage and fired into it. Ashim escaped, but his mother received a powder burn on her nose.
But it was those wily ex-New Yorkers, Small and McDonald, who turned Panamint criminology into something resembling a comic opera. From their infamous castle nestled in Wild Rose Canyon, these disheveled silver “knights” rode their sleek chargers into clandestine rendezvous with those jolting fortresses of the West, Wells-Fargo stagecoaches. Once, the wily knaves hunted for a silver mine—and found one. They had no intention of working it. As soon as they could, they unloaded the mine on Senator Stewart. Money received from the sale of the mine could not have come at a more fortuitous moment for the unholy pair. They had been apprehended by Jim Hume, Wells-Fargo investigator, for robbing the Eureka and Palisades stage. Wells-Fargo forgot to press charges when Small and McDonald turned over to them the money received from the Senator for the sale of the mine.
After their close brush with Wells-Fargo, a legend started by twinkle-eyed Senator Stewart says that the desperados kept their eye on Senator Stewart’s progress with his new mine. Alarmed by the undue concern of the bandits with his property, Stewart devised a clever ruse to foil the waiting thieves. He melted ore from the mine into five silver balls weighing over 400 pounds each. When the bandits thought the time was ripe, they opened their saddle bags and pounced on the mine. Imagine their amazement at the sight of the five huge balls of silver. Legend adds that Stewart was horribly vilified by the disappointed pair for his unsportsmanlike conduct. In this case, however, legend is not correct. Remi Nadeau tells us in his book on California ghost towns that Stewart’s mill fashioned five massive ingots as a precaution against theft.
The criminal activities of Small and McDonald were destined to end soon after the robbery on Harris and Rhine’s store in the spring of 1876. Briefly, the brigands made nuisances of themselves around Bodie. A dispute over spoils, however, led to a heated dispute which led to gun play. John Small was not quite as fast on the draw as his partner.
Why did Panamint die? People nowadays think that the silver veins were surface-bound and did not extend to any great depth. This reasoning appears quite cogent; after all, the silver city’s star did rise and set in four short years. A contrary viewpoint, however, was expressed by Professor O. Loew who, late in 1875, was quoted as saying: “Never have I seen a country where there was a greater probability of true fissure veins than that of Panamint. In the Wyoming and Hemlock mines large bodies of ore will be encountered.” But even as Loew spoke, decay burdened the wind. Editor Harris left Panamint for Darwin in 1875; Doc Bicknell followed soon after. Before Harris packed his wagon for Darwin he advanced his notion why Panamint died—the lack of road and rail transportation. Harris genuinely felt that a railroad could have saved the city.
There was another reason why Panamint became an untimely ghost town. Two hard-bitten prospectors, Baldwin and Wilson, discovered two rich mines in the nearby Coso mountains. The two miners told the people of Panamint that they had the two richest mines in the world. Panamint accepted their words and their enthusiasm as gospel. Immediately a great exodus of wagons trailed down Surprise Canyon headed for the promising capital of the Cosos, Darwin. Unquestionably the discovery of these silver mines in the Cosos provided the coup de grace for the already stricken city as Coso mines were “argentiferous” and did not require milling.
The deluge that swept down Surprise Canyon in 1876 was perhaps the final curtain in this historic drama of the old West. Its rushing waters played around empty shacks and deposited layers of heavy silt on little more than dreams. But there was one person enslaved by the charm of the silver city, Jim Bruce. Long after the mines were closed this formidable faro dealer and gunfighter lived a tranquil if uncertain existence in the city he loved.
Panamint flexed feeble muscles of silver again in 1947. On this date Nathan Elliott, movie press agent, established the American Silver Corporation in a last ditch attempt to wrest silver from long dormant Panamint mines. Elliott spun a sumptuous verbal web that entrapped many of the film Capitol’s finest. Aided by Vice President and Comedian Ben Blue, the silver-tongued promoter succeeded in raising $1,000,000. With this money Panamint mines were deepened. But Elliott’s hopes for a bonanza never materialized. To the wonder and rage of the movie world, the great developer vanished into protective oblivion.
Today Panamint is deserted except for the Thompson sisters who live up Surprise Canyon a few miles north of the old mill. They are old-time residents of the area and their residence, Thompson camp, is a soothing backdrop of green poised against bitter desolation. The Thompson home is encircled by tall trees; a fenced yard secures a well-watered lawn which always has the appearance of being freshly mowed.’ This is due to the wonderful “automatic mower” owned by these ladies, a dusky well-fed burro.
These soft-spoken daughters of the Mojave own a number of mining claims in the area. From time to time they hire miners to sample ores from neighboring hills or to repair rickety scaffolding. Although, the Thompson sisters run a relaxed operation now, their mining activities would be greatly accelerated by an increase in the price of silver. You can be assured of this not only from what they say, but also from the silvery sparkle that sometimes dances in their eyes.
from: Tempest in Silver by Stanley Demes – Desert Magazine – February 1967
A hacksaw doesn’t do much good in a jail without bars to saw through. Dagget jail was a 10 x 15′ unventilated, suffocating, box made of railroad ties. There was absolutely no insulation meaning it was oven-hot in the summer, and icy, frozen-cold in the winter. Of course, this was the charm and ambiance of the jail which was meant to be reformatory rather than rehabilitative. It was punishment, and being cooped up with four or five other men; thieves, miscreants, dubious characters, cheats and/or drunks–making the place unbearable, and whether you remained in town or left, a man just didn’t want to go back.
by Betty J. Tucker – Desert Magazine April, 1971
(photos – Walter Feller)
The road and scenery through Titus Canyon in Death Valley produces all the ups and downs of a young love, then steadies out into the young matronly area. Further on, it matures and gains
the stature of sedate old age.
That’s a pretty good life span for a mere 25 miles. The only problem is that occasionally heavy rains rip out the road, so be sure and check with the rangers. Trailers cannot be taken on this road and I wouldn’t recommend trucks and campers, although we saw one go through. At times the high center of the road forces you into some creative driving.We did it in a dune buggy.
The road into Titus Canyon leaves the Beatty Road and crosses the desert between the Bullfrog Hills and the Grapevine Mountains. Then it begins to climb. This road is one way and it is easy to see why. The steep uphill grades and sharp hairpin curves are not conducive to meeting oncoming traffic. There was that thrill of a first young love—the frightening steepness and sheer drop-offs, but still so breathtakingly beautiful that I wasn’t even afraid. The dune buggy has such a short wheelbase it takes the sharpest corners with ease.
After cresting at Red Pass, elevation 5,250, we dropped down into a beautiful green valley. Here, nestled comfortably in the yellow flowered brittle bush was the ruins of Leadfield.
This child was the brainchild of C. C. Julian who would’ve sold ice to an Eskimo. He wandered into Titus Canyon with money in mind. He blasted some tunnels and liberally salted them with lead ore he had brought from Tonopah. Then he sat down and drew up some enticing maps of the area. He moved to usually dry and never deep Amargosa River miles from its normal bed.
He drew pictures of ships steaming up the river hauling out the bountiful ore from his mines. Then he distributed handbills and lowered Eastern promoters into investing money. Miners flocked in at the scent of a big strike and dug their hopeful holes. They built a few shacks. Julian was such a promoter he even conned the US government into building a post office here.
So for six months, August, 1926 to February, 1927, over 300 people lived here and tried to strike it rich. They dug and lost.
What remains of this fiasco is rather amazing to behold. It most certainly looks like the ghost of a prosperous mine. The false front, cream-colored, corrugated tin post office is still in good shape. There is a built-in wooden desk in some small shelves on the walls. Of the narrow trail there are two more lime green corrugated tin buildings.
Near it is the blacksmith’s building. The wooden block that held his anvil is there as is the bin full of coke. Both of these buildings are lined with asbestos. There are several small holes where the miners tried to find the promised ore, plus a couple of rather large shafts.
2 1/2 miles below Leadfield is Klare Spring, the major water supply for the town. Miners stood there in frequent baths here and hold water back to camp. Beside this spring you will find Indian petroglyphs.
We sat on a couple of sun warmed rocks and had a snack. The water trickled by any couple of ravens performed a spectacular air ballet for us. It was an easy to remember that Titus Canyon got its name through a tragedy.
In 1907, Morris Titus, a young mining engineer, and two of his friends, Mullan and Weller, left Rhyolite intending to cross Death Valley and do some prospecting in the Panamints. They found the waterhole dry that they had hoped to use. They had only 20 gallons of water for themselves, 19 burros and two horses. Eventually they found a hole where they could get a cup bowl every four hours. While Mullan and Weller waited, Titus took half of the stock and went to look for more water. He never came back. Next day Weller took the remaining stock and set out to look for Titus. He, too, disappeared. Mullan was found a month later and taken to Rhyolite, more dead than alive. As Titus was known to carry large quantities of gold with him, his family instigated an extensive search. No sign was ever found of him. Some thought he might have broken through a salt crust and gone into the mire below. Whatever happened, he has a most beautiful monument in having this particular canyon named after him.
During the great silver boom in the Calicos, a small community grew up around the Bismarck mine in the next canyon east of Calico camp. Together with the miners of the Garfield, Odessa, Occidental and other mines, there were perhaps 40 persons in the area, which was known as East Calico.
While Calico was less than a mile away, by airline, the direct trail was steep and rugged and the road roundabout. The government did not consider the population sufficient for a post office, and the miners didn’t care to hike into Calico for their mail. So they contributed to a fund to pay a boy named Dave Nichols to bring the mail over, by burro, from the mother camp. But Dave found a better job and no one else wanted to be mail man.
About that time a man named Stacy, brother of the Stacy who was postmaster at Calico (their first names have variously been given as James, William, Everett and Alwin) opened a store at Bismark. The Stacys had a dog named Dorsey, a big Scotch collie who had come to them for shelter one stormy night. The Bismarck Stacy took the collie’ with him to East Calico.
But Dorsey’s affections were divided, and after a few days at Bismarck, he ran away back to Calico. Postmaster Stacy attached a note to his neck, switched him and sent him back to Bismarck. After a few such runaways, Postmaster Stacy conceived the notion of tying a sack with newspapers in it on Dorsey’s back when he sent him home. Dorsey delivered them successfully, and soon little saddlepacks labeled “U. S. Mail” were made and attached to the dog’s back and a regular mail service set up between the two camps on a thrice-weekly schedule.
Dorsey soon became one of Calico’s most famous characters, but success did not go to his head.
Though he was not a civil service employee and his mail route entirely unofficial, he was faithful in the completion of his appointed rounds. Though the miners enjoyed attempting to lead him astray or tamper with the mail, he managed to elude them, then resume his course.
There is only one instance of possible misuse of his office on record. One Christmas Herman Mellen was living in a cave near Bismarck and his mother sent him a box of candy and sweets. Stacy had tied this box under Dorsey’s neck, and when he arrived at Bismarck the bottom was out and the contents missing. Whether temptation had proven too strong, the goodies had been hijacked or whether the package had broken open, allowing the contents to spill out was never determined.
The famous dog mail carrier continued his route for two years, until a dip in the boom caused the mines of East Calico to close and mail service became unnecessary. When the Stacys left Calico, they gave Dorsey to John S. Doe, wealthy San Francisco man interested in Calico mines, and Dorsey spent the rest of his life in comfort and ease in the Bay City.
They belong to the occupants while they live there, and the first man to move-in is the next owner. It is not a written law, but is a habit and custom of the country and is respected by rich and poor alike.
It started with Dobe Charley when he needed a home. A tent was too hot in summer and too cold in winter. he pondered the problem through one cold windy winter and one hot desert summer.
When “camping out” became too unbearable he took refuge in an old deserted mine tunnel a few miles from Shoshone, and was comfortable. He was protected from all weather hazards, but it was too isolated to suit his tastes.
” Why not make a tunnel in a hill closer to town?” the idea grew, and he looked all over the hills close around. Finally he picked out what he considered an ideal place.
It was a cliff of hard adobe mud, within easy walking distance of the general store and post office. Not that he intended to walk, that is, that while his motorcycle would run.
He dug out a whole as big as a medium sized room and put a door on it. When it was finished to his satisfaction, he moved in and became the envy of all the loafers in the little desert oasis on the fringe of Death Valley.
Joe Volmer, a retiring, middle-aged man, got himself a dwelling nearby. His consisted of several rooms connected by tunnels. To enter one of the rooms one must pull aside a cupboard and go a short distance down a ladder through a narrow passageway.
The Ashford brothers, Harold and Rudy, decided to follow suit. They were dapper little fellows, very English and very neat and clean. Their cliff dwelling reflected them, neat and across the gulch from the others. like its occupants, it stood a little apart from its companions.
Bill, big and lazy, liked Doublin Gulch, but hadn’t the ambition to dig a dwelling. He built his one-room shack on a level place against the cliff.
Crowly, aggressive and authoritative, look it over and chose the point of the hill, a position dominating all the other cliff houses. An imposing location, but like its builder, it was untidy.
Crowly appointed himself a sort of Mayor of Doublin Gulch. If the others resented it they gave no indications. Mostly they did not mind as long as no one interfered with their way of life.
Other men settled along the cliff. Thrown together by circumstances, these men were a variable lot. For the most part their past was a closed book. Some, no doubt, came to escape this or that, but on the whole they lived as they pleased, working at the nearby mines until they had saved a stake, returning to their cliff dwelling to live the leisurely until it was gone.
When one has finished with this life and needs his home no longer, another drifter, perhaps fleeing from his past or maybe just tired of the sorrows and troubles of the outside world and finding solace in the desert, moves in.
Thus these cliff dwellings of Doublin Gulch have passed from one occupant to another.
Who can tell what secrets they have hidden or what sorrows have been soothed by the quiet and solitude of these rugged refuges thrusting their doors from the face of the cliff like turtle’s heads from under their shells.
Ghost Town News Knott’s Berry Place Buena Park, Calif. December 1944
Skidoo came to life because of fog. When Harry Ramsey and a man called One-eye Thompson lost their way on a road leading to the new boom camp of Harrisburg, they stopped to rest near a log lying against an outcropping of rock. When the fog lifted, the rock turned out to be gold. This was back in 1905. In deciding upon a name for the town that sprung up, a numerologist associated a popular expression of the day, 23-Skidoo, with the fact that a Rhyolite man named Bob Montgomery had successfully piped water from Telescope Peak 23 miles away and suggested the name Skidoo. So it became.
Old-timers say the camp produced over a million dollars worth of gold ore between its discovery and its demise some 20 years later. Skidoo’s chief claim to fame, however, was not its riches. Rather, it was an infamous lynching of a scoundrel named Joe Simpson in 1908.
On a tour to the ghost town of Skidoo in 1962, we were privileged to be accompanied by an 87-year-old gentleman named George Cook. The interesting thing about Mr. Cook was that it was he who pulled on the rope at the lynching. His participation had only recently been divulged to a few intimate friends—after all others involved had passed on to their rewards, or whatever.
“Joe Simpson,” Mr. Cook told us, ‘was a would-be villain who had killed a man at Keeler after shooting-up Jack Gun’s Saloon in Independence the preceding year. He’d somehow gotten off and drifted to Skidoo where he became a partner with Fred Oakes in the Gold Seal Saloon. Across the street was Jim Arnold’s Skidoo Trading Company.
“Arnold was a friendly, well-liked man and had always been on good terms with Simpson, but Simpson became drunk and abusive one April morning and decided to hold up a bank situated in part of Arnold’s Skidoo Trading Company. Apprehended, his gun was taken away and hidden by the deputy sheriff, but a little later Simpson found his weapon and returned to the store to shoot Jim Arnold. He then turned on two other men who had come to the rescue, but his aim was poor and both escaped. Eventually, Simpson was overpowered and placed under guard in the deputy sheriff’s cabin. Unfortunately,” Mr. Cook lamented, “the popular Jim Arnold died that night.”
Skidoo went wild with indignation. After Arnold’s funeral, which the entire camp attended, a group went to the improvised jail, led the prisoner out at the end of a rope, and hanged him to the nearest telephone pole. When Sheriff Nailor from Independence arrived, after a hazardous trip over rough roads via Tonopah and Rhyolite, he made the now famous statement, “It’s the best thing that ever happened to Inyo County; it saved us $25,000!”
But this wasn’t the end. Several spectators had forgotten their cameras and wanted pictures of the hanging. So, Joe Simpson’s body was obligingly strung up again, this time from the ridgepole of the tent where he was “laid out.” News of this gruesome encore spread and the lynching won everlasting fame. In his private narrative of the event, George Cook added a factor never before related: “Joe was dead before we got the rope around his neck; he died of a heart attack (from fright) and was already gone when dragged to the telephone pole scaffold.”
It was also he, George Cook confessed, who assisted Dr. MacDonald in removing the head from Simpson’s corpse. The doctor, it seems, had once performed an operation on Simpson s nose and wanted to make a further medical study of the case. Going at night, they performed the severance at the lonely prospect hole where Simpson’s body had been tossed. (No one in Skidoo would give him a decent burial, so great was the indignation at his senseless crime). The skull was exhibited for a period in a showcase at Wildrose, but later disappeared.
The remainder of the skeleton resisted oblivion, however. Years later when George Cook returned to Skidoo to work in the mill, an agitated prospector appeared one day to report a headless skeleton of a man who’d evidently been murdered. Because Cook was the only old-timer around at the time, he was consulted. Indeed a crime had been committed sometime, he agreed, but of the details, he had conveniently forgotten.
Last year George Cook passed away. Small in stature, religious, mild-tempered, and given to writing sentimental verse, he was the antithesis of our Western idea of a vigilante. The role forced upon him by his acute anger over the murder of a friend bothered this good man to the end of his days. His belief that Simpson did not expire at his hand appeared to be a real comfort. And, perhaps he was right. We cannot disagree, for George Cook was there.
Much interesting history is connected with the now-defunct Skidoo. Following its early boom, the town was deserted for a period, then, under new management, the mine and mill reopened during the 1930s and a period of production occurred. The old wild days never returned, however, and its fame as a mining camp still rests upon the lynching incident —to which we add, “Joe Simpson did not die because of a rope and a telephone pole. He died of a heart attack!”
by Myrtle Nyles – November 1964 – Desert Magazine
Editor’s Note: This is but one version of this story, and it is worth saying that it has generated many other versions and stories through its telling.
In January 1906 two wandering prospectors, John Ramsey and John (One-Eye) Thompson were headed towards the new gold strike at Harrisburg. Along the way a blinding fog came in and the two camped near Emigrant Spring for fear of getting lost. …More …