Tag Archives: Ghost town

They Never Locked the Door of the Jail at Ballarat

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.

Ballarat jail
This is the double-boarded jail of old Ballarat, where the doors were never locked.

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.

Shorty Harris, Death Valley
Shorty Harris

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.”

Chris Wicht’s Headquarters Saloon, Ballarat.

“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 mention Ballarat in 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.”

Chris Wicht
Chris Wicht went broke at Ballarat grubstaking the prospectors—and now he operates a neat little cabin resort in Surprise canyon.

Ballarat’s heyday was between 1895 to 1907. Then it was a bustling supply center for Panamint valley prospectors—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?

“Any old carcass is a feast to a buzzard.”

“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.

Ballarat ghost town

“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.

Ballarat ghost town
Ballarat’s heyday was between 1895 and 1907—and this is about all that is left of the old mining camp today. (c. 1941)

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 that Panamint City had 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.

Map pf Panamint Mtns. & Valley area - Ballarat
Map of Panamint Mtns. & Valley area – Ballarat – 1913

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.”

-end-

Shorty Harris — Out to Lunch

 

Companion & Harris, Shorty, 1857-1934

Shorty Harris and 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 boom town 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.

Shorty Harris

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 …

Rhyolite & the Bullfrog Gold

Keane Wonder mine

View of Death Valley from Keane Wonder

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 at Keane 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.”

Amargosa Desert

Amargosa Desert

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 afterwards 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.

Bullfrog Hills

Paradise Mountain (front) Montgomery Mountain (rear)

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!”

Goldfield, Nevada

Goldfield, Nevada

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, and 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 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.

Bullfrog, Rhyolite, Beatty — 1908

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!

Bullfrog Hills

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 tincups, 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.

Rhyolite, Nv. – 1907

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 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 quick. The stock exchange was doing a big business, and I remember that the price of Montgomery-Shoshone got up to ten dollars a share.

Beatty, Nevada

Beatty, Nevada

Business men 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.

They called him “Shorty” because he was short. 😉

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 water and struck a sulphite ore which is refactory, 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 real hard rock miners, and not the kind that do 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