Monday, February 7, 2011

Ghost Town Tuesday - Calico, The California Edition

Alright, we covered a mine, looked at a rock and enjoyed some home-made Dilbert cartoons. If this isn't heaven, I don't know what is. Something feels wrong though. This blog was founded on the principles of asking the hard questions, thoroughly researching the hard answers, and generally being bored at work. Is it a coincidence that these qualities also define the late 19th century prospector? Possibly. In fact, it almost certainly is, as I'm not sure why I'm typing any of this. For the sake of segwaying into what I wanted to talk about, I feel that in honor of the prospectors to whom we can trace much of today's modern mining and spitting technique, let us look at yet another town in which they lived.

First and foremost, today's town isn't in Utah. In fact, if you go looking around Utah for a ghost town named Calico, your efforts will be wasted and you will end up mocked and penniless. It will be like Jr. High all over again.

Calico, my friends, is in California. It's a small, sparsely populated state owned by Kobe Bryant.

Look at that! There's something crazy going on with that prospector's head! It looks like a Salvadore Dahi painting! You can tell how great a ghost town is going to be by how crazy the sign to it is. That's what I always say. And so should you.

Calico is located in southern California, or "So Cal" as I like to say. I'm going to have to make a new map. Here, let me whip one up....

There. As we can see, Calico is nowhere in Utah. What's more, we can see from that map that Calico is "This way". A good map is an internet geologist's best friend. And frequently their only friend. But let's be serious here for a moment. Calico is yonder....

If you've ever driven to San Diego (or heaven forbid, Los Angeles), then chances are you have passed right by this place. You can even see it from the I-15!

Subtlety is the hallmark of a great ghost town. One day, when I'm officially recognized as the greatest person ever, there will be "Scott" emblazoned on the hills behind Holiday. And also Holiday will be declared a ghost town because the greatest thing to ever come out of it will already have happened. Also because the median age group there is currently 103. I wrote this entire paragraph so I could use the word "emblazoned". Anyway, let's get back to Calico.

Calico's humble beginnings took place waaaay back in 1875. A man named Lee was wanding around the hills and discovered a ledge that was filled with sweet sweet silver. Lee made a claim, but then was likely killed by Indians. Something happened to him anyway. That event seems to have been enough to discourage even the most hardy of prospectors, and the region remained prospector free until 1880. A that point however, everything changed.

During the same time that most of Utah's mining districts kicked into action, prospectors were again on the prowl for new and tasty finds. In fact, the period from 1870 to 1890 was the golden (silver) era of western US prospectors. As a result, it was a good time to be a prostitute or a whiskey-maker guy. Or perhaps some sort of a muleologist. Muleology is a degree that has seen dramatic declines in graduates over the years. In the spring of 1880 a man named Porter rediscovered Lees claims, and managed to not get himself killed right after. When his fellow prospectors saw that the hills were not only filled with silver, but also low on potential for getting slaughtered, They flocked to the area. It was in 1881 that one of the more famous mines in the area was found.

The fortunate prospectors were named S.C. Warden and John C. King, and it was in 1881 that they found the first claim in the area. A claim that they humbly named the Silver King Mine. It was located on an equally humbly named King Mountain. It was here that the city of Calico would be established.

It doesn't look it, but this mountain would be the biggest silver strike in California. Well, the that mountain and the area around it. The portion of the Calico Mountains that we are interested is called the Yermo Hills.

You may be interested in a different part of the Calico Mountains, but this isn't your blog, so you are out of luck. A little sign inside one of the buildings at Calico says that the mountain was covered in unusual boil-like objects, and when struck with a pick, the boils were actually silver balls. My maturity deficiency requires that we laugh at that. Here's a picture of the sign that I stole this information off of.

Very quickly a town sprung up around King Mountain.

Ignore those cars in that picture. Those probably wouldn't have been there in 1881. The town was named after the colors on the mountainside being as bright as a gal's calico skirt. I guess they're right. I don't know that I've ever seen a calico skirt. But regardless of whether you have seen a calico skirt, you have to agree that these are some pretty cool colors.

When visiting Calico, the first thing you notice is that you are in the presence of several mines, which should give you a sense of how successful the place was. In all, the hills around Calico featured more than 500 mines, most of which are no longer places you would want to be. But there are plenty of signs that the mines exist around town. You just have to look close.

Aaaand sometimes you don't have to look so close.

The first mine in that series of pictures was the apparently famous Maggie Mine. I didn't have the money to ride the train though, which was pretty disappointing. I really wanted to go in there. The picture above that is of the Burcham Mine, which also proved to be a big producer in the area. You have to look close at that picture to see it. It looks like a little hole in the mountainside. As opposed to most mines which....also look like little holes in the mountainside. Mines are like that sometimes. This mine.....

I think is the Silver King mine. I couldn't quite figure out where I was. I was pretty drunk.

In 1882 the first mill was built in the area, and later that year a rail line was completed to the city. Railroads are important to mines due to the fact that ore tends to be very heavy, and people tend to be easily squished. So a train is just the thing to get ore to where it needs to be. Namely, somewhere else.

In addition to Silver, borax ended up being an important source of mining entertainment in the area.

One doesn't really consider borax to be something to get excited over, but I know one pretty irritable historian who works in Calico who will yell at you if you don't seem excited over borax. If I could offer you any advice concerning your visit to Calico, it would be to always act excited about borax. Apparently, in 1883 people were so excited about the stuff that the town nearly became deserted with everyone racing up into the hills to get their hands on some of that sweet sweet borax. I guess I just don't get the excitement. Most of the resulting claims ended up in the hands of one Mr. F.M. "Borax" Smith. Contrary to popular belief, he didn't earn that nickname as part of his borax investments, but rather by his chalky, powdery complexion. Nah, I just made that up.

But nothing is ever easy for mining towns. You remember how most of the ghost towns in Utah burned down at some point? Well, it turns out that fire also liked to hang out in California. In 1883 Calico stopped being as pretty as a gals calico skirt and became as pretty as a pile of charred remains. Which it turns out is far less pretty. The town was rebuilt, but then it burned down again, which totally sucked for them. But prospectors don't give up easily. The town was built again, and this time it stuck. For a while, anyway (it is a ghost town, after all).

By 1884 there was a booming population of 2,500 people, which was up from 0 just 4 years prior. That's pretty good for a horrible desert wasteland. The Silver King continued to dominate the other mines, which at this point included the Waterloo, Bismark, Oriental, Garfield and Burning Moscow. As well as 450+ others that didn't have memorable names. In a 14 month period it produced $1,000,000 worth of silver bars, which shouldn't be confused with $1,000,000 worth of snickers bars, which would have also been impressive. Miners were paid $3.50 a day for their hard work.

During this time, 22 saloons were built,

A sheriffs office was established, as was a no cussing or shooting law. Apparently.

And a place for the miners to get their digital photos onto a compact disk.

And, if you are of the more sadistic persuasion, this gentleman offered his services for just that purpose. All it cost you was one shiny quarter.

Now, if you are the type who believes the internet, I feel like I should let you in on a little secret. That particular attraction was probably not actually there in 1884. I wish it wasn't there in 2011. But there it was, and it just so happened that I had a quarter to spare. So let the suffering begin!

I'm not sure exactly what sort of suffering he was up to, but I felt like the experience was perhaps more of a dimes-worth. That's capitalism for you.

I went to lodge a complaint with the local authorities, but Chief Broken Foot wouldn't have anything to do with my whining. I guess he has that broken foot to worry about.

Ah well. Anyway, after 2 pretty horrible fires, the crispy citizens decided that a fire department was just the ticket. And why stop there? Why not buy some crazy looking fire-fighting device?

I love old timesy machinery. They could have told me that was a banana split making machine and I would have no reason to doubt them. Look at the other old machines that are littered about town!

Neat. Anyway, one thing that no 1880's era town had a shortage of was corpses, and once a town has too many corpses laying around, people start getting worried. So in comes the undertaker!

It was his duty to make sure no one came back as a zombie, and to this day there aren't any zombies in town. So I guess he was good.

A couple of jokers built this little house right into the side of the cliff, only feet from some other mine.

The little sign on the door told their story, but I forget how it went. I think they died there. Those guys. Always with the pranks. I really wanted to get in there, but a friendly prospector-turned-security guard joked with me that I may end up dead too. We laughed, but then he stared me down until I ran off. Security guard? More like a jerkurity guard if you ask me. No one asked me.

Back to history. Things were going great. The Mammoth mine installed 600 feet of tramway, the Occidental had a 1,000 foot long ore car track to get the ore to the station, and the Sue Mine had 300 feet of tramway, a third of which was nearly vertical. The vertical part had to be operated by hand as there wasn't enough wood to operate the steam generator. So, I guess things were great except for the various creatures that used to live in the trees in the area. But by 1892 falling silver prices caused most of the mines to shut down, and again, this fella was reduced to suffering to earn his keep.

In 1896 the Silver King mine shut down, and that was pretty much that. In all, nearly $20,000,000 worth of silver came out of this desert mound, which is far more than I've ever contributed. For scale the Comstock Load produced about $400,000,000 worth in gold. $20,000,000 is still pretty good though. Borax mining kept chugging along until 1930, but on a much smaller scale. After that, there wasn't a reason to stick around, and Calico was abandoned.

You really don't get a sense of how amazing the very existence of Calico is. Twelve hundred people doesn't sound like a lot until you see the area you are talking about. It's pretty desolate, and features only three Starbucks. Hahahahahahaha!!! I'm so funny.

The town came back to life when Walter Knott bought it and had it largely re-built. Mr. Knott is also the mastermind behind Knottsberry Farm, a dramatically less mine-themed area in Los Angles. Only a few of the structures are original, and I only know two for sure.....

You can tell that this one is original because it still has two indians sitting on top of it! Also the historian lady told me. Also you can just kinda tell.

The other house has a museum in it, and was home to the last resident of Calico. She died in the 1960's I think. I didn't take a picture of it though. Just imagine a really old house and you're there.

I loved Calico. If you have the chance, I can't recommend enough that you take the time to get over there and check it out. Do it! DO IT!!

I can't make you do anything.


Jared and Reini said...

I'm so happy the blog is back! Hooray!

heather said...

You must've had a better tour guide on this stop. I missed all of that except for losing our quarters at the end. You made this trip so much fun! Thanks for all of the memories and "Te Amo"s.

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