The Wild West and the mining of the late 1800's are a rich part of California's heritage, and what better way to experience the past than to visit California's ghost towns? California ghost towns are more about history than spooks, and you'll spend hours exploring every nook and cranny of sometimes dusty old buildings in various states of disrepair or restoration. Here are two distinct examples to get you started.
Just about the time the drive from Los Angelesto Las Vegas gets a little tedious, up comes the Interstate 15 exit to Calico Ghost Town — a stop worth making that will give you a chance to stretch your legs and learn a little California history at the same time.
This is a real California ghost town, although not the scary type and really as much an amusement park as a historical dig. Some of the original town has been refurbished, some re-constructed, and some buildings created just for tourists. The town was carved out of the colorful hills of the Mojave Desert back in 1881 and today offers a fascinating glimpse of what life might have been like for the borax and silver miners of the 19th Century.
If Calico looks in some places a little like parts of Knott's Berry Farm, it's because Calico was once owned by Walter Knott, the popular amusement park's founder. He gave the property to San Bernardino County in 1966 and it has since become a regional park complete with its own historian and many authentic buildings and furnishings. Mixed in with the history is a good deal of commerce ' from eateries to crafts shops to gift shops — that caters to the busloads of tourists who find this a convenient stop half way between L.A. and Vegas.
This ghost town is not dusty and dirty like less developed places that still have dirt roads and sagebrush tumbling through town. The streets are paved, the trails are well-marked and the historical exhibits each have descriptions that help you get a sense of what you are seeing. The surrounding hills provide a scenic backdrop and you begin to realize this place was called Calico for a reason; blue, red, gray, green, vermilion, brown and yellow can be seen in patches along the craggy hillsides.
Like most ghost towns, Calico was once a bustling place where prospectors came to find their riches in the mines. Both silver and borax were taken from more than 500 local mines. This made it possible for the town to grow to more than 1,200 people and sustain many local businesses — including 22 saloons. When the price of silver was cut in half, the town's hay days were over and the residents eventually moved away.
We spent a couple of hours in Calico, where Main Street is a pleasant walk of maybe four city blocks, each packed with historical attractions, stores and surprises. For example, you can visit the Calico Jail, where Calico's gunfighters were hauled off to serve time. There is a visitor's center that includes vintage photographs, historic newspapers and interpretive materials to help you understand the town's history. There's a place to do some gold panning and another called the Mystery Shack — as you might expect from a man named Knotts. Plan to have your lunch at Lil's Saloon — nothing fancy to eat here, but just beyond those swinging saloon doors is a bar that looks like it came out of a Hollywood Western. And, yes, families are welcome.
There aren't any true amusement park rides, but there is a coal train you can ride on a short loop while getting a history lesson from the train's engineer. We also enjoyed stepping into a re-created mine shaft where you can get a sense of the darkness and claustrophobia under the mountain — and do it safely. There's a house made of bottles and several other oddities that are fun to come across. You'll see miners' homes carved out of the hillsides, and a variety of free-standing Old West style buildings.
If you still need a little more help imagining what the Wild West was really like, the town's modern day "gunfighters" will oblige with shoot-outs and demonstrations on Main Street.
The Calico Ghost Town is just northeast of Barstow and, because we were visiting in late afternoon, we decided to stay over. We were pleasantly surprised by the accommodations available at the new Holiday Inn Express which offered surprisingly upscale rooms and an overall feel that was modern and pleasing, with gorgeous desert views right out the window.
If you're traveling by RV, Calico offers campsites right on the park property.
If you're looking for a California ghost town that is a little less commercial, the state has helped to restore the town of Bodie on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada range. This one will be a little harder to get to and will require a lot more walking. But it will be worth it.
If you thought those underwater photos of the Titanic were at once haunting and mesmerizing, Bodie gives you the same feeling. Just as you imagined what life must have been like in those last fateful hours of the Titanic's tragic maiden voyage, a look inside the many remaining buildings at Bodie will stir you to ponder just how life had been during those years back in the 1880s when Bodie was bustling with 10,000 souls.
In 1859, gold was discovered near this town by Waterman S. Body and townspeople paid homage to Body by naming the town after him with one slight variation: The residents were concerned that Body would be pronounced as it is spelled so they changed the spelling to Bodie.
As mining on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada went into decline, miners crossed the mountains to search for other sources of gold and, soon, with the discovery of such deposits as the famed Comstock Lode at Virginia City, this whole area east of the mountains began to surge with the influx of miners.
By all accounts, it was wild, raucous sort of existence during the 1880's as miners and other residents indulged themselves at the 65 saloons that had sprung up all over town. Killings were said to be an almost daily occurrence. According to the park service, Bodie was also the scene of many robberies, stage holdups and street fights. Along Bonanza Street, Maiden Lane and Virgin Alley, ladies of the night set up a row of one-room cabins called "cribs."
Having read all the stories about Bodie, perhaps the most famous California ghost town, we were primed to see just what was left of this town and its colorful past.
The country road to Bodie is clearly marked on US 395 just south of Bridgeport, and our anticipation grew with each of the 13 winding miles. Along the way we could see in our rearview mirrors the panoramic views of the Sierra range that became more and more spectacular as we climbed closer to Bodie's 8,300-foot elevation.
Then, at the top of the grade and just around a corner, there stood Bodie. From a distance it didn't look like a complete town but rather a lot of random out-buildings spread over a few modest hills. Then, as we came closer, the buildings began to take shape — a church and steeple at the edge of town, a few remarkably well preserved houses, and then a few larger Main Street buildings that looked like they had been built for a Western movie — except this was the real thing. This was a real town where real cowboys had real gunfights.
Maybe it's because we're more accustomed to visiting movie lots and fake western towns, but somehow we weren't quite prepared for our first glimpse into one of these buildings — which happened to be the old Methodist Church. There, covered in a thick layer of dust, were the hand-carved pews, the pulpit and an ornate pipe organ. It seemed that, with just a bit of a scrub down, this church could be ready to host a congregation this coming Sunday.
And that's when the Titanic effect started to kick in. We had come to see the buildings of a town that had its hay day more than a hundred years ago, but somehow we had not realized that this historic park was much more than a set of buildings — many of those buildings are, in fact, mini-museums still housing the artifacts of the day. In some cases, it looks like the residents just got up and left one day, but didn't take anything with them.
To learn more about Bodie State Historic Park, and other California ghost towns, call 760-647-6445 or visit www.parks.ca.gov. Online, you can also visit www.bodie.com, where the Friends of Bodie offer many more details about the town.
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Photos, from top: Main Street Calico; short railroad takes visitors on tour of Calico buildings and mines; Bodie sits alone and lifeless in the high plains; authentic buildings still stand in Bodie.
Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway.
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