The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Ghost Town of Calico

Just east of Barstow, in the Calico Hills, is a rebuilt old mining town, named Calico.  It is currently operated as a regional park by the County of San Bernardino, but was once a busy silver mining town.

Welcome...TO HISTORY!
The Silver Rush of the late 19th century is less well-known than the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century.  However, the Silver Rush was important in the histories of both Nevada and California (especially southern California).  The town of Calico was founded in 1881 by a group of miners who headed into the local mountains looking for silver.  Within two years, the town had grown to house around 1,200 residents, had 500 mines, and the usual accompaniments of a successful old west town (justice of the peace, post office, hotels, restaurants, numerous brothels, etc.).

Calico...never will you see a more wretched hive of scum and villainy
Before long, Colemanite borate (an ore of Boron that can be purified, and can itself be used for the manufacture of glasses, medicines, cosmetics, as well as for numerous industrial processes).  The town swelled to 3,500 people, with settlers from both Europe and Asia joining the American settlers.

The structures constructed during this time ranged from standard wooden construction, typical of 19th century houses and businesses, to stone structures that integrated the slopes and cliffs into their structure.

And, of course, there was no shortage of mining structures and equipment, including machinery such as a stamp mill.

Remember - it's not an exploitative Hell hole that OSHA would shut down anymore, it's historic!
However, as is so often the story with mining towns, the fall came almost as quickly as the rise.  The Silver Purchase Act of 1890 had the effect of reducing the price of silver.  As the decade wore on, Calico's silver mines became less economically viable, and the town began to depopulate.  By 1898, the post office shut down, followed by the school, and the town was pretty much abandoned by 1900.

In 1915, an attempt was made to recover unclaimed silver from the old mines, using cyanidation (a metallurgical process for the extraction ore using the chemical properties for cyanide).  While this did result in the brief resurgence of silver mining, it did not cause Calico to boom again.

In 1951, Walter Knott, of Knott's Berry Farm, bought Calico and began restoring many of the buildings.  While the purchase of historic buildings by the wealthy is hardly unusual, this was a unique turn in two ways: 1) Walter Knott had, as a young man, been a local homesteader and helped to build the cyanidation facilities, and 2) he turned it into a historic park with restored buildings, repaired or re-built based on old plans and photographs, and donated it to the County of San Bernardino in 1966.  

See, tacky Halloween decorations

While the buildings may have been restored to a close resemblance of their historic grandeur, the town is more tourist attraction than ghost town.  While it does serve to teach a visitor a bit about local history, it also has numerous souvenir shops and chachki stands that don't exactly stand up to historical scrutiny.  Oh, and if you happen to visit in October, as I did, you will witness numerous tacky "spooky" plastic skeletons and ghosts arranged about the place, further removing the historicity of the place.

Nonetheless, if you poke around outside of the central town portion and walk on some of the other paths, you will find the remains of buildings that have not been rebuilt, as well as some that have been rebuilt faithfully in ways that don't romanticize the old west.

The solution to California's high housing costs!

Oh, and if you visit, be sure to check out the cemetery.  It is fascinating both in terms of the tombstones, and of the construction of the graves themselves.  Observe:

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