Perched in hills so multicolored that it reminded miners of the colorful calico cloth popular in the 1800's, the town of the same name is visibly seen from Interstate 15, ten miles east of Barstow. For many of us, Calico Ghost Town, is the first and perhaps the only ghost town ever visited. Recently declared California's Official Silver Rush Ghost Town, visitors can thank Walter Knott of Knott's Berry Farm fame, for preserving Calico as a semi-ghosttown/amusement park. Seasoned ghosttowners may find it hard to put Calico in the same class as the parched, rusty, and deteriorating remnants of the obscure mining camps hidden on a dusty backcountry trail that they cherish discovering on their own. However, many a school child and city slicker can easily put together the "big mining picture" after a visit to this one of a kind ghost town called Calico.
As early as 1875, a man named Lee may have found the first silver ore in the Calico Hills. The vein was so rich it was thought to be quicksilver. Unfortunately Lee wandered away from his find and was believed to be killed near Old Woman Springs by Indians. Later, a man named Porter was operating a mill near the site of the town of Barstow. In the fall of 1880 he relocated Lee's claims and the news spread like wildfire. Hundreds of discoveries were made throughout the area. By April 6, 1881, S. C. Warden, Hues Thomas, John C. King and friends located the great Silver King Mine, which according to the first issue of the Calico Print, was the was the "richest and biggest mine in California."
Calico quickly grew from a population of 3 men on July 4, 1881, and a solitary cabin belonging to someone named Allison who had discovered the Oriental Mine. Later that month, J. B. Whitfield and others claimed the Burning Moscow Mine. The first to actually begin mining, was the Silver King Mine. By spring of 1882 one hundred people lived in Calico. Most of them were ranchers that suddenly turned in to miners. The Calico Townsite Company was formed and lots were sold. There was talk of a narrow gauge railroad leading to Los Angeles.
In April of 1882, a 5 stamp mill was in operation for the Burning Moscow. The Silver King hauled ore 40 miles south along the Mojave River to the Oro Grande Mining Company. The biggest problem for the mines was fuel, as the groves of cottonwoods along the Mojave River provided the only wood, and would soon be depleted.
In May of 1883, miners fled to Mule Canyon east of Calico for borax. William T. Coleman and company acquired many of the claims that were mined.. These failed by 1888, and were sold to F. M. "Borax" Smith and the Pacific Coast Borax Company. That fall a fire destroyed most of the business section of Calico. With the mines producing big time, the town was quickly rebuilt. The Calico Print described the town as "now looking substantial, lively and prosperous, and we can safely predict stirring times this fall and winter. Calico's colors are not the kind that easily fade." Proving the newspaper statement true, a second fire hit the town at a later date and Calico again rebuilt continuing to thrive with a population that grew to 2,500 the following year.
The Oro Grande Mining Company
The Oro Grande Mining Company consolidated several holdings in 1884. C. M. Sanger from Milwaukee was the principal, D. Bahten, the superintendent. Both the Oriental Mine and the Silver King Mine and Mill were acquired, as well as many other properties. Another 5 stamps were added to the mill. The Snow Bird in East Calico was added to the company in 1885, and to the West Calico District came the Waterloo. The Silver King was the best producer of all of the mines, with over $1,000,000 in silver bars produced in a 14 month period. Miners worked both day and night shifts every day of the week, including Sundays. Wages were $3.50 for each nine hour shift. Unlike other mining companies, employees of the Silver King were free to live where they chose.
Tramways & Railroads
Several tramways for transporting ore, were built in Calico. The Mammoth built a 600 foot track, the Occidental was 1,000 feet., the Silver Odessa was 600 feet, and the Sue 300 feet. By March of 1885, the Oro Grande Mining Company organized the Daggett and Calico Railroad Company which would intersect the mines and mills and the town of Calico to the Atlantic Pacific Railroad in Daggett. Surveys were made but no work was done. In the meantime, The Calico Stage Line, and Sheriff/teamster Joseph Le Cyr, provided primary sources of transportation between Calico and Daggett. In 1887 the Oro Grande Mining Company's new 60 stamp mill burned to the ground not long after it was built. As another mill was built in 1888, the company finally built the narrow gauge railroad. It went from the Waterloo mine tunnel to the stamp mill. By this time the town was waning, and the Calico Print was no longer in production to record the event. Ore and supplies were hauled back and forth on the train which was pulled by two small saddle tank locomotives, The Emil and the Daniel. Passengers choosing to ride with the ore and supplies were allowed to stand in the ore cars holding on to the sides for support during the bumpy ride.
February of 1889, the Oro Grande Mining Company sold all its properties to the Waterloo Mining company which was based out of Wisconsin. The Calico Railroad, as it was often called, was part of the sale. The Waterloo built a line to the ore bins at the Silver King Mine. By September of 1889, 100 tons of ore was transported daily from the Silver King to the 75 stamp mill by the Mojave River. An additional 50 tons of ore was hauled from the Waterloo Mine. In March of 1892, however, dropping prices of silver closed the Waterloo. One hundred and thirty men lost their jobs when this happened and the railroad was forced to close as well. In 1896 the Silver King shutdown, also. Calico was dying.
For a few years the narrow gauge railroad operated again. D. D. Connell and Marcus Pluth leased the Waterloo properties in May of 1899 and started things up again. In 1901, The American Borax Company constructed its railroad. A mile of the Waterloo Mining companys rails were kept in use to join segments from the Columbia Mine to the plant in Daggett. By 1903, all but that one mile section of the Calico Railroad was taken up and the locomotives were sold to the American Borax Company and to the Mojave Milltown Railroad.
A Ghost Town Is Born
Calico struggled on with various companies leasing properties throughout the year of 1941. During this time buildings were moved to the towns of Barstow, Daggett, and Yerma. In 1915, a cyanide plant was put in to recover silver from the tailings of the mine dumps at the Silver King. Walter and Cordelia Knott homesteaded at the nearby town of Newberry during this time. Walter helped to construct the redwood cyanide tanks at the plant. Later as the town of Calico faded, Knott kept an eye on it. In 1951, as Knott became famous for his Buena Park berry farm, he purchased Calico and restored it for modern generations to enjoy as a ghost town, and amusement park. In 1966 Calico was donated to San Bernardino County and still run as Calico Ghost Town today.
Respectable Mining Town
In the boom year of 1886, the population of Calico was 1,200, with 50 of that number school children. The town boasted a deputy sheriff, two constables, a minister, two doctors, two lawyers, a justice of the peace and 5 commissioners. Church services were held in the town, and there was a school, post office, Wells Fargo and Company express office, telephone, telegraph, newspaper (The Calico Print), the usual saloons, gambling parlors, and palaces of pleasures. By 1890, the population swelled to 3,500 with its main street known as Wall Street, containing many pink adobe buildings - boardinghouses, restaurants, stores, assay offices, and combination shoe and boot shop/bar. The emphasis in Calico was on hard work, honesty and family values, without the traditional "man for breakfast" as so many other mining towns were noted for.
Calico did have its share of colorful characters, and ruffians, even if it did not boast the wild reputation of camps like Bodie, Darwin, Cerro Gordo. The first two years of the towns existence only one killing was recorded. John Overshiner of the Calico Print, was quoted as saying "there are no more orderly and law abiding people living anywhere than Calico."
Joe Joiner was "the man about town" during Calico's heyday. Joe was a colorful character who sported a swallow-tail coat and grew a long beard which hung to his knees. His neighbors loved to play pranks on him. They especially got a kick out of his long whiskers which he often wore in braids or stuffed in his trousers to prevent them from blowing in the hot desert winds. One evening Joe didn't make it home from the saloon and fell asleep in the middle of Wall Street instead. A Calico muleskinner described Joe Joiner as awaking the next morning to find that the boys had cut off the "haw side" of his beard and the "gee-tail" of his coat. This humiliated Joe so badly he avoided Calico's main street from then on.
John Overshiner came from San Diego to found the Calico Print, the town newspaper. When the Arizonia Tombstone Epitaph heard the name chosen for the paper, they remarked that "the Calico Print smacked of petticoats." John Overshiner simply replied, "It overshines a graveyard inscription, anyhow."
Bill Harpold owned the Hyena House, which was built out of barrel staves on the outside and holes-in-the-rocks on the inside. As the Calico stage would come in to town, Bill would stand outside with a wheel barrow yelling, "Here y'are gentlemen, right this way for Hyena House, best hotel in all Calico!" The "best" hotel in Calico was noted for simple breakfasts of chili beans and whisky. After a storm caved in the Hyena House, Bill dragged out his two guests and apologized for the leaky roof.
Dorsey, a black and white shepherd dog, delivered the mail from the post office in Calico to the Bismarck Mines for 3 years. He was the only 4-legged mail carrier in the United States. Normally a friendly, playful dog, Dorsey took his job of delivering the mail quite seriously. Anyone daring to touch him was in trouble for tampering with the United States mail. The Bismarck miner who owned Dorsey was once offered $500 for him, but he replied that he would "sooner sell a grandson".
Town ruffians did create a few problems in Calico. For entertainment, they would often go to the east end of town and raid Chinatown. This went on for a long time until the Chinese finally learned to defend themselves using laundry paddles and hot irons. For an April Fool Joke, the ruffians stuffed a dummy and shot it full of holes, penetrating most of the Calico community as they did so. It was common practice to hold a gun in the air and just shoot it off for fun. One group of boys, in 1885, was caught driving stakes and stretching wiring near the town, fencing in a lot. When told they were not old enough to own real estate, one replied, "You bet we can. If anybody tries to jump my lot, I'll shoot him!"
A few disputes were over mines. A day in 1885, just as men faced each other armed with rifles and shotguns in an argument over the Occidental Mine, the deputy sheriff arrived and persuaded them to settle the case in court. That same year, at a May Day Ball and Ice Cream and Strawberry Festival in the town hall, the superintendent of the Occidental mine was called outside only to be bombarded by raw eggs from uninvited guests of a rival mine. Guns were drawn and fired by Superintendent James Patterson, and the attackers retreated. One man ran into the town hall and interrupted the festival going on inside with more shooting following him. The deputy sheriff arrived soon after and the festival was over. Had this behavior happened on the Fourth of July, the town might have tolerated it, but being as it was Mayday, the Calico Print declared the commotion a "disgraceful and outrageous assault."
Red Light District
Unlike other mining towns, the red light district of Calico was right down the middle of the main street known as Wall Street. Apparently no one had any problem with this arrangement, until some of the patrons of the brothels found themselves being robbed. Most victims were too embarrassed to admit they had been robbed while visiting the painted ladies, but one man finally decided that things be brought to justice. The owners and 16 employees were arrested for the robberies. Prostitution was a perfectly acceptable practice in Calico, but robbery was not. In 1885, however, the Justice of the Peace had the working girls arrested. Calico's finest citizens stood up for these girls in court declaring they were receiving more punishment than is due them, and a petition was presented to dismiss the case.
The sounds of the stamp mills have been silenced in Calico, yet the music still rings out from the dance halls and saloons, and shots from mock gun battles still go on to the delight of the tourists who come to experience a different sort of living history.
As a baby boomer, I can easily remember the feelings I had traveling to Calico in the late 1950's and early 1960's. I grew up in the foothills of the San Gabriels, and was well acquainted with the Angeles National Forest, its manzanita bushes, and pine trees, and established forest service camp grounds. The long dusty trip to Calico Ghost Town was totally different than I was accustomed to. It seemed remote, out of the way, scary. Even though it was winter when my family visited, I was sure that a rattlesnake would crawl out of one of the old Calico buildings and bite me bringing me to a painful death. I remember it being cold, and windy, and I could not think why in the world my parents would want to bring me and my little brothers to such a God-forsaken place. Yet somehow, inspite of my painful memories of being in a place totally out of my element, I have visions of touring the old silver mine, riding the little mining train, and going for either a burro or mule ride. Between that and our more than annual visits to Knott's Berry Farm, and its replica ghost town which was my favorite part of the Buena Park amusement park, I had somewhat of an idea of what a mining camp might have been like in the 1800's. As I grew older I began to explore the real back country ghost towns and mining camps. I have to say that between the books I have read, the old pictures I have seen, my visits to remote places where perhaps a tin can dump and part of a rock foundation, an old broken down stamp mill, or even less than that were all that remained, I often find that my memory of Calico, and Knott's Berry Farms Ghost Town, have helped me realize how everything must have all come together in a mining camp.
Written by Cecile Page Vargo
Ghost Towns & Mining Camps of California
Railroads of Nevada & Eastern California
Volume II: The Southern Roads
David F. Myrick
University of Nevada Press
Southern California's Best Ghost Towns
University of Oklahoma Press
The Silver Seekers
They Tamed California's Last Frontier