How the 8 Most Intriguing California Ghost Towns Started

It’s right out of a Stephen King novel:

Crazed prospectors scramble to find wealth at the latest gold-mine hotspot and settle in a quiet nearby town making its population explode almost overnight – then abandon the new territory once the gold runs out.

Or

Torrential floods and toxic water cause a flourishing town to be condemned, sending residents into a frenzied exodus in search of safety, leaving the town behind.

Ghost towns are created when droves of new residents come in, the infrastructure expands, then droves of residents move away. California is home to over 300 ghost towns. All of them are fascinating in their own way, a window into the hopes and dreams of another era. Here are some of the most interesting.

As always, before visiting, please check to see if the area is open during the pandemic and what the social distancing policies are.

1. Calico

The town of Calico, named for the color variations of the surrounding mountains, came to life in the 1880’s. At its height, Calico produced $20 million in its 500 silver mines. But, the town lost its luster when silver plummeted in value, no longer richly rewarding the search. An effort was made to switch to mining borax, but it wouldn’t save Calico. After 12 booming years, the miners and their families moved on to more promising ventures, leaving the once prosperous town.

Fast-forward to the 1950’s: Walter Knott, from the family of amusement park and jelly fame, purchased the town of Calico, rebuilt and restored it to its earlier glory. Calico is now an official State Historical Landmark, preserved for future generations to enjoy. Today, visitors can step inside a genuine mining plant, tour the church and school house, pan for gold and ride the Odessa Railroad. Click here for more info!

2. Bodie

How do you grow a town from 500 residents to 10,000 residents? Promise them silver, gold and wild west parties!

Bodie, one of the original mining towns, experienced a population explosion when a mine caved-in and gold was discovered. It didn’t take long for word to spread. Masses of prospectors descended upon the quiet town in search of fortunes. Unfortunately, as the number of new residents went up, Bodie’s good reputation fell down. Bodie embodied everything wild about the Wild West: saloons, gambling houses, opium dens and (gulp) a red light district at the end of town.

Predictably, when the gold and silver were gone, the new townspeople left, but not before they had produced $35 million worth of treasure. Some loyal citizens stayed until the last mine closed in 1920. Bodie became a National Landmark in 1962.

Click here for more information on Bodie!

3. Ballarat

A ghost town where Charles Manson once lived? Now that’s spooky. Ballarat, an unincorporated community in California, began as a supply point for mines in the nearby canyons and grew into a community of 400 to 500 residents.

When the nearby mines closed, there was no need to come to Ballarat for supplies, and the residents moved on. Today, Ballarat is a working campsite with a general store. Not many buildings still stand, but some of the original structures remain.

Abandoned car in Ballarat ghost town
Ballarat, California

4. Kelso

The town of Kelso started in 1905 as a simple train depot in the Mojave Desert and grew to 2000 residents by 1940. Gold, silver, borax and iron mines in the nearby hills brought prospectors and miners to the community. When the mines proved no longer profitable, Kelso continued as an important railroad connector. Steam locomotives stopped in Kelso both to take on water and to provide a meal stop for hungry travelers. The station continued to operate until 1986.

When Union Pacific decided to tear down the station, local residents just wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, the station reopened as the Mojave National Preserve Visitor Center. Visitors can enjoy snacks, buy souvenirs and view exhibits from the gold-rush era.

5. Bombay Beach

The Salton Sea formed when the Colorado River broke through a dike, spilling into the Colorado Desert. The Department of Fish and Game welcomed the new “sea” and filled it with fish in hopes of attracting fishing visitors. Before long, visitors flocked to fish and enjoy the pleasant desert oasis. Bombay Beach, a little town that stretches across the shore of the Salton Sea, morphed into a resort town with its own beach and yacht club. It became known as the “Salton Riviera”, a popular hotspot that even attracted the rich and famous. New houses were built and the economy thrived.

Unfortunately, floods in 1976 demolished much of the resorts, making the area less attractive to tourists. Ten years later, the Salton Sea hit high toxicity levels and was deemed unsuitable for fishing. A few years after that, the toxicity was so bad that it killed much of the fish and bird population. The stench was unbearable. All of this added up to a mass exodus. The desert playground was abandoned.

Today, the area is still enjoyed by about 25,000 visitors annually at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge.

  
  

6. Pioneertown

In 1946, a Dick Curtis led a group of film investors to purchase a parcel of land near Palm Springs and set up a “living, breathing movie set”. The set came with an old West city block facade, a fake sheriff station, a real motel, a real post office and real horse stables. The idea paid off. Instead of traveling to distant Western movie sets, film crews could stay at the Pioneertown Hotel and film right in Pioneertown. More than 50 movies and TV shows were filmed there, including The Cisco Kid.

This adorable fake Western village attracted real residents and the town started grew. Unfortunately, plans to expand the community and build an airport and shopping center were scrapped due to resource constraints and lack of safe water. So, the size of Pioneertown stayed small. As the popularity of Westerns declined, Pioneertown become more secluded; but to this day, it is still a working film site, used every month.

Click here for more information on Pioneertown.

7. Panamint City

Panamint City was founded in 1873. The large silver-mining town, known as a “bad and wicked” place hosted many saloons and brothels. At its height, there were more than 2,000 residents.

Panamint City was abandoned in 1876, but not because the silver ran out. A fierce flash flood pummeled the town, demolishing the structures and taking the lives of many residents. The harshest critics felt that the residents brought it on themselves with their bad behavior and the town was soon abandoned. Unfortunately, in 1983, another flash flood destroyed the only road into the town, making Panamint City only accessible on foot.

8. North Bloomfield

In 1851, 3 prospectors found gold on the Sand Juan Ridge. When one of them went to a nearby city, he had a few drinks at a saloon and boasted of the new location where he’d found gold. When he returned to mine for gold, a group of prospectors secretly followed behind in search of riches. Unfortunately, they found none. The disappointed prospectors named the area “Humbug” to express their disappointment.

When another round of prospectors settled in the area, they used new hydraulic mining machinery to make finding gold easier. Humbug grew into a busy town of 2,000 residents with saloons, hotels, a church, a school and a new name: North Bloomfield. As always, when the gold ran out, the miners left, leaving the town behind. The abandoned structures can now be seen at Malakoff Diggins State Park.

California’s ghost towns tell their own story of human desperation, greed, fear and broken dreams. If you are in the area, visit one of these intriguing landmarks!

Published by Michelle Kratzer

I like to write. I love the ocean. I live for babies and dogs and giggles.

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