A former mining village called Calico offers visitors a fun and educational look at what life was like a century ago.
By Betty Cosley
Nestled at the foot of the colorful Calico Mountains in the high Mojave Desert, midway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, is the nicest little ghost town you would ever want to visit. Called Calico, it was the site of the richest silver ore discovery ever recorded in Southern California history.
Like all mining towns, Calico had good times and bad times. In spite of several fires, an earthquake, and the greatest disaster of all “” a drop in the price of silver “” Calico just refused to die. By the grace of a few miracles and the dream of a well-known Californian, it lives on and serves to remind us all of the past.
When you go, don’t expect a deserted town filled with empty buildings and dusty streets. This is Calico Ghost Town. It is operated as a county regional park, complete with all the treasures and trappings of the past, and is the most popular and liveliest ghost town in Southern California.
Born in the early 1880s, when silver was discovered, Calico quickly became a town of more than 3,500 miners and prospectors. It was during a meeting at Hank’s Hotel that the name “Calico” was decided upon. “Boys! Let’s call ‘er Calico,” one prospector shouted, “She’s purty as Ma’s calico petti skirt.” And so it was.
Considering that the mountains sheltering Calico were often the red, yellow, green, crimson, and brown of a calico print, it was a good choice.
By 1885 Calico was at its peak, boasting 22 saloons, its own “red light” district, and even a Chinatown. Adobe houses, tents, and lean-tos dotted Main Street. Cave shelters were dug out of canyon walls. Water had to be hauled in. It was a ramshackle town, but respectable, not rowdy. Miners even brought in their families. Recreation consisted of picnics in Odessa Canyon, with half the fun being mother riding sidesaddle and the children doubling up on burros. There were shooting contests, brass bands, touring vaudeville troupes, and plenty of red-eye to drink after a hard day’s work.
Silver was king then “” the richest mine there was even called the Silver King. Eventually more than 50 mines dotted the surrounding hills from which a record $86 million in silver was removed. At times great chunks of almost pure silver, each weighing more than a half ton, were cut out of solid rock.
Unfortunately, the price of silver dropped massively in 1893. By then borax already had been discovered nearby, and for a while borax mining kept the town going. With it came the familiar 20-mule teams. By 1907, even borax was no longer profitable. One by one, the miners moved on and the mines closed. Slowly the desert began to reclaim the town. Only a few tough and stubborn individuals remained. They worked recovering cyanide, but even that did not play out for long. By 1935 the town had been abandoned.
Calico may have been down, but it was not forgotten. In 1951 Walter Knott, owner of the well-known Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park in Buena Park, California, was about to fulfill his dream. As a young man working in the mines, he had grown to love the wide-open spaces of the desert and the colorful town of Calico. Now, as a successful businessman, he was inspired to rebuild the ghost town and turn it into a lively tourist attraction. It was a tremendous task. Tunnels were cleared, old weathered buildings and mining equipment restored, mementos and relics acquired, and the tiny Calico-Odessa Railroad was put into good running condition. Finally, roads, parking lots, air-conditioning, piped water, and rest rooms were added. In November 1966 Knott donated Calico to the people of San Bernardino County.
Calico is 9 miles northeast of Barstow off Interstate 15, and approximately a 90-minute drive from Pomona, where FMCA will hold its 75th International Convention in March 2006. The exit road to Calico winds across white soda flats and around dry lake beds for approximately 4 miles. If in doubt that you’re on the right road, watch for the word CALICO carved high on the hilltop. You can see it from the freeway.
If you’d like to make this more than a day trip, you can stay overnight at Calico. Stop off at the shaded campground near the entrance to town, get set up, then prepare to step into the real Old West. The full-service campground is on the park’s premises.
You’re certain to find something of interest in this village. Two-thirds of it consists of reconstructed buildings, but the rest are original. For example, four late-1880s adobe buildings still stand, mainly because this material was less likely to succumb to the fires that have occurred over the years.
Stroll along the wooden sidewalks of Calico’s Main Street. Browse the shops and discover displays of old guns, handmade pottery, and leather-crafted items. Swap tales with one of the town’s colorful “characters.” There are many people portraying citizens of the town “” some are planted, and others are for real. It’s hard to tell one from the other.
Dressed in Western gear, the clerks like to retell the story about their favorite Calico mail carrier, Dorsey the dog. Homeless Dorsey found himself a friend in Stacy, the postmaster of Calico. Since the dog always accompanied Stacy on the mail route, he sometimes helped by carrying mail. One day Stacy was taken ill and Dorsey became a full-time doggie mail carrier. Although he was unpaid, except for an occasional bone, Dorsey continued to be faithful to his job until the mines closed down.
Of course the clerks never miss a chance to revive the “lost treasure” story either. It seems that two gambling saloon owners, Wong Lee and Pat Hogan, had figured out how to win at the roulette table. One night, after winning a considerable amount of money, they were gunned down. When the murderer searched the victims, however, he was unable to locate the loot. Hogan was heard to say as he lay dying, “The gold is buried in Calico under the big rock.” It has never been found, and there are still plenty of big rocks for you to search. Incidentally, should you hear the sound of gunshots, don’t panic. Several times a week, gunfighters re-enact old-style gunfights to provide entertainment. Then again, maybe the fight is between old-timers “” those who just can’t forget the days when Wyatt Earp walked the streets of Calico as the area’s marshal. Don’t worry. They’re usually harmless.
One of the never-to-be-forgotten tough characters of town was Quartz Davis, so tough that when a scorpion bit him, it was the scorpion that died.
Feel like more excitement? Climb aboard the quaint Calico-Odessa Railroad for a one-mile trip that loops through steep canyons and hills, past ore dumps and workings where hundreds of shafts and tunnels still remain, while the engineer points out the sights. You can walk through the tunnels of Maggie Mine and gaze into the Glory Hole that once produced $65,000 in silver ore. But don’t whistle! Whistling in the mines is forbidden “” the miners believe it annoys the “Tommy Knockers” “” little people who inhabit the mines and warn of danger by knocking on the tunnel walls.
Feel like laughing? If you’re lucky, you may hear the magic call to a show, and get ready to boo, hiss, laugh, or sob over the old-time melodramas occasionally presented in Calico by local college students. Should you be hungry or thirsty, step up to the bar at Lil’s Saloon for a boysenberry punch or a cold brew and listen to sounds of a honky-tonk piano; or, have yourself a full meal at the Calico House Restaurant.
Thus fortified, you can continue your tour. The Mystery Shack is one of only six spots left in the western United States where water runs uphill. Pick up a copy of the Calico Gazette at the Print Shop. Don’t miss the jail, the bathhouse, the barber shop, the schoolhouse, or the Lane House and Museum. The latter is right on Main Street in an original town building.
Just off Main Street, old adobe walls mark the site of Calico’s Chinatown. Nearby is the cemetery on Boot Hill, whose headstone epitaphs probably tell the true story of Calico days. Watch closely for the Lady in White, Calico’s infamous lady ghost. Check out the photos you take; you might have caught her on camera.
Several times a year, Calico kicks up its heels and celebrates with festivals and special events. The most popular and spectacular celebration is the three-day Civil War Re-enactments. Drills, music, displays, and Confederate and Union camps are set up in town. This festival is held each February around President’s Day. A spring festival that includes bluegrass and country music is held every Mother’s Day weekend; Calico Days is held each Columbus Day weekend; and a Ghost Haunt is held the last weekend in October. Over Thanksgiving weekend, an Old West Cowboy encampment takes place, and Christmas in Calico ends out the year.
From Calico it’s not a far drive to Mojave National Preserve, Death Valley National Park, the Calico Early Man Site, the Western America Railroad Museum in nearby Barstow, or even Las Vegas, Nevada. Of course, you might stay ahead of the game by just searching for gemstones, fossils, or even Pat Hogan’s gold. Good luck! You’ll probably need it.
When you’re tired of exploring, stroll back down to the beautiful, modern, tree-lined campground in the canyon below town. Then it’s time to sit around the campfire and think about tales of lost, buried treasure, and spooks who moan in the night to the tune of coyotes howling in the distance. Sleep well!
Calico Ghost Town Regional Park
P.O. Box 638
Yermo, CA 92398
The Calico Ghost Town is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to dusk. Shops, restaurants, and attractions are open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, $3 for children ages 6 to 15, and free for children ages 5 and under.
The campground at the ghost town is open 24 hours a day; 56 of the sites have full-hookups. Fees in 2005 ranged from $18 to $22 per night. Camping fees include admission to the ghost town, except on special weekends. The campground offers rest rooms, showers, and two dump stations.