The Crazy Stories Behind California’s Most Famous Ghost Towns
How do you go from one of California’s most populous cities to a population of zero? From a bustling metropolis to Ghost Town, USA? Try everything from outlaws and flash floods, to 100mph winds and a shoreline filled with dead fish.
Here are the mostly harrowing stories behind nine of California’s most famous ghost towns.
Remains: Around 100 structures, including the old general store, the Methodist church, a saloon, a bank vault, and the cemetery
One of the original mining towns, by 1880 Bodie was California’s third-most populous city with 10,000 residents. There were plenty of brothels, gambling halls, opium dens, 65 saloons, and even a “601 vigilante group” (6 feet under, 0 trials, 1 rope) which was notorious for taking the law into its own hands. Bodie’s population dwindled to 120 people by 1920 thanks to terrible weather -- Bodie is 8,000ft above sea level, the winds can get up to 100mph, and there has never been one month on record where frost was not recorded -- and exhausted mines. It was a destructive 1932 fire, however, that sealed Bodie’s fate as a ghost town.
It’s now a National Historic Landmark and state park and visitors can pay $5 to wander the town that’s been preserved in a state of arrested decay. One of the most popular spots is the grave of Rosa May, a prostitute who died after caring for sick miners and is often referred to as the “hooker with a heart of gold.” Her red light still hangs in the town’s museum. A word to the wise if you do visit Bodie: don’t take anything with you. Legend has it that bad luck latches on to anyone who steals from the town. The luck is so bad that the park rangers receive stolen items in the mail every month from visitors trying to escape the horrible hex.
Panamint City, CA
Remains: Foundations and a crumbling smokestack from a mill
Panamint City came to be when three stagecoach robbers (who were using the area to hideout) discovered silver there in 1872. They sold their claim to a Nevada senator in return for amnesty and soon the area was flooded by hundreds of prospectors. A dozen saloons, stores, a red light district, and a population of more than 2,000 people popped up in what became know as a lawless town where 50+ shootings occurred in just a few years. By 1876, the major mines in the area were depleted and a flash flood that washed away most of the buildings sealed its fate as a ghost town.
Remains: Foundations and old miners’ cabins
The mining town of Ballarat was so barren that everything had to be brought in, including water, timber, and food. Still, in the early 1880s, the town had more than 500 residents, seven saloons, three hotels, a post office, a morgue, a school, and a jail. When the mine shut down in 1903, the town was quickly abandoned with almost all of the residents having moved away by 1917. Ballarat is also known for Barker Ranch, a ranch built in the late 1930s by a retired couple who wanted to live in solitude and try their luck at mining. After the husband died, the ranch was sold to James and Arlene Barker who purchased it as a second home for family gatherings; fast forward three decades and it’s also where the Manson “family” lived in 1968 and 1969. Arlene Barker gave them permission to stay there in exchange for a Beach Boy’s gold record that was given to Charles Manson by Brian Wilson. The Barker Ranch is also where Charles Manson was arrested in 1969. Not for murder, but for setting a National Park Service tractor on fire. Even more intriguing is the fact that Manson almost escaped arrest that day. The police thought they’d rounded everyone up, but when an officer returned to the house to use the bathroom, he saw some hair sticking out of the small cabinet. That hair belonged to Charles Manson. The main structure burned down in 2009, a year after the police spent a week digging up the ranch looking for four bodies, but you can still visit it today.
Bombay Beach, CA
Remains: Trailers, boarded-up buildings, abandoned cars
In a story that seems almost too weird to be true, Bombay Beach was a thriving resort in the 1950s and '60s on the Salton Sea, a desert lake that exists only by accident. In the early 1900s, the Colorado River breached its levees and flooded a dried-up lakebed creating a 15-by-35 mile lake dubbed “a miracle in the desert.” Hotels, yacht clubs, and homes soon popped up along the shores and Bombay Beach catered to over half a million visitors every year. But by the 1970s, the lake, which had no drainage outlet and almost no rainfall, became so polluted that piles of dead fish were rotting on the shores. And just like that, the tourists stopped coming. Though there are still a few people who live in Bombay Beach, the amount of abandoned businesses and homes give visitors a good idea of what life will look like after the apocalypse.
North Bloomfield, CA
Remains: The church, school, barber shop, fire department, and lots of other buildings
A couple of miners discovered gold nuggets on the San Juan Ridge in 1851, one of whom later bragged about it at a local saloon. When he went back to the creek to find more, he was unknowingly followed by other prospectors who wanted in on the loot. When none of them found any gold, however, they named the creek “Humbug.” Shortly thereafter, the advent of hydraulic mining turned Humbug into a “bustling” town of about 2,000 people, at which point it was renamed North Bloomfield. By the early 1880s, North Bloomfield had eight saloons, five hotels, several groceries, a couple of breweries, a church, a school, and a butcher shop. However, when hydraulic mining was made illegal in 1884 due to environmental concerns, the town was abandoned. The ghost town is located in Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park and most of the buildings are in great shape, which makes this abandoned spot one of the eerier ones to visit.
Silver City, CA
Remains: More than 20 historic buildings including cabins, a post office, a saloon, and a general store
Silver City is unusual in that it’s a composite of historic buildings from mining camps. These structures were slated to be demolished in the 1960s and '70s, until Dave and Arvilla Mills saved them by moving them to the current site. It’s now a museum with thousands of artifacts on display and you can go inside the jail where gunslinger Newt Walker was locked up in 1905. What makes Silver City especially fascinating, however, is the fact that it’s haunted. Like, miner’s lunch pail flying 12ft across a room, bottles floating in the air, and a violin that plucks its own strings, haunted.
Remains: 10 restored buildings, including a library, church, schoolhouse, and hotel
This all-black farming community was founded in 1908 by a group of men who wanted to create a place where African Americans could be free of racism and in control of their destiny. The town’s economy depended on agriculture and was a thriving community written about by newspapers across the country from 1912-1915. Unfortunately, the community’s trailblazer, Lt. Colonel Allensworth, was killed by a motorcycle in 1914. The lack of his leadership, combined with declining water tables, led to the demise of the town. It’s now a state park with 15 campsites.
Remains: Five original buildings and many more that have been restored
By far the most touristy ghost town in California, Calico was a silver mining town that flourished in the 1880s. There were hotels, general stores, bars, brothels, and a population of 1,200+ people. However, the enactment of the Silver Purchase Act made it so the mines were no longer viable and the entire town was abandoned by 1907. Walter Knott (yes, of Knott’s Berry Farm) bought the town in 1951 and began restoring it. Today, it’s a State Historical Landmark and part of the San Bernardino County Regional Parks system. In other words, $8 will get you in for the day to explore the museum, mine, and even take a ride on a train similar to those used back in the day.
Remains: A few huts, some of which are partly submerged
In 1876, a small cabin was built on Station Island for the drawbridge operator who opened and closed the Southern Pacific Coast Railroad’s two drawbridges with a hand crank. The drawbridge operator started inviting his friends to stay the night and go duck hunting and by the 1880s, there were hotels, cabins, and a thousand visitors on the weekends. By the 1920s, Drawbridge had 90 private homes and was divided by two communities, the Protestants and the Catholics. Unfortunately, zillions of gallons of water and raw sewage were being pumped into the wetlands by the city of San Jose and soon people were forced to move away. The last train stopped there in 1955 and the final two residents moved away in 1979. Today, the town is part of the US National Wildlife Refuge. It’s also slowly sinking (its current elevation is 7ft). While it’s off limits to the public, it can be viewed from trains that pass by or up close for those willing to risk walking there.
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