Calico, California’s legendary silver rush ghost town, lies just north of Barstow. My first visit to this historical silver camp was in 1978 with the Alder Backpacking Club. At the time, the tourist town seemed much more rustic. The old mines scattering the nearby mountains welcomed exploration by vacationing families. Adventures lurked around each bending corner of the surrounding canyons. The abandoned ruins of the once prosperous silver mines invited visitors to delve into the history of a time that had been lost, but not forgotten.
Today, the luster of this tourist hot spot has been dulled, but it still retains that simple, rustic charm that I have come to love. Boundaries and a denser structure have been established by the county to ensure the safety of the guests and to preserve the heart of this enchanting, Old West town. The mines now being gated-off seems to give the sightseer a deeper sense of the silver camp being a “shadowy resemblance of its former self,” the very definition of a “ghost town.”
Calico was originally founded by four prospectors in 1881 during the
largest silver strike in California. The Mojave Desert mountain camp promptly became a thriving mining town with hotels, general stores, a meat market, a post office, restaurants, boarding houses, bars, brothels, and a telephone and telegraph service. By 1882, the town had a weekly newspaper published as the “Calico Print.” Within the townspeople, there were doctors, lawyers, commissioners, constables, a sheriff, and a justice of the peace. Soon a school district was established by the county and a voting precinct ensued.
The silver production in Calico peaked between 1883 and 1885. Within just over a decade, the copious mines numbered over 500 and produced $20 million of silver ore. Adding to the prosperity of the mines, the borate mineral colemanite was uncovered and the successful production of borax
began. The population grew from a mere 1,200 to an abundant 3,500 by 1890. Unfortunately, as expeditiously as the mining camp grew, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act precipitated the town’s demise. By the mid 1890’s, the price of silver plummeted and the profitability of the mines was depleted. With the silver production no longer being economically viable, the miners and residents migrated from the homesteads that once held such prosperous promise. The discontinuation of the post office occurred in 1898 and the ending of the school rapidly followed. As the century transitioned into a new era, Calico transitioned into a ghost town. By 1907, borax was no longer mined and the town was abandoned.
In an attempt to revive the town in 1915, a cyanide plant was opened in Calico. At this time Walter Knott was building the redwood tanks for the cyanide plant and grew an attraction to the dilapidated town. After he and his wife, Cordelia Knott, achieved success with the largest chicken dinner restaurant in the world, Knott purchased the town of Calico. In the 1950’s, Knott commenced the restoration of all but the five original buildings in Calico. He then went on to showcase his admiration and love of the Old West by developing the Ghost Town–a replica ghost town that was the first of the themed areas contained in America’s inaugural theme park, Knott’s Berry Farm. The first major ride at Knott’s Berry Farm commemorates the dusty ghost town of Calico.
The town of Calico was donated by Knott to San Bernardino County, becoming a County Regional Park in 1966. The county park established
camping grounds and converted the town into a tourist attraction. Amongst the activities and adventures are mine tours, gunfight stunt shows, gold panning, train rides, an off-road tour, a museum, a mystery shack, and a ghost tour. In addition to the activities and attractions on-site, there are nearby OHV and mountain bike trails. The town also offers an Old West ambience within its fourteen unique shops, including woodworks, crafts, pottery, leather works, art, fossils, minerals, and souvenir photographs. Amidst these desert trinkets, there are a number of restaurants. Here you may swing through the saloon doors and satisfy your thirst with a sarsaparilla, indulge yourself in sweet treats, tickle your tongue with the famous Buffalo Burger, relish the smoky taste of the finest BBQ’d chicken, and nourish your soul with an 1880’s inspired stew or pot pie.
We were delighted to learn on our family trip to Calico, that our visit was during the Holiday Fest. Luminous strands of lights bordered the windows and rooftops of the quaint Western shops. Red ribbons daintily danced on the draping garlands and wreaths. A bustling sense of cheer made the town feel alive with the Christmas spirit. Period actors caroled merry music along the street, Mr. and Mrs. Claus gleefully greeted guests, and gunfight demonstrations were bountiful. Imagination soared through once upon a Yuletide Old West.
The Christmas cheer extended to the campgrounds, where we eagerly joined the festive fun. We adorned our camp with shimmering lights and entertained the camping community with our joyous holiday music. The Holiday Fest is geared towards family-friendly activities, which we enthusiastically participated in that Saturday. There was crafting for kids and enjoyable games for all. The spicy scent of the aromatic Ginger Bread House Building Competition was so gratifying, and our creative group was
even more thrilled to take first place. Between the holiday activities we visited the General Store, toured the intriguing Maggie Mine, and rode on the narrow gauge railroad. We loosened up while listening to the live entertainment and celebrated a second victory when my niece won first place in the debut of the Annual Ugly Sweater Contest. She even beat her mom!That evening, we filled our bellies with succulent smoked turkey, savory BBQ’d steaks, and various potlucked dishes. Our family and newfound friends delightfully sipped on steaming hot chocolate. Their thirst seemed to never quench, and our hot chocolate maker could barely keep up with the demand. These potluck dinners drive a comfortable sense of community. You come to know your neighbors in this inviting environment, and recognize the quality of spending time in harmony.
On Sunday, we ventured into Mule Canyon inside of the BAT2, the M923 truck that we transformed into our very own luxury motorhome. Our trek to the mines was dotted with RV’s, campers and off-road vehicles. As we passed these canyon campsites, the travelers emerged to examine our truck. Some of these desert adventurers snapped photographs of BAT2, while others stood in awe, or merely gave an approving thumbs up. Our hefty vehicle ventured deeper into Mule Canyon. It ascended the steep roads with the greatest of ease. It conquered the deep ruts as if they were small cracks. There were no hesitations. There were no issues. The BAT2 is a beast of a truck!
WE DO NOT ENCOURAGE ANYONE TO EXPLORE ABANDONED MINES WITH OUT UNDERSTANDING THE RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH THIS TYPE OF ACTIVITY. BEST ADVICE: STAY OUT – STAY ALIVE!
Overlooking the Silver Odessa Mining District there are openings, stopes, tunnels and basically a maze of mine workings. We sauntered in and explored the extensive area. The dark tunnels led to egresses some five hundred-feet away from where we had entered. Advancing again, the passageway would lead to another maze of tunnels, taking us to yet another exit elsewhere. Somewhere within these captivating stopes and tunnels, we encountered a hairy tarantula. I explained to the children that the non-poisonous tarantula is very important to ecosystem of the area. We spent an hour in this dank labyrinth exploring and absorbing these tunnels from America’s history.
Once our hunger for adventure had been satiated, we clambered back into the BAT2, tired and happy, and began the expedition through Mule Canyon and towards our home.
This riveting and educational journey was appreciated by our entire group and we are all looking forward to the next.
You can look forward to reading about our next adventure this January, where we will be camping at Pisgah Crater and exploring the lava tubes!