Calico Ghost Town
Old Mining Town
Text and Photos by Len Wilcox
When he was a young man, Walter Knott worked the mines in Calico, an experience that stayed with him all his life. Some 40 years later he went back -- and bought the town. Some of the buildings he moved to Buena Park, California, as an attraction to bring people in to his wife's chicken restaurant.
These buildings eventually became the center of one of the most famous tourist theme parks in the world, Knott's Berry Farm. The buildings he left behind in Calico, however, became just as important, to him and to the world. He restored the town and created a place where travelers can step back in time to experience the gold rush days, and learn how people lived during this exciting time.
Located on the Mojave desert about 15 miles northeast of Barstow, California, Calico -- which lived a long time for desert boomtowns, from 1881 till around 1929 -- was a rich strike, first of silver then later of borates. Chunks of nearly pure silver came out of the 500 mines that dotted the hills. Eventually, silver ore worth some $86 million was dug out of the colorful hills behind the town. The borate brought in another $45 million.
Calico was a wild place in its heyday with a nice collection of saloons (22 of them), bordellos, restaurants and boarding houses established to service the needs of its more than 1,200 citizens. One citizen was unusual, even in a time and a town full of unusual characters.
Dorsey was a mail carrier. In fact, he was the only 4-legged carrier in the whole US Postal system. He was a black-and-white shepherd dog that had the job of carrying the mail from Calico to the nearby mines. He was a friendly dog, but once the mail packs were strapped on his back, he'd become strictly business. Reportedly, Dorsey's owner once turned down a $500 offer for the dog, saying that he'd sooner sell a grandson.
Calico's decline began when the price of silver fell in the 1890s, but the borate production kept it alive, even through the panic of 1906. While nearby Death Valley mines skinned eastern investors, Calico kept churning out valuable minerals until it gradually exhausted its supply in the 1920s.
A few hardy souls stayed on, keeping the spirit and memory alive, until 1951 when Knott bought the town and began rebuilding it. Using old photos he restored many of the buildings and created a tourist attraction that still thrives today, with more visitors on any day of the year than ever lived in the town when silver was the big excitement. Knott's Berry Farm donated Calico to San Bernardino County in 1966, and it operates now as a regional park.
Today, numerous shops, an interesting museum, static displays and actors in period costumes bring the past alive for busloads of tourists and visitors. With regular gunfights, train and stagecoach rides, restored mining equipment and displays of old household items, it's an interesting town to visit. Camping is also available with 261 tent and RV sites 46 offering full hookups.
The town is open every day except Christmas. A nominal entrance fee is charged. Regular events are held, including: Cowboy action shooting, 3rd Saturday of each month; Civil War Re-enactment on President's Day weekend; Spring Festival, Mother's Day weekend; Calico Days, Columbus Day weekend; Calico Heritage Fest, Thanksgiving; and Christmas in Calico, in early December.
Call or write the park to verify information on these events, to reserve a campsite or to check on fees.
Calico Ghost Town
P.O. Box 638 Yermo, CA. 92398
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