Ballarat - A Ghost Town
On the Road to Death Valley
Text and photos by Len Wilcox
"Me lonely? Hell no! I'm half coyote and half wild burro."
Seldom Seen Slim -- known to his parents as Charles Ferge -- said these words many times, and they are the epitaph on his grave at Ballarat, California. Slim's funeral in 1968 was broadcast on television around the country, as he was the last of a breed -- a Rainbow Seeker -- one of the prospectors who spent his life on the Mojave Desert in and around Death Valley. Slim had made his home in Ballarat since 1917.
Parked at the base of the Panamint Mountains, it's hard to imagine a more lonely and empty spot than old Ballarat. The weather is extreme; summer highs reach into the 120s, and winter nights are freezing cold. But, sitting on the porch of the general store, it's easy to see why desert characters such as Seldom Seen Slim -- as well as Frank "Shorty" Harris, renowned barkeeper Chris Wicht, Wyoming gambler and gunman Michael J. "Jim" Sherlock and a collection of other desert rats -- made Ballarat their home. It's a spectacularly beautiful area. From the incredibly rugged and steep Panamints, the flat expanse of the valley floor and the Argus Range to the west, it is desert land at its best.
Ballarat was born in 1896 as a supply point for the mines in the canyons of the Panamints. A quarter-mile to the south is Post Office Springs, a reliable water source used since the 1850s by prospectors and desert wanderers. George Riggins, a young immigrant from Australia, gave Ballarat its name when he proposed it should be named for the city in the heart of Australia's gold country.
In its heyday -- from 1897 to 1905 -- Ballarat was home and headquarters for 400 to 500 people. It hosted 7 saloons, 3 hotels, a Wells Fargo station, post office, school, a jail and morgue, but not one church. Ballarat was an oasis of fun, frolic, and relaxation -- a town to go to and blow off the dust of long trails and hard work. The town began to decline when the Ratcliff Mine, in Pleasant Canyon east of town, suspended operations. Other mines nearby also began to play out, and in 1917 the post office closed and all that remained were a few diehard prospectors and desert rats.
The excitement was over, and there was little reason for Ballarat to continue as a town; it withered but would not die. Some notable names in Death Valley history made the mud houses of Ballarat their home, including the inimitable Frank 'Shorty' Harris -- the prospector's prospector, responsible for numerous gold finds.
Shorty was a desert character. Happy-go-lucky, open and always friendly, he'd give a friend the shirt off his back, but he'd never work in a mine. His job was to find the gold, not to dig it out; and find it he did. His love affair with "O be Joyful" whiskey and his casual attitude about money cost him not one but several fortunes. His most famous sale was the original Bullfrog strike, in Rhyolite, near Beatty, Nevada.
In 1904, Shorty had gone to Goldfield, then down to Keane's Wonder on the edge of Death Valley, but he was too late at both of these strikes. He partnered up with Ernest Cross -- Shorty hated working alone, and would always share his gold with a friend -- and prospected the hills west of Beatty's ranch. They hit the big time with a strike that was bigger than Goldfield or Keane. True to form, Shorty tied one on, and while under the influence of "O Be Joyful," sold his interest for less than $1,000. Cross sold out, too, but for enough to buy a ranch near San Diego.
That sale wasn't the first nor the last time Shorty would find a fortune then give it away; but the loss never seemed to bother him. To him, it was the search, the life and the desert he loved. The view from his shanty in Ballarat kept him there; it is spectacular and no amount of gold could replace it. Looking out across Panamint Valley to the Argus Range is a restful sight. Behind the town, the Panamints rise almost straight up from Ballarat's 1,067 feet to Telescope Peak's snowcapped summit at 11,049 feet.
Another story about Shorty Harris takes place in Ballarat, at Shorty's favorite bar. The truth of this story can't be verified, but true or not, it's a classic yarn of Ballarat.
It was the Fourth of July, and a 3-day hooraw was underway. Shorty had been imbibing his usual and was passed out in a corner of Chris Wicht's saloon. His friends decided to wake him up in a way he'd never forget. They found some boards and threw together a coffin, then placed it on Chris Wicht's pool table -- with Shorty in it. Votive candles were lit and hours later, when Shorty stirred, Chris called the boys together and they began a eulogy for Shorty Harris. When the boys lifted the casket to carry him out to the graveyard, Shorty began shouting -- and jumped out, ran out of the saloon, and reportedly didn't return to Ballarat for months. He probably spent the time trying to figure a way to top that prank, but couldn't find one.
Shorty lived in Ballarat off and on, till his death in 1934. He was one of a handful of miners and prospectors who hung on there, but the town faded after his death. Today, Chris Wicht's saloon is gone back to dust; but the remains of Shorty's cabin stand north of the main road into Ballarat. The foundation and corners are visible next to another miner's shack that remains in good condition.
In the 1960s Neil Cummins bought the private land east of Ballarat and tried to revive the town. He wanted to create another Palm Springs, with tourism and golf taking the place of mining. He built a cinder-block store and set up a trailer park with electrical hookups. The attempt failed, however, and he gave it up in 1988.
Also in the 1960s, another famous (or infamous) visitor came regularly to Ballarat. Charles Manson with his family of killers stayed at the Barker ranch south of town, and left their graffiti in Ballarat. An old Dodge Power Wagon parked near the general store still bears the stars the family used as their signature on its headliner.
Today Ballarat has one or two full-time residents, and the store is open most afternoons and weekends. Visitors are welcome. Many 4-wheelers use the trailer park as a campground headquarters for expeditions into the Panamints and Death Valley. The scenery is still spectacular, virtually unmarred by signs of human occupation.
Walking around the remains of the old town, and visiting the old cemetery, it's easy to visualize the ghosts of Seldom Seen Slim and Jim Sherlock -- and hear the happy noise of Shorty and his friends in Chris Wicht's saloon. And Slim is right: they're not lonely.
Ballarat is located 3.6 miles from the pavement of the north-south Trona-Wildrose Road (California 178), north of Trona. There is a historical marker at the turnoff.
Well-known Christian singer and composer James Westborn Blair became so fascinated by the story of a man named “Seldom Seen Slim” that he wrote a song about him. Click Here to play the MP3 file.
Video of Ballarat
-Ballarat, California Photo Story by Lara Hartley
-Seldom Seen Slim, aka Charles Ferge, Unofficial Curator of Ballarat
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