Ghost Town Near Death Valley
"Me lonely? Hell no! I'm half coyote and half wild burro." - Seldom Seen Slim - epitaph on his grave marker.
It could be called a tale of two cities, one of which is seeing the best of times and one that has sunk into what could be considered the worst of times.
Ballarat, Australia, steeped in gold mining history, is a popular tourist destination and is prosperous and healthy.
Ballarat, California is slowly melting into the landscape. Poured adobe buildings and a few weathered wooden structures are all that remain at the base of the colorful Panamint Mountains. Abandoned trailers and trucks dot the landscape like rusted ornaments on a dried-out Christmas tree.
One truck, a 1942 Dodge power wagon, belonged to Charlie Manson family member and convicted murderer Tex Watson. Visitors Kathleen and Rick Ortega posed in front of the truck for photographs on a recent late winter day feeling a cold chill that was not from the crisp wind.
The tale of Ballarat is that of a boom and bust kind of town. Never much to begin with, after the death of one of its more colorful residents, Seldom Seen Slim, Ballarat continued its decline into what it is today.
Named after the Australian gold camp by young Australian immigrant George Riggins, Ballarat was created in 1897 as a supply post when the Ratcliff Mine opened in Pleasant Canyon. By 1899 the town had 400-500 residents as well as a Wells Fargo Station, post office, school, jail, hotels and several saloons. After the mine closed down in 1905, Ballarat began to die. And when the post office closed in 1917, the town ceased to formally exist.
Located in the Panamint Valley north of Trona and just outside Death Valley National Park, Ballarat is visited by the occasional wild burro - and people who love exploring the nearby rocky canyons. Spring, winter and fall are the best times to visit as 120-degree summer temperatures rival those of Death Valley. Hiking and other outdoor activities are difficult in the heat if not downright dangerous.
The only resident now is Rock Novak. His dad George lived out here too. George was a teller of tales with startling blue eyes and a full head of hair under a black cowboy hat. George passed away in his sleep at home in Ballarat on April 8, 2011, where he resided with his son. George was 90 years old.
Rock describes himself as a "lonely caretaker" looking for love - always hoping to find someone who will share his life, love of the desert and fondness for local history.
Novak is a hard rock miner who runs the little store and museum in the privately-owned ghost town. He lovingly looks after the cemetery and entertains visitors with historical stories of Ballarat and the surrounding mountains' mining lore.
Sharing a cold soda at sunset with Rock on the store verandah, visitors can perhaps catch an impromptu airshow of fighter planes from nearby China Lake as they buzz the valley. Or they can see freshly panned gold flakes. Novak shares his knowledge of local geology, and gossip about the "Rainbow Chasers" - prospectors whose names are legendary in the annals of Mojave Desert history.
After the post office closed in 1917, a few legendary Death Valley old-timers stuck around, like Seldom Seen Slim (born Charles Ferge), who lived most of his life in Ballarat scouring the surrounding desert for minerals. Assayer Fred Grey, a 53-year resident of Ballarat, lived on the edge of the dry lake long after the mines closed. Chris Wicht kept his saloon open, catering to other desert rats and wanderers.
The assay office is one of the most complete buildings still standing.
Shorty Harris, who discovered the rich Bullfrog strike, called himself a "singleblanket-jackass prospector." He lived in the fading town off and on until his death in 1934.
Seldom Seen, who claimed he hadn't taken a bath in 20 years because water was so scarce, lived in Ballarat until his death in 1968 - the last of the Rainbow Chasers. He is buried in the cemetery - one of the few graves with a real marker and not just a wooden cross with the name scoured off by the weather.
George once said of Slim, "He got a lot of pictures of himself taken for someone who was 'Seldom Seen' ."
Many people visit Ballarat to visit the grave of gold prospector 'Seldom Seen
- Click Here for a Video of Ballarat.
Valley's Ballarat Ghost Town
- From Beatty
to Ballarat, On the Trail of Shorty Harris
- Piercing the Heart of the Panamints Via Goler Canyon
Other Photo-Stories by Lara Hartley
- St. Andrews Abbey: A World of Wonder
- Cassini Call Home: Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex
- Birthday Road
Trip: Route 66
- Ludlow for Lunch
- Intimate Landscapes
Related DesertUSA Pages
- How to Turn Your Smartphone into a Survival Tool
- 26 Tips for Surviving in the Desert
- Death by GPS
- 7 Smartphone Apps to Improve Your Camping Experience
- Maps Parks and More
- Desert Survival Skills
- How to Keep Ice Cold in the Desert
- Desert Rocks, Minerals & Geology Index
- Preparing an Emergency Survival Kit
- Get the Best Hotel and Motel Rates
Share this page on Facebook:
DesertUSA Newsletter -- We send articles on hiking, camping and places to explore, as well as animals, wildflower reports, plant information and much more. Sign up below or read more about the DesertUSA newsletter here. (It's Free.)