Ballarat, CA

Ghost Town Near Death Valley

Story and photos by Lara Hartley
all images click to enlarge and copyright Lara Hartley

This sign pretty much sums up the Ballarat experience - you can't learn anything just sitting inside the car.
This sign pretty much sums up the Ballarat experience -
you can't learn anything just sitting inside the car.

"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.

Some buildings in Ballarat are holding on against the onslaught of wind and the occasional rain storm, while others are melting into the desert.

Some buildings in Ballarat are holding on against the onslaught of wind
and the occasional rain storm, while others are melting into the desert.

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.

Former Manson family member Tex Watson's 1942 Dodge power wagon sits among the tumbleweeds at Ballarat Ghost Town.

This green Dodge was the vehicle one of Charlie Manson's followers, "Tex" Watson,
used to flee Barker Ranch after the police raided the ranch.

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 late afternoon sun paints Ballarat and the Panamint Mountains with a golden glow. The adobe building in the foreground is almost gone.

The late afternoon sun paints Ballarat and the Panamint Mountains with a golden glow.
The adobe building in the foreground is almost gone.

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.

A curtained window hides the interior of this still-used cabin in Ballarat.

A curtained window hides the interior of this still-used cabin in Ballarat.

 

Rock Novak seems lost in thought, his desert-worn handsome face mirroring the rough-hewn textures of the ghost town he takes care of.
Rock Novak seems lost in
thought, his desert-worn
handsome face mirroring the
rough-hewn textures of the
ghost town he takes care of.

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.

 

George Novak of Ballarat ghost town in the Panamint Valley of California. George has bright and lively blue eyes that look into the past with astounding clarity. He may not remember me from visit to visit but his stories are worth the trip every time.
George Novak of Ballarat ghost town in
the Panamint Valley of California. George
had bright and lively blue eyes that looked
into the past with astounding clarity.
He may not have remembered me from
visit to visit but his stories were worth the
trip every time.

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.

Ballarat caretaker Rock Novak and his soft heart are holding out for true love far from civilization in the Panamint Valley. There are not many opportunities to meet ladies in the desert outback.

Ballarat caretaker Rock Novak and his soft heart are holding out for true love
far from civilization in the Panamint Valley. There are not many opportunities.

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.

Bits and pieces of Ballarat's mining past are still part of the scenery.

Bits and pieces of Ballarat's mining
past are still part of the scenery.


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.Many people visit Ballarat to visit the grave of gold prospector 'Seldom Seen Slim.'

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 Slim.'

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Other Photo-Stories by Lara Hartley



      
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