Ghost Towns of the Mojave
Part 1 - Page 1
by David A. Wright
Life after graveyard shift: free to explore the graveyard of ghost towns that litter the Great Basin. That was the prospect before me in April some years ago -- 6 days and nights on the road through eastern California and Nevada. The wide open spaces, a chance to exercise the front axle on the 4x4 and my legs, camping, solitude, grand vistas and history.
My partners for the trip were Alan Patera, publisher of WESTERN PLACES Magazine; and George Huxtable, President of the Death Valley Hikers Association, who was to accompany us for two days. All of us were to come from our individual points of the compass and meet at Beatty, Nevada to begin our journey together. George would have to leave us after the weekend to return to his home and job, Alan and I would continue along our chosen path; each of us driving and living in our own vehicle. It was also to be my first truck-camping trip in a decade.
Our itinerary was loose: hit a few eastern Death Valley ghost towns and historic sites near Beatty, after which we would cut across southern Nevada, then turn northward to enjoy a few ghost towns along the region delineated by the joint boundaries of Lincoln and Nye Counties, then finish up with a few ghost towns east of Tonopah. The ghost towns and historic sites we would eventually see included:
Chloride City, California
Keane Spring, California
Capricorn Mine, California
Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad
Lee Annex California/Nevada
Leeland Station, Nevada
Logan City, Nevada
Golden Arrow, Nevada
Day 1: April 9
My portion of the trip commenced on the morning of Friday, April 9. I worked graveyard shift the previous night , coming home to grab a quick nap before embarking on this trip. I left my home in Ridgecrest, California to travel the relatively short hop over Death Valley to Beatty, Nevada, two hours and 130 miles away. The weather the night before was miserable; a small, wintry storm front had pushed across the Sierra Nevada, bringing fierce, cold winds, with precipitation in the form of snow to elevations above 4,000 feet. But as I left Ridgecrest that morning, the storm had left the area, leaving clear skies with brisk temperatures. Such a bright outlook at the start of the trip, but I was uneasy about the weather. This trepidation showed up in my verbal note I made: "And as usual with trips of mine, the day going out and the day coming back will be beautiful and everything in between will be pure hell. But that remains to be seen." But my trepidation soon turned to enjoyment: "It's amazing. Even the drive to Trona can be beautiful when you're on vacation."
Driving through the desert and across Death Valley, the air was crisp and clear, new snow dusted all the desert ranges. Contrasted with the brilliant sky, the desert landscape presented a Technicolor feast for the eyes. The sudden elevation changes in Death Valley country create a paradox -- a new dusting of snow and brisk breezes at the top of 4,956-foot-high Towne's Pass made a jacket necessary; and yet 16 miles later, at the southern end of the sand dunes east of Stovepipe Wells, people were walking about in T-shirts and shorts enjoying calm air and pleasant sunshine. The outside temperature reading on my dashboard indicated an agreeable 69º.
I reached Beatty 25 miles further east and 3,700 feet higher in elevation. Evidence of the storm that passed through the night before was indicated by clumps of melting snow that lay everywhere in town, deposited by vehicles driving in from northern points. Here I easily picked out Alan's red Ford Explorer, it sporting a new two-tone red/tan coloration due to driving the previous three days from Portland through rain, snow and mud. The Explorer's mudball exterior contrasted substantially with my relatively clean vehicle, a Chevrolet S-10 4x4 pickup. George had come in from McCarran Airport in Las Vegas driving a clean and shiny rental car.
After Alan, George and I met, our immediate plan called for exploration of the ghost town sites of Keane Spring and Chloride City; they nestled in the upper reaches of the Funeral Range that creates Death Valley's eastern walls. Both George and I had been to Keane Spring and Chloride City before, but Alan had not. Soon we were retracing my route westward over Daylight Pass and along the eastern rim of Death Valley.
A dirt road 2.7 miles west of Daylight Pass was our access to these two sites. It takes a sharp eye to pinpoint a small sign hiding in the brush as a landmark to go by. Those who wish to use this road to access Keane Spring and Chloride City are admonished by that diminutive sign that a four-wheel-drive is necessary. That is a true statement, although the route normally isn't too challenging for experienced off-roaders. Keane Spring requires a short walk of about 1/2 mile over an easy route , the point for accessing the townsite is found 2.1 miles from the Daylight Pass road.
Keane Spring townsite was created in 1906 during the mining craze that swept the region after the triple bull markets of Tonopah, Goldfield and Rhyolite. Keane Spring was one of the few reliable water supplies in the Funeral Range, and therefore attracted people to stop along the way to other mining excitements that had sprung up around the Death Valley region like spring wildflowers.
The townsite never had a substantial permanent population, but it did have bragging rights to a branch of the Porter Brothers Store, the large tent structure of the Death Valley Mercantile Company, a boarding house, a saloon, a couple of offices and a large corral and stable of the Kimball Brothers stage line from Rhyolite.
A post office was approved, but rescinded because like spring wildflowers, Keane Spring faded from importance to the region. It was then erased from existence in 1909 by a desert flash flood. Throughout the years prior to the town's existence and afterwards, Keane Spring was utilized to supply water to surrounding mining projects.
Today, a visitor to Keane Spring will find little at first glance. The most obvious landmark to find Keane Spring is to focus on a small cluster of willow and cottonwood trees that mark the spring and head toward them. A hundred yards before reaching the trees, your path will begin to cross landmarks that will identify the townsite, located in the bottom of a draw.
There are several stone foundations, broken 4-inch pipe sections litter the townsite, and the ever present litter of can dumps remain to identify the site. The primary townsite was situated in the bottom of this draw, but inspection on the north side of the draw will also reveal several large can dumps. The spring itself is choked with vegetation and was dry during our visit.
After our visit to Keane Spring, our caravan proceeded onward to Chloride City, located 4.4 miles further south. The road is roughest between Keane Spring and Chloride City, but anyone with a truck based 4x4 rig will experience no problems unless the road has been washed out due to flash flooding.
Nine-tenths of a mile after leaving our parking spot below Keane Spring, we encountered a water tank sitting alongside the road. This tank was installed here in 1935 by the Coen Corporation to supply the Big Belle Mine that is located below Chloride City. A diesel engine was utilized to pump the water up to the vicinity of Chloride Cliff where gravity took over to send the water the remaining distance to the mine. The remains of the pipeline can be found at Keane Spring and along the route to Chloride City.
The junction of the road that branches off to Chloride City is found 2.3 miles beyond the water tank . Turning right at this road will take one on a rapidly climbing path that will include gorgeous views over the Amargosa Valley to the east and beyond. In 1.2 miles we landed at the center of the Chloride City townsite, marked by a collapsed structure, several rusted remains of old autos and trucks, the grave of James McKay (nothing is known about him), a cave-type dwelling and a Cousin Jack dwelling . Nearby are remains of mining operations that existed just prior to World War II. Exploring along the 1.3-mile route to the top of Chloride Cliff will reveal several other structures.
Chloride City traces its roots to 1871 when A.J. Franklin discovered silver on Chloride Cliff. The mine was extremely remote during this time period, requiring a road to be constructed down the mountain range, across Death Valley, then southwest to the Mojave River at Daggett; itself a remote and lawless camp. Later, the famous 20-mule teams associated with the borax trade utilized part of the route.
Franklin had few employees, only 7 people at the peak of operations cared to live so far from civilization, but he faithfully kept his claims and was rewarded by the first decade of the 20th century during the Rhyolite boom; in which the region was incorporated as the South Bullfrog Mining District.
Chloride City reached its zenith in 1906, when the devastating San Francisco earthquake in April of that year, caused instant cessation of capital from the city that freely spent much money for mining in the entire desert district. Ore was rich enough, however, to keep people interested, and mining continued sporadically through 1941. There were standing structures to mark Chloride City until the 1970s, but now the townsite is marked by debris, collapsed structures and corrugated metal shacks scattered all over the crest of the Funeral Range.
The highlight of a visit to this region is a visit to the top of Chloride Cliff. To reach it, we continued south from Chloride City, taking the obvious route to the top. The top of the peak, at an elevation of 5,279 feet above sea level, reveals a wonderful view over Death Valley and west to the Sierra Nevada. East and north one can explore with the naked eye the basin and ranges of western Nevada. Immediately below Chloride Cliff there is a maze of roadways twisting downward to access the higher mines of the Funeral Range. Sharp eyes will be able to pick out the parking area and some relics at the Keane Wonder Millsite, far below.
To complete Day 1, our two-truck caravan turned around and headed eastward into the broad northern end of the Amargosa Valley. Crossing the invisible line that separates California from Nevada, we continued east, then turned southwest to visit and set up camp at the Capricorn Mine; situated on the lower slopes of the eastern foot of the Funerals. Near the junction of the Amargosa Valley road and the road to the Capricorn, an approximately 15-foot tall "Christmas tree" type sign is found. The wood is very weathered, the fragile structure supported by well weathered bailing wire support lines.
The road to the Capricorn was once obviously bladed during its heyday, but difficult now to distinguish from the desert. As the route crosses desert pavement in the valley, the only way to tell where it once ran is by looking for parallel berms. Large and old creosote growing from between those two berms tell that this road has been long forgotten and caused numerous short detours.
The Capricorn Mine is situated a tenth of a mile inside California (and therefore within the boundary of Death Valley National Park), 15 miles south of Rhyolite. Just before reaching the Capricorn, just a few feet inside Nevada, we found remains of what appeared to be an old buckboard type wagon.
We arrived at the Capricorn just before sundown. The altimeter on my dashboard registered 4,200 feet. We set up our camp for night while the setting sun created a glowing golden spectacle of the view of the Amargosa Valley and the surrounding territory, most of the high points snow covered. George pitched his small backpacking tent in a small gully, while Alan and I set up our vehicles for sleeping.
That evening we dined on fine foods such as canned tuna, instant soup and breads, while Alan enjoyed an appetizer of smoked oysters, which he shared with George and me. I brought along a small jug of wine, we all toasted our success at finally getting together and going on this expedition. My tailgate served as the dining room table; our cuisine enjoyed while dressed in premium heavy parkas and thermal underwear as it was quite chilly accompanied by an arctic breeze.
As the twilight progressed, we got a view seemingly back in time as we pondered the lights of Rhyolite -- the Barrack Company mining operations at Bullfrog had ceased mining operations as of December 31, 1998, after which the company was engaged in a 15 month long environmental cleanup operation.
A few lights in the Rhyolite townsite were visible. Vehicles moving along US 95 were turned to trains running the Las Vegas & Tonopah Railroad and the parallel competition in the form of the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad. Or so we imagined the night time view of the few miners who were stationed at the Capricorn 90-plus years ago.
My sleeping quarters on the trip was to be in the back of my truck. I have an insulated camper shell which helped keep weather off of me, and a rubber bed mat served to keep me off the bare metal. I brought along an air mattress to make things a bit more livable, but the first night proved to be relatively sleepless for me.
First of all, it was downright cold. A wind was blowing from the north, chilled by the abundant snow that covered the entire state of Nevada north of Beatty. Then I found that my air mattress had a small leak. The mattress was new and had been used on only one occasion prior to the trip, so that really upset me. My sleeping bag has a rating for temperatures below freezing, but I still got cold as the chill worked its way through the deflated mattress and sleeping bag. And I got stiff as my once pliable and young body has now become 40-something and less pliant. In addition, I work a permanent graveyard shift so my body was used to being awake and alert at such hours. In short, sleeplessness was more of the order that night than was sleep. In an early hour of exasperated wakefulness, I uttered these words into my voice recorder: "I cannot help but wish that I was at the bottom of Death Valley right now. Or it was the middle of July." More...
All photos are copyright David A. Wright
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