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Old Ghost Town Is Getting a New Lease on Life

The mining site high above Owens Valley went bust in 1888. Now its owner is restoring it to a state of `arrested decay' for visitors.

October 08, 2006|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

CERRO GORDO, Calif. — Some say ghosts walk the dusty streets of this abandoned silver-mining town.

With a murder a week in the 1860s and '70s, bloodshed permeates its history.

Cerro Gordo, meaning "fat hill," is an Old West settlement in the shadow of Mt. Whitney, on the eastern outskirts of Lone Pine. After the Civil War, it became "fat city" for silver miners, who shipped their diggings to Los Angeles.

Unlike other California ghost towns that are parks -- such as Bodie and Calico -- Cerro Gordo is privately owned. And the owner intends to restore it in honor of his late wife, whose family owned the 100-acre-plus town.

Michael Patterson's goal is to keep the town in a state of "arrested decay" and to finish its first chapel, all dedicated to Jody Stewart Patterson. He has braced sagging buildings and rebuilt others so carefully that nothing looks new. The only sound in town, Patterson says, "is the whistle of the wind blowing through all the bullet holes in every building up here."

The town prospered after the Civil War until 1888, when it was abandoned -- except for occasional zinc-mining revivals.

"Growing up here, a fifth-generation resident of Owens Valley, Jody had never heard of Cerro Gordo," Patterson said, until she bought a 25% share of the town from her uncle in 1973 and the rest in 1984. Her uncle's wife had inherited the town.

Patterson, a history buff and former wind-energy entrepreneur, shared Stewart's love of the Wild West and began helping her restore the town in 1985. The couple were married in 1999. She died in 2001 of cancer and is buried in the cemetery atop the hill.

This tough little town, 8,500 feet high above the dry lakebed of Owens Valley, once boasted a population of 4,800 hardy souls and 1,600 mules. It had 700 working mining claims and 37 miles of tunnels, plus five hotels, seven saloons, two brothels and a 600-plot graveyard.

"The mines of Cerro Gordo built Los Angeles as much as the Owens Valley water did," Patterson said. "This was California's Comstock Lode," producing 4.5 million ounces of silver in the 1860s, '70s and '80s.

A group of Mexican miners found silver here in 1865 and named the site Cerro Gordo, after a mountain pass in Mexico. Victor Beaudry, a former prospector and French Canadian merchant at nearby Ft. Independence, was impressed with the quality of the ore. He opened a general store in town and began staking claims to mining property, according to the 1948 book "City-Makers" by Remi Nadeau, a descendant of a town pioneer.

The mines proved to contain a fair amount of silver, but prospectors were hampered by another sort of ore that seemed worthless. But in 1867, San Francisco miner Mortimer Belshaw tested a sample and found that it was rich in lead, essential in smelting silver ore. Beaudry and Belshaw became partners, transforming the mining camp into a boomtown.

In 1868, Belshaw took the first wagonload of silver 250 miles south to Los Angeles. "Each ingot or bar was 18 inches long, weighing about 83 pounds," and worth about $35, Patterson said. The ingots were displayed at hotels, banks and businesses, boosting Cerro Gordo's reputation as another bonanza, like Virginia City, Nev.

Beaudry and Belshaw awarded a three-year freight contract to French Canadian Remi Nadeau, an ancestor of the author. He hauled 30 tons of ore a month to Los Angeles with 20-mule teams and, on the return trip, carted lumber, grain, flour, potatoes, chickens, picks, shovels, machinery and whiskey to Beaudry's store, where they were sold at a hefty profit.

By then, nothing could keep fortune seekers from Cerro Gordo -- not fierce winters, knee-deep spring mud, gunfights or swindlers.

Miners lubricated with whiskey settled fights over women and politics with pistols. Claim jumpers tunneled into the base of the mountain from all sides, prompting more gunfights.

There was no genteel side of life here -- no schools or churches -- but Cerro Gordo had its charms. At separate ends of town, two buxom madams and their bevies of painted, frilled and scandalously clad ladies welcomed miners and threw lavish parties. The miners found them just as alluring as the silver.

Cerro Gordo's deadliest mine disaster struck in the early 1870s when a cave-in killed at least eight and as many as 35 Chinese miners. They were mining in limestone below the 200-foot level and failed to shore up the tunnel with timber, former Cerro Gordo mining foreman Fred Fisher told a Times reporter in 1950. Their bodies were never recovered.

About this time, two steamships -- the Bessie Brady and the Molly Stevens -- shaved four days off the 28-day trip between Cerro Gordo and Los Angeles by speeding silver ingots across Owens Lake. On the opposite shore, near Cartago, the silver was loaded onto wagons and shipped to Los Angeles via a string of changing stations.

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