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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

Meantime, Cerro Gordo was becoming a community. In 1875, Lulu Lewis, 15, and Army Lt. Al Wopplehorst exchanged vows before hundreds of guests in the first wedding at the two-story American Hotel, the fanciest in town. (And it's still standing.)

After dancing until dawn, according to Dorothy C. Cragen, author of the 1975 book "The Boys in the Sky-Blue Pants," the wedding party rode down the hill, holding tightly to empty kegs in the beer wagon, then continued celebrating aboard the Bessie Brady.

The steamship Molly Stevens was dismantled in 1882 and its engines were installed in the Bessie Brady. Work was nearly complete when the Brady burned at the dock. There was no silver aboard, according to Robert C. Likes and Glenn R. Day, authors of the 1975 book "From This Mountain -- Cerro Gordo."

Yet rumors persist that the Molly Stevens capsized on the lake in 1878, killing 14 and depositing a booty of silver at the bottom. According to Times stories, an anchor was dug up from the dry lake in 1951 and, 11 years later, a pilot discovered a rusted propeller and lifeboat. As late as 1988, a group of Orange County businessmen-turned-treasure-hunters went drilling but found nothing.

The railroad arrived in 1883, making it easier to move the silver. Nadeau sold his mule teams and built a Los Angeles hotel at 1st and Spring streets -- where The Times now stands.

But the price of silver began to drop in the late 1870s, and by 1888 Cerro Gordo was practically deserted. Only 30 to 40 miners remained, "getting their living as best they can," according to a state mineralogist's report that year.

Cerro Gordo achieved some Hollywood fame in several sagebrush sagas, including 1957's "Night Passage," starring James Stewart and Audie Murphy; 1966's "Nevada Smith," starring Steve McQueen; and 1967's "Waterhole #3," starring James Coburn and Claude Akins.

For decades, Cerro Gordo was pretty much left to the ghosts, until Stewart and Patterson turned a building into a bed-and-breakfast in 1986.

Patterson keeps a photograph of a town ghost: a hotel window screen that appears to show the face of a man with deep-set eyes, a big nose and a square jaw. Supposedly it's Alphonse Benoit, who was killed in a nearby woodcutters camp in the 1870s, Patterson says. He destroyed the screen to placate his jittery wife.

Today, Beaudry's general store is a museum filled with antique leftovers, including empty whiskey and beer bottles, a pair of long johns with shell buttons, ceramic vases, medicine bottles and kerosene lamps. The only modern thing is the guest registry, which recorded nearly 4,000 visitors last year.

"It's mostly the rust and dust that people appreciate about the museum," Patterson said.

B&B guests brave an 8-mile steep and narrow gravel incline in four-wheel-drive vehicles to stay in Belshaw's 1876 home, complete with 156 bullet holes, or in the 1904 bunkhouse. Dinner is served in the 1871 hotel.

The town's authenticity extends to the period plumbing -- or lack thereof.

"A guest wrote thanking us for the nice touch of talcum powder in the outhouse," Patterson said. In fact, he said with a laugh, "It's quicklime."

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