Ghost Towns

Calico – Desert Ghost Town

Calico is a desert ghost town, theme-park style. Just outside of Barstow in the Mojave Desert—designated the state of California’s official “silver rush ghost town” in 2005—Calico started its life as a lawless 19th-century mining camp. In the 1950s, it was reinvented by Walter Knott, the very man who brought us Knotts Berry Farm.

Calico - Desert Ghost Town

In 1881, John McBryde and Lowery Silver discovered silver ore in the dusty mountains near Wall Street Canyon. Calcium borate (borax) was found shortly after. More than 500 mines were soon in operation, producing the biggest silver load in California history. The mines had pithy names like the Bismark, the Burning Moscow, and the Waterloo. Soon, the new settlement of Calico in Wall Street Canyon sprang up, filled with young adventurers from places as disparate as the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and China. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Calico was a rip-roaring town teeming with miners, boomers, promoters, gamblers and fortune hunters… Five thousand men swarmed up the canyons and gulches from their stone huts each morning to grab with picks and blast with powder for rich silver ore. A dog carried the mail in pouches strapped to his back. The justice of the peace chewed tobacco and swallowed the juice. And the gaudy colors in the mineral stained mountains which formed a backdrop for it all reminded someone of a piece of calico. So that’s what they named the place…

But the boom, as nearly always, was followed by a bust. By the 1890s, silver lost much of its value due to the discovery of bigger mines, and the dusty desert outpost was mostly deserted. By the mid-1930s, only four residents were left. After the reconstruction instigated by Walter Knott, the desert ghost town was donated to San Bernardino Country in 1966 and became a regional park a few years later.

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