Strange Geographies: Ghost Towns of California
I live in Los Angeles. I moved here in 2002 from a smaller, saner part of the country to go to film school and work, a lifestyle which became so all-consuming that for my first two or three years here, this sprawled-out behemoth of a city was all I knew of California. When you spend all your time hemmed inside its concrete borders, it's easy to imagine LA's low-slung jungle extending forever in all directions -- but it doesn't. Drive two hours to the north or the east and you'll find yourself in some of the most desolate country you can imagine; deserts and dry lake beds and mountain ranges stretching into the unfathomable distance. Turn down a neglected state road and you might not see another vehicle for fifty miles.
But, as I discovered on a recent road trip into a few the blank spots on California's map, many of its wild places aren't untouched -- they're deserted. California is a land of booms and busts, of big dreams and big failures, and its deserts and open spaces are littered with the leavings of dried-up towns that didn't make it. I went looking for them, and this is what I found.
Of course, I couldn't visit every ghost town in California -- there are hundreds -- but the ones I found are a fairly representative sampling. Larger versions of these photos are here.
Death Valley Junction
It's twenty miles east of Death Valley, right on the Nevada border, and smack in the middle of nowhere. It used to be a railroad town: the Death Valley Railroad headquartered there and its trains carried borax (and borax miners) from 1914 to 1928, but by the 40s the railroad was defunct and the town in decline. From a population of about 100 at its peak, the city limits sign lists just four people living in Death Valley Junction.
Wild horses roam the area. As recently as 1980, the only way you could call Death Valley Junction was by dialing an operator and asking for "Death Valley Junction, Toll Station 1" (or 2). There's an old opera house that's still in relatively good shape in the center of "town," but I was drawn to this desolate wreck on the outskirts. Peeking inside, I found some intriguing graffiti:
The opposite wall reads "Because I have an alarm clock that runs on happiness."
This is such a small, long-dead town that you'd be hard-pressed to find it on a map -- folks nearby would probably tell you you were in Hinkley, a somewhat larger town west of Barstow. (If you saw Erin Brockovich, you remember Hinkley: the little desert town with poison water.) Lockhart was a small agricultural community that grew mainly alfalfa, of which the long-abandoned "Lockhart Ranch" gas station and general store complex is just about the only thing left.
The place is huge, and totally open to the elements. A fading sign on an outside wall declares: "We Sell Everything!"
A view out the manager's window on the second floor:
Not far away is a little motel. The motel office had been torn down to its foundation, but some of the rooms remained.
In the back of an old hardware store.
Not far away is Harper Dry Lake, where Howard Hughes used to test planes. An F-22 crashed into the lakebed earlier this year, killing the pilot.
Of all the ghost towns I stumbled across on my travels, Saltdale was the loneliest. But even in its 1920s-era salt-mining heyday it was lonely: so isolated that rather than travel to the nearest hospital, local women often chose to give birth at home (and paid a high price for it), and its general stores were notoriously easy to rob, since there were no police in Saltdale. There were houses, mining operations, stores, and even a school. Little remains today, save some foundations, the telltale mounds of rusting garbage that every dead town seems to leave behind it, and a tiny stretch of "baby gauge" railroad track:
The hulking shell of an old fridge.
What's a floor without a ceiling?
You could be in the most remote place on Earth, and I'll bet you'd still find things people shot with guns.
Fifteen or twenty miles down the road is a cluster of buildings formerly known as Garlock, which used to boast a school, a church, and -- much to the benefit of "the morals of the men and women of Garlock" -- the Garlock Literary Society. One can only imagine the stimulating discussions they must've had. Water scarcity and other problems eventually doomed the town.
These days it's little more than a cluster of ruins plastered with unfriendly signs. Look, it's for rent!
Not far away (but totally inaccessible to my 2WD sedan) is the Burro Schmidt Tunnel, which an enterprising (some would say crazy) old man named "Burro" dug through a mountain -- miles and miles of tunnel -- by hand. They say that somewhere in his bizarre warren of tunnels is a "chandelier room," hung with all manner of elaborate lighting fixtures. Enter very much at your own risk.
Randsburg Mining District
This is a close-knit cluster of ghost and semi-ghost towns, all centered around what used to be some very productive mines in some very inhospitable country.
Atolia was a tungsten mining town that started production in 1905. It was named after two mining company officials, Atkins and DeGolia. Among other amenities, the town had very popular little bar called the Bucket of Blood Saloon.
Red Mountain was a gold mining town well known for its bars and brothels. It's semi-ghost these days, with around 100 people still living there. I read something online that said the old Appel's Market General Store was still open for business --
-- but I couldn't find anyone inside to jerk me a soda. In fact, the back part of the roof is being held up by a few strategically-placed planks and a mattress.
Johannesburg and Randsburg are ghosts of their former selves, but you can still get a slice of pizza and shop for antiques. They're named for a famous-100-years-ago mining district in South Africa. There is a school, and they have a playground. A very, very depressing playground.
What's behind the green door? I don't know -- it was locked.
The church in Randsburg -- another building being held up by strategically-placed boards.
Okay, Ridgecrest isn't a ghost town. But its outskirts are pretty lonely, and that's where I found the remains of a settlement that had been turned into what looks like a pretty wicked paintball range.
Looks like they burned a few houses down in order to literally level the playing field.
Here's one they didn't burn down. But I don't think anyone's moving in anytime soon.
No, Trona's not a ghost town. But for every house that's occupied, there's one that's abandoned -- and seems to have been viciously defaced and vandalized. Trona is a desperate little town one valley over from Death Valley -- a lifeless, dust-blown sulfate mining town, named for trisodium hydrogendicarbonate dihydrate, or trona, which is what they pull out of the ground around there. If you live in Trona and are reading this, sorry to dis your 'burg -- but it just might be the ugliest and most depressing stretch of road in California.
This is one of the strangest houses I have ever seen. Its yard is full of rusting major appliances.
Giving a new meaning to the term "open house."
I peeked inside, hoping the realtors had left behind some freshly-baked cookies or a fruit plate.
Nope. Just some old cartons of beer and a couch meth-heads had set on fire. I can't believe the house didn't burn, too -- though from the moldy state of things, most likely the fire department had put it out.
Between Here and There
There were lots of unincorporated towns and nameless hamlets -- this was one. I like to think of Trona's "open house" and this town's abandoned gas station as metaphors for America's housing bust.
Keeler died when Los Angeles stole its water. Once a lakeside town, it's now a mostly-abandoned dustbowl. Check out my post on Keeler.
Once an important railroad town, today Laws is a kind of living museum. Lovers of old trains and railroad history should make this a must-stop.
I thought this sign was fun.
A broken baby piano inside an old miner's shack.
No tour of California ghost towns is complete without a trip to Bodie, a remote, mountainous mining settlement on the far side of Yosemite and not far from Mono Lake. Once a bustling town of 10,000 -- and in 1885, one of the largest towns in the state of California -- these days only 5% of the buildings remain. That's still a huge number -- hundreds -- and walking its streets, maintained in a state of arrested decay by the California Parks Service, you're overcome by a palpable sense of what used to be. Highly, highly recommended. I'll be doing a whole post just on Bodie in the near future.
If you're interested in prints of any of these photos, they're available here.