Calico Ghost Town: The Silver is Gone, but it's Gold for Tourists

If you’ve ever driven I-15 between Las Vegas and California you probably have noticed the signs for the Calico Ghost Town, a tourist attraction tucked into the sparse mountains. It’s three miles from Barstow and three miles from Yermo, smack dab in the middle of nowhere. A large flat cut-out of a prospector holding a shovel and looking un-enthused tells drivers it’s only three miles up into the hills and you can clearly see the name Calico written on the top of the low mountain. So, is it; kitschy, or visit-worthy?

Adult admission is just $8, kids under five years old are free, so if you go and find it’s not your cup of tea, no big loss. To start with: it is clearly not a real ghost town. The place has been completely restored and the center of town is paved, but it does give you the feel of what an old mining town might have looked like in its day. In fact the structures at Calico were rebuilt nearly exactly were they stood over 100 years ago, so it lends to an authenticity few other places can. Yes, it is aimed squarely for a tourist market, and that’s not a bad thing, depending on how you approach it. Yes you can find wooden nickels, wanted posters with your picture on it, all manner of kitschy paraphernalia that is pointless, overpriced average food, pony rides, a tiny slow train, and talk to employees in “Western” garb (in spite of their sneakers). Remember this was rebuilt by Knott’s Berry Farm founder Walter Knott, who was the nephew of John King of the King Silver Mine located at Calico – so he certainly had some vested interest in the place, no doubt a nod to keep history alive while pocketing a few bucks. But all of that should not detract from the truth that this was a real mining camp pulling out tens of millions of dollars worth of silver in its prime.
It was tough mining at Calico

There are 30 miles of tunnels and shafts still at Calico and no you can’t wander in them. The closest you can get is Maggie’s Mine that goes back 1,000 feet and is the only original mine left that you can access. Of course, there are over 20,000 mines throughout the vast Mojave Desert of all sorts and types harkening back to the gold rush days.

This rock shows the geologic forms in and around Calico
Though it started in 1881, at its height approximately 1,500 people lived at Calico continually, sometimes up to several thousand. But those days were short lived and by 1890 there were fewer than 100 people living in Calico’s remote dessert location. There were 22 saloons and 2 known brothels. The only original wood structure still standing is the park office on your left-hand side as you enter the town. There are a few other true historic, though fully restored, buildings as well, and an old cemetery with at least one grave dating to the 1800s.

Overview of Calico looking out to the Mojave

Why Calico is worth a visit is that it gives you a sense, not only of how a mining town haphazardly grew, a one street town sitting on a inclined mesa devoid of trees, but it also shows you the geography that the miners had to deal with, the strata of rock which still glimmers with little flecks of mirror-like feldspar, alluring in its own right. But the rocks also give you an idea of how difficult it would be to tunnel through, haul out and then build on top of and in - all to seek out silver. In the old days the earth was removed by mule team and taken to Dagget, about six miles away to be sorted at the stamp mill, a long laborious process. Our forefathers didn’t have the use of cars, cell phones with GPS mapping, and the luxury of heading to Starbucks for a morning latte before hammering out rock in a mine (though currently you can find Seattle’s Best Coffee here). Nor did they have what we all value – comfort. 

1800s fire truck

Calico is hot in the summer and cold in the winter – it is not temperate. To mine in these conditions was hard work, which is why the population died out when the silver did. If you can look past the obvious Hollywood-ish set, or merely embrace the kitschy while seeing the bigger picture, you will appreciate Calico. It's good to get here early before the throngs of tourist buses and RVs show up crowding the town, where you can walk the street and pathways in relative quiet and imagine how different your life is, why people chose to keep living here even after the silver mines gave out, and how you may not have survived in Calico.
For some of the best Mexican food around, head to Lola’s Kitchen (1244 E. Main St.) in Barstow if you’re passing through. Tasty, flavorful and reasonably priced, I highly recommend it. If interested in more gold rush era posts, check out some of the crazy characters of the Northern California Gold Rush on my other blog here: GOLD RUSH

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