Calico Ghost Town

I left Route 66 and headed into the Mojave Desert to check out a former mining community now known as the Calico Ghost Town. This isn’t a “roadside Ghost Town” as in “an abandoned and crumbling town” that sits empty and waiting for urban explorers to come and photograph what is left. In this case, the old buildings are still there, crumbling and falling over, but they are surrounded by other buildings and businesses that were added later as a part of Walter Knott’s efforts to preserve the town and make it a tourist attraction.

Some buildings are original and open for business (the Saloon, the General Store, and Lucy Lane’s House) and others are reconstructions (the School House, the Calico Bottle House) added to make the town complete. It’s a “pay to enter” site and pricing is per person (adults are $8).

After the Gold Rush in California came the Silver Rush in the 1880s. This little town was founded in 1881 and at its peak in 1887 had 1200 people living in the town, was producing $86 million in silver, $45 million in borax, and had its own Chinatown and Red Light District. If you’ve ever used 20 Mule Team Borax products for cleaning, the company’s name makes reference to how borax was transported out of Calico by Francis Marion Smith (a.k.a. Borax Smith) in the 1880s… before the arrival of the railway.

By 1890, the profitability of Calico dropped dramatically and only 80 people were living in the town. It was around this time that the price of silver dropped from $1.31 an ounce to $.63 and there was little profit from silver mining. Today there are still 8 people living in the area.

One of the more interesting and lasting characteristics of the earlier town is that before cut lumber arrived, miners and visitors had to live and stay in natural or carved caves in the rocks around the town. Entrances and furniture for these caves were fashioned from barrels and crates that came with provisions and stagecoaches.

The first hotel, the Hyena House, was a four-story structure built into the natural rock and outcroppings of the cliffs in the upper end of town. It’s said that whenever a stagecoach arrived on Main Street, the proprietor Adam Harpold would arrive with a wheelbarrow and offer arriving “guests” a ride to his hotel.

In the summer Calico gets HOT; during my visit, it was a whopping 104F / 40C. The only relief from the heat came from wandering underground in the mine itself.

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