Drivers will find no Walmarts, malls or suburban enclaves along I-15 between Barstow, California, and Las Vegas, Nevada. Folded mountains line the horizon, and scattered Joshua trees populate the desert—pretty much the extent of scenery along this stretch. However, amid the mountains and yuccas of the Mojave Desert a town once thrived. Welcome to Calico, a living ghost town with a rich, colorful history.
In 1881 Barstow area silver miner John Peterson described a prominent peak some 10 miles to the northeast as “calicocolored,” as the shades reminded him of the pattern typical to a pioneer woman’s skirt. The name stuck for both the peak and the surrounding range. At the base of 4,491-foot Calico Peak a soon-thriving silver mining town took the same name. During its mid-1880s peak Calico boasted more than 300 claims, several dozen established mines, a population of 1,200 (including a Chinese quarter), a post office, several lodging houses and hotels, 22 saloons and a red-light district.
Miners John McBride, Larry Silva and Charlie Mecham filed the earliest recorded silver claim in March 1881 after striking a vein in a canyon soon dubbed Wall Street. From their strike and related claims sprang the Calico Mining District. Within two years the discovery of borax deposits at nearby Mule Canyon lured even more miners to the district, and by 1886 the hills were honeycombed with shafts.
The relatively shallow ore deposits and natural firmness of tunnel walls around Calico kept operating costs low, unlike many other California mining operations that required significant investment capital to extract the ore. The Silver King, Oriental and Bismarck in particular drove Calico’s wealth during the boom period of 1881–1907. Until the nationwide financial panic in the 1890s, the Calico mines yielded more than $20 million in silver and $9 million in borax. The significant drop in the price of silver, from a high of $1.31 per ounce to a low of between 60 and 63 cents per ounce in 1897, tarnished Calico’s reputation as a silver mecca. The 1893 repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and the ensuing depression prompted closure of nearly all the mines, leaving the borax operations as the sole income earners.
During its heyday Calico claimed several notable characters. In the 1880s Postmaster Everett “Bill” Stacy and brother Alwin trained a Border collie named Dorsey to deliver mail between the post office and Alwin’s store at the Bismarck diggings— a story recounted, with embellishment, in a 1977 Wonderful World of Disney episode titled “Go West, Young Dog.” Prospector Annie Kline Townsend, who supported a young daughter, claimed to have carried dispatches for the Confederate Secret Service. Calico residents and mine owners Robert Whitney Waterman and Henry Harrison Markham served consecutively as California governors between 1887 and 1895.
Calico’s population plummeted through the first half of the 20th century, until Walter Knott—a local miner and homesteader—bought the town in 1951. Thinking Calico’s history might serve as a tourist draw between Barstow and Las Vegas, Knott envisioned a family park providing such activities as gold panning and horseback riding, and lodging modeled after late 19th-century hotels. But instead of developing a theme park, Knott channeled restoration efforts, and in 1966 he donated the 480-acre property to San Bernardino County as a regional park [cms.sbcounty.gov/parks]. Knott ultimately built an amusement park— Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park—with a ghost town modeled after Calico.
Today Calico is registered as California Historical Landmark No. 782. The park is open daily (adults, $8; ages 6–15, $5; 5 and under, free) and features mining demonstrations, tours and a museum, among other attractions.
Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.