Saturday, January 16, 2016

Calico Mining Town, September 1978

It's time to head waaaaay out into the Mojave desert to Calico - the former mining town that became a ghost town when the silver dried up, and then became a tourist destination when Walter Knott bought the place in the 1950's and turned it into a sort of annex to his famous Berry Farm in Buena Park. 

Calico really is out in the middle of nowhere... over 100 miles of harsh desert and rugged terrain are between you and Los Angeles. You are basically halfway between L.A. and the Nevada border. But when shiny metal calls (and borax, let's never forget about that borax!), hardy people will put up with just about anything. 

Here's a general overview of how the place looked in 1978... that light streak in the distance appears to be a dry lake bed, though I can't seem to confirm it. If you took away the buildings and the few scrubby plants, and gave the photo a reddish tint, it would probably be pretty convincing as the planet Mars. There's Matt Damon now!

You'd hardly know that these pictures were taken over 35 years ago. I've always loved that they went to the trouble to put giant letters spelling "CALICO" on that mountain top. I wonder if that was a Walter Knott thing. 

From the looks of it, Calico was not generally a place for kids - I don't see a single child in this image. My grandparents did take me and my siblings there once or twice when I was little, and I enjoyed it. Ever since I had been given a map (probably bought at Knott's Berry Farm) showing the many ghost towns and mining towns all over the State of California, I had dreams of exploring the mines and striking it rich! But then I remembered that there were cartoons on TV and that I couldn't drive a car yet.

As you can see, there was a real gang problem at Calico in the 70's. Groups like this would intimidate visitors with their rough appearance and crude manners. Right after this picture was taken, the guy on the left pulled out a switchblade!

This blog is nothing if not classy, which is why I chose to end the post with this photo! 

I don't actually think this was an old outhouse, but what else could it be? A prospector's tiny abode, built with scrounged sheet metal and wood? There were few amenities, but you had access to plenty of free scorpions.


Nanook said...


Once again a gang of (in this case) " 'old' toughs" has invaded the peaceful co-existence of the folks of a small town. Clearly certain members of this gang were into large satchels (or as they were known: purses). Never stand within striking range-! I think they were responsible for the declining population of Calico Ghost Town.

Thanks, Major, for sharing.

TokyoMagic! said...

The way that outhouse is leaning, it looks like it came from Calico's Haunted Shack. The Haunted Shack had to have a toilet, right? For the ghosts?

MRaymond said...

I've been to Calico many times as a kid. My dad was a bit of a rock hound and we liked the ghost town, also our scout troop had camping trips out to Calico in the spring. Lots of good memories. BTW, that strip is a lakebed but my map doesn't give it a name.

Gojira said...

Visited Calico in June 2005 and really enjoyed it! My first trip out in the desert. I remember thinking at the time, the place was showing some decline. There were a good number of buildings that once housed shops or exhibits, etc., that were empty. Nevertheless, it was fun! Thanks for posting Major!

Major Pepperidge said...

Nanook, they often walked around, snapping their fingers in unison, just like in West Side Story. Where’s Officer Krupke when you need him?

TokyoMagic!, the “flow” goes uphill in that little outhouse!

MRaymond, my grandfather was a rock hound… I wonder what kind of specimens your dad found out there? I was always amazed when my grandpa would polish some ordinary-looking stone, and it would wind up being beautiful.

Gojira, I haven’t been to Calico since I was a child… in fact I sort of wanted to go recently, but MAN, it is way out there. Probably why other people haven’t gone, I would imagine.

Chuck said...

I went out to Calico with my family as we were moving from CA to IL back in '76, and I remember after previous trips to Knott's being really excited to see the real Calico Ghost Town and tour an actual mine. It didn't disappoint.

I went back in '93 or '94 with the Scout troop I was working with in Highland at the time, and we launched several model rockets out on that dry lake bed before a big but brief dust storm hit us while two boys and I were downrange recovering rockets. I remember grabbing both kids and hunkering down for a couple of minutes until things settled down, then walking back to the main group covered in a fine layer of crud. We went back to camp, found our tents flattened, and called it a day. Never made it to the town itself that second trip...or ever again. It makes me sad.

Anonymous said...

Calico is a favorite place of mine from many childhood trips and in later life, we camped with the Scout troop here several times on the way to Grand Canyon.

It's declined somewhat from the time of the Knotts management, which used to have a more interpretive approach, describing the historic conditions and life of the inhabitants, while still selling enough stuff to make the business viable.

Many of the buildings were original and only slightly remodeled for new use.

Now, many new buildings have been added so it's hard to see where the old left off and the new begins. It's too bad, because it reduces the experience of the original town and construction. It's nice because the new work is pretty good, but there's no systematic explanation of what's new and what's original.

Now, Calico has basically become just a merchandise background display for cheap imported junk jewelry and cowboy regalia. It's still fun, but it's harder to see the place where people lived and died underneath, so that's kind of sad.