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Travel

Visit the Ghost Towns of the California Gold Rush

@SamWKemp

When James W. Marshall woke up on the morning of January 8th, 1849, he couldn’t have imagined the chain of events he was about to set in motion. Because it was on that day, while he was overseeing the construction of a mill, that Marshall made a startling discovery – one that was about to capture the imagination of thousands of Americans. On inspecting the tailrace of one of his water mills, he found that in churning through the river bed, it had picked up flecks of something he knew was about to make him a very rich man indeed: gold.

His discovery sparked a massive migration of miners and settlers into California. They arrived in horseback, in covered wagons, and on clipper ships – some 300,000 of them. These migrants, who came to be known as ‘forty-niners’ began setting up camps in the areas where gold had been discovered, which were usually in the spots of land by rivers, where the miners would use pans to painstakingly extract gold from the silt deposits on the river bed.

Word travelled fast, bringing migrants not just from the eastern and southern United States, but from Asia, Europe, Latin America and Australia, making California one of the most multicultural spots anywhere in the world. However, the fierce competition over these goldfields meant that xenophobia and racism quickly spread through the communities, leading to several violent attacks on Chinese and Latin American immigrants by white settlers.

At the same time, America’s hunger for gold pushed settlers further and further into Native American lands, leading to intensified violence between American settlers and the native tribes. Soon, the Californian government was calling for the extinction of the native population and offering bounties to white settlers in exchange for Indian scalps. By 1890, California’s native population had been almost completely wiped out. What had once been religious sites were transformed into rust-coloured townships, many of which would soon be abandoned. Today, California is full of these ghost towns, memories of the fledgling American nation’s all-consuming greed.

The Ghost towns of California:

Cerro Gordo

Location: Lone Pine, California
Website:
Cerro Gordo Mines

Located on the lonely western slope of the Inyo Mountains, Cerro Gordo was home to the first major silver strike in Owens Valley. But even before a settlement was founded, Mexican prospectors were scouring this “Fat Hill” for silver – many of whom were killed by Native Americans looking to protect their land or else captured and sworn never to return.

The Cerro Gordo ghost town was once home to around 1,500 people. Founded by Pablo Flores, who set up a solver ore smelting point at Buena Vista peak, the settlement grew rapidly. By 1867, miners from all over America were flocking to Cerro Gordo. Businesses and roads to take the ore to Los Angeles followed, and soon the town had developed a reputation for lawlessness and brutality. But by 1920, production began to fall and the town was left to crumble into the red dust. Today, this 336-acre private estate is one of California’s most authentic and eerie ghost towns.

(Credit: LCGS Russ)

Empire Mine

Location: 10791 E Empire St, Grass Valley, CA 95945
Website:
Empire Mine State Park

One of California’s oldest and richest mines, the Empire mine is one of the most famous ghost towns on this list. Over the course of its 100-year operation, the mine excavated over 5.8 million ounces of gold.

The Empire Mine was founded in 1850 when Geroge Roberts found a lump of hard-rock gold in a vein of quartz. As soon as the word gold fell from his lips, prospectors began flooding into Northern California – all hoping that they too might be as he lucky as Roberts. For 100 years, the Empire mine ploughed deep into the earth’s crust until the stamp mills finally fell silent in 1956. Today, it is ranked as one of the most prosperous mines in North American history. The Empire mine is one of the most impressive ghost towns you’re likely to find in California, containing old mine buildings, revived gardens, and miles of winding mine shafts.

(Credit: Beej71)

Bodie

Location: Northeast of Yosemite, 13 miles east of Highway 395 on Bodie Road (Hwy 270), seven miles south of Bridgeport.
Website:
Bodie Historic Park

Bodie is one of the most immersive ghost towns in America, largely because it has been left relatively untouched. Rather than being restored, it has been preserved and protected as a state historic park, meaning that it often feels as though the town’s former residents have only just left.

Bodie was founded after Waterman S. Body discovered a small handful of gold in the hills north of Mono Lake. After a mine cave-in led to ore discovery, prospectors began flocking to Bodie, which soon became home to over 9,000 people and, famously, the ‘601 vigilante group’. While only a small part of the town survives – preserved in a state of “arrested decay” – the interiors of the shops and houses are exactly as they were when their inhabitants left: stocked with goods and mining equipment. There are even some who believe the ghosts of Bodie’s former residents linger on.

(Credit: Mispahn)

Shasta

Location: 15312 CA-299, Redding, CA 96003
Website:
Shasta State Historic Park

At the height of her reign, Shasta was the “Queen City” of the northern mines. Its location on one of the main highways through California made it an essential freight point, leading to the construction of towering brick hotels, stores, and saloons.

Known by some as ‘Old Shasta’, this once-bustling mining town was founded in 1849 when the discovery of gold near the town bought gold-hungry Forty-Niners up the Siskiyou Trail. Many passed through Shasta on the way, transforming it into the commercial epicentre of the California gold rush. However, with the arrival of the Central Pacific Railroad, which bypassed Shasta in 1873, the town’s glory began to fade. Today it stands as one of the best-preserved ghost towns in California, featuring everything from blacksmiths to breweries.

(Credit: Jasperdo)

Malakoff Diggins 

Location: 23579 N Bloomfield Rd, Nevada City, CA 95959,
Website:
Malakoff Diggins

Malakoff Diggins is one of the most renowned and short-lived mining settlements in California. In 1851, miners hammering their way from Grass Valley and Nevada City struck gold in a creek just south of where Malakoff Diggins now stands. Within months, over 100 miners had settled in the area and were working the surrounding rivers and creeks in the hope of uncovering untold riches. However, they quickly realised that the original creek wasn’t as generous as they’d hoped, and so they nicknamed it ‘Humbug’, before moving on to other areas.

The ones who stayed behind were convinced that the hills surrounding humbug contained gold – they just couldn’t dig down deep enough to get at it. To remedy this, three miners working in Nevada City developed a hydraulic mining system that led to 3.5 million dollars worth of gold being pulled from the mountain during the company’s 44-year operation. However, the devastation caused by the mining company also led to the American government filing its first environmental lawsuit in 1884, the findings of which made hydraulic mining illegal forced Malakoff Diggin’s to close its shutters

Hydraulic mining underway in North Bloomfield in 1890. (Credit: Wikimedia)