In 1948 a woman name Barbara got in her brand new Chevrolet still heated from a fight with her assistant director husband in Lone Pine. Barbara was a script girl for RKO movie studios, but had roots in the Owens Valley. She found herself headed up to Lee Flat, just over the saddle from the faded ghost of the Cerro Gordo Mines, on the Death Valley side of the Inyos. It was very dark and very remote, and she wasn’t sure where she was.
She waited until morning and found a ramshackle cow camp. Rough and tumble Wally Willson opened the door when she knocked, and they fell in love immediately. Barbara divorced her Hollywood husband and moved into the cow camp with Wally. In 1949, he was approached by the last owners of the mining camp of Cerro Goro. Wally and Barbara found themselves caretakers, then owners, when W. C. Riggs had to declare bankruptcy. Wally eventually died, Barabra married Fred Coman, then when he died 8 years later, Barbara married Jack Smith.
They were awarded ownership when the prior owner, W.C. Riggs, went bankrupt while owing them back wages. In 1985 the couple transferred ownership to Smith's niece Jody Stewart, who with eventual husband Mike Patterson moved to the property and began restoring buildings for tourist and overnight use — including the American Hotel, the 1868 Belshaw House (now a bed-and-"make your own" breakfast), the general store (now a museum) and a 1904 bunkhouse (which accommodates 12 guests).
Mike Patterson and Jodi Stewart-Patterson
Jody Stewart-Patterson (Friends of Cerro Gordo Collection)
Jody died in 2001, Mike in 2009. A resident caretaker was kept on hand to help restore more buildings, give tours and prevent mischier. The property was inherited by Mike's son Sean Patterson, a construction contractor in Bakersfield. Two organizations were formed to take on maintainance and protection of the property - Friends of Cerro Gordo in 2012 and Cerro Gordo Historical Foundation created by Sean Patterson in 2013.
Cerro Gordo is privately owned and currently a ghost town and tourist attraction. It still has several buildings, including the general store and the American Hotel. Permission to visit must be obtained.
The town was put up for sale in June 2018 and immediately purchased by entrepreneurs Brent Underwood and partner Jon Bier with additional investment from a small group of investors, who plan to keep it open to the public. The sellers agreed to terms with Underwood and Bier despite at least one higher bid being offered, because their vision for the future of the town, including its preservation, aligned with the sellers' wishes to continue this piece of American history.
The sale of the abandoned mining town fittingly closed on Friday the 13th of July 2018. The 24,000-square-feet of buildings and more than 300 acres of patented mining claims once averaged a "murder a week" in its hey day, and was once the largest producer of silver and lead in California.
Jon Bier and Brent Underwood
Bernt Kuhlmann (left) added to active partners in 2019
Jon Bier and Brent Underwood
"There were offers that were quite higher than our offer," Bier said. "But to the credit of the family that sold it, they went with our offer because we were going to keep the integrity and tell the story of what makes it culturally significant."
"Our goal is to maintain the historical nature of the property and respect the piece of history," Underwood said.
But that's not to say some changes won't be taking place.
Cerro Gordo doesn't have running water so in order to make the town an extended-stay destination, that problem is number one on the list. Both Bier and Underwood spoke of necessary refurbishments to be done to buildings so they are structurally sound as well as adding a restaurant and bar one day.
Underwood said there aren't immediate plans to build new structures and that the current plans primarily revolve around refurbishing the 22 original buildings left standing in the ghost town.
The group of investors have dreams of holding group retreats, stargazing, hiking tours and hatch throwing workshops.
Robert Desmarais - caretaker-historian since 1997
However one thing that won't be changing with the new sale is longtime caretaker, Robert Desmarais.
Desmarais has lived in Cerro Gordo since 1997 as a caretaker, living alone in the desolate town after his wife left the town because of the extreme altitude and weather conditions. He first came to Cerro Gordo after seeing an ad in a trade magazine about mining in the town.
Robert Desmarais, caretaker/historian 2017
A 70-year-old (2019) former high school teacher, Desmarais used to visit the remote spot on school holidays to search for ore. He eventually moved there full-time, to live away from the crowds "up in the mountains, under the stars". He has been searching for a lost vein of silver ever since.
Cerro Gordo (Fat Hill in Spanish) was once the most fruitful silver mine in California. "It helped to build Los Angeles," Desmarais says.
Convinced there is plenty of silver left, he prospects with a chisel and hammer to "crack rocks and see what's behind them". "I've found the equivalent of a wheelbarrow full of silver," he says. For now (as of 2019) he sells the ore in its raw form to tourists for between $5 and $20 a piece.
After Desmarais had been living in the town for a couple of years, the owners gave him a cabin, which had once been the home of a miner named William Hunter. That's where he now lives, at an altitude of 8,200 feet, with a commanding view of the valley that enables him to see visitors long before they reach the town.
Desmarais enjoys showing visitors around. He tells them about the history of Cerro Gordo, which was founded in 1865 and quickly grew to host a population of 4,500, and about mining, his great passion.
"I've fallen in love with the history of the town," Desmarais said. "I like the adventure and I love the fact that I am preserving history."
Desmarais said he "doesn't want to ever leave" the wild wild west town and continues to hope that more people come and experience it.
"I just really hope that the town can stay historically correct," Desmarais added. "And that more people can come and visit the town."
Drone Video of Cerro Gordo Mining Ghost Town 2018
We bought a ghost town by Nathan Barry
One of the investors was Nathan Barry who describes a visit to Cerro Gordo on his website which includes the video (above right).
The Business of Running a Ghost Town CNBC August 2019
KNBC October 2019 Drone View of Cerro Gordo
If you plan to visit, call 760-876-5030 before you go. Bring money for souvenirs and a donation.
Some information sites about Cerro Gordo:
- Friends of Cerro Gordo created in 2012
- Cerro Gordo Historical Foundation created by Sean Patterson in 2013
- Ghost Town For Sale - 2018 SOLD JULY 2018
- California ghost town sells for $1.4 million; buyers plan to develop it as a tourist attraction Los Angeles Times July 2018
- 'We Want to Continue This Piece of American History': Reviving a Ghost Town - NBC Los Angeles July 2018
- We Bought a Ghost Town by Nathan Barry November 2018
- From LA lifeblood to rusted wasteland, a hidden California ghost town is getting a second chance to shine - Roadtrippers July 2019
- 'I've spent 22 years searching for silver in a ghost town' By Victoria Park BBC News 30 July 2019
- The Business of Running a Ghost Town - CNBC August 2019 YouTube Video
- Crypto Mining to Revive Abandoned Town in California