Remote Ghost Town and Its Apparitions Can Be Yours for $99 a Night
At night, when the wind whistles through the craggy Inyo Mountains and the moon reflects off the sheet-metal siding of the abandoned silver mine, you can hear the footsteps.
Shuffling, stomping, kicking, heavy-booted footsteps on the rickety 125-year-old American Hotel’s second floor--a floor that hasn’t had regular night visitors in decades.
Welcome, if you dare, to Cerro Gordo, one of the world’s only bed-and-breakfast ghost towns.
For 99 bucks a day, it’s all yours. No extra charge for bumps in the night.
The town is precariously perched 8,500 feet high above the dusty floor of Owens Valley, 220 miles north of Los Angeles. Death Valley is just over the next mountain range.
Owner Jody Stewart, a fourth-generation resident of Owens Valley, has dedicated herself to preserving and restoring the former rip-roaring 1870s silver town.
Guests stay in the six cozy rooms of a restored 1904 bunkhouse--not the hotel--and are served hearty home-cooked meals in the hotel dining room. They are regaled by Stewart with tales about the colorful history of the town--and her own unusual journey from Hollywood to the Inyo Mountains.
Since the money goes to a nonprofit foundation restoring the town, the $99-per-person fee is technically an optional donation.
“You can leave without paying, but we warn you: There are a lot of 1,100-foot mine shafts around here,” said Stewart, an outgoing, middle-aged woman with Dolly Parton hair and Western outfits. She gives her age only as, “No way.”
The guests on a recent weekend had unlimited access to the town, including the restored hardware store, the assayer’s office, the well-preserved mining operation up on the hill and the remains of a brothel (Lola Travis’ House of Pleasure).
And of course there’s the graveyard, with 600 souls buried in plots chipped out of the mountain shale. The only surviving marker is believed to belong to one of Lola’s girls.
If enough folks are spending the night, Stewart and partner Mike Patterson will treat the guests to entertainment. On a recent weekend, Clark Curtis, the singing chiropractor, played Western songs and strummed the guitar as guests danced in the glow of kerosene lanterns.
“I’m overwhelmed by this place,” said Bob Ballard, 47, a carpet salesman and Old West history buff from the L.A. area, who spent a recent night here with his wife of six months. “It’s just as it was a hundred years ago. The word ‘commercialism’ doesn’t apply to this place, and I really hope it remains this way.”
Indeed, it’s the history, rather than the elusive ghosts, that bring people up the eight-mile, teeth-rattling, rocky road that rises steeply from the valley below.
And it’s the history that has people braving Cerro Gordo’s outdoor plumbing--unheated, unlit, authentic Old West outhouses--and non-potable water that is pumped up from 700 feet down a mine shaft. Bottled water is provided for drinking.
Cerro Gordo (“Fat Hill” in Spanish) has an important role in California history. Known as California’s Comstock, it produced 4.5 million ounces of silver in the 1870s and 1880s before declining silver prices sunk the town, save for a zinc-mining revival from 1911-1919.
With two brothels and no churches or schools, Cerro Gordo averaged a murder a week. The miners, lubricated by whiskey bought from their $4-a-day wages, commonly used gunfire to settle arguments over everything from women to local politics.
For decades, Cerro Gordo was left to the ghosts, until Stewart came along. She bought a 25% share of the town from her uncle in 1973 and the rest of the town outright in 1984.
She moved into Cerro Gordo in 1985, setting up a home in the 1904 Gordon House, named after the operator of the zinc mine, and gave up her career working behind the scenes for game-show producers.
“The town just called to my heart and soul,” she said. “I really believe I was meant to be a caretaker.”
Then began the renovation through the nonprofit foundation, whose volunteers serve as guides, cooks and handymen. Local Eagle Scouts are fixing up the livery stables, and, in a constant source of local humor, some San Diego divorce lawyers are renovating the brothel.
Guests have been arriving regularly in the last couple of years, along with an occasional movie crew. Those who survive the car ride to the town are treated to an amazing trip back in time--and some eerie surprises.
Brian Richard, 42, came up to Cerro Gordo to do some plumbing work and spent his first--and last--night in the second floor of the American Hotel.
“I’m hearing what sounds like someone walking, then what sounds like somebody walking through the bedroom and shaking all the shades,” he said. “When my dog Sandy started growling, I picked up my bedding and went downstairs.”
There he ran into the singing chiropractor, who had gone through the same experience the night before and decided to sleep downstairs.
“You could hear the people’s heels on the floor,” Curtis said. “Not just bumps, but heels. It was very impressive. I didn’t want to go up there. It sounded like they were having a party.”
Lest anyone dismiss this as a ghost story, Stewart offers photographic proof. Recent snapshots of a hotel window screen clearly show the face of a man with deep-set eyes, a big nose and a square jaw.
Some say it’s the famous Ghost of the Inyos: Alphonse Benoit, who was killed in a woodcutter’s camp in the 1870s. Others call it bunk.
Either way, Stewart didn’t want Alphonse lurking in her hotel.
“We punched out the screen,” she said.