A sudden, fierce blaze leveled a sizable portion of the famed Calico Ghost Town near Barstow on Tuesday morning, but firefighters were able to quell the flames before they reached the site's original structures, which date back to a silver mining boom in the 1880s.
The fire began in a basket and candle shop on the north edge of town just before 2:30 a.m. Its cause was still under investigation late Tuesday, but aging electric lines may be to blame, officials said. There were no injuries or sightings of ghosts, though old-timers such as Wyatt Earp, who died in 1929, supposedly stop by on occasion.
"I think it scared them away," said Yermo Volunteer Fire Department Battalion Chief Colin Mennecke.
Calico, population 8, welcomes about 400,000 visitors each year to a re-created Wild West town that is part historic site, part commercial attraction. San Bernardino County has operated the site since it was donated by the Knott family--developers of the Knott's Berry Farm theme park--in 1966.
The town was closed Tuesday but is expected to reopen today. Admission charges will temporarily be reduced from $6 to $4, said Calico spokesman Don Tucker.
Damage was estimated at $1 million, not including lost inventory at the five buildings that were destroyed. The burned structures will be fenced off but visible to tourists--a touch of modern-day lore alongside defunct silver veins and the remains of the town's red-light district.
"It's all part of the evolution of an old ghost town," Tucker said.
Though most attempted to take the fire in stride, it was still unsettling, said Russ Knott, 85, whose family restored the site in the 1950s.
"These things happen," he said. "But it's a bad situation."
Calico began in the spring of 1881 when several sheriff's deputies stumbled on the first silver vein, which was named King Silver. Others, such as the Oriental and the Bismarck mines, followed and soon Calico was a thriving prospector town.
Over about 30 years, Calico mines produced an estimated $86 million worth of silver and $45 million worth of borax, riches that were hauled out by mule, taken to nearby Daggett and shipped east.
The town's population reached 1,200 people, and there were 22 saloons, one for every 55 residents.
But the good times would not last. The silver market bottomed out in the 1890s, and virtually everyone had left by 1907, when the borax mines gave out too.
About 60 years ago, a friend took Russ Knott, then 25, to the decrepit ghost town. Intrigued by the history of the site, Knott proposed to his father, Knott's Berry Farm founder Walter Knott, that the family restore the site and offer it as a campground to Boy Scouts and other service organizations.
Walter Knott, ever the entrepreneur, "had other ideas," Russ Knott said.
The family, using historic photos, did begin restoring Calico in 1951--but also added shops and other attractions to lure tourists, and opened it to the public. Calico was also used as inspiration for some portions of Knott's Berry Farm, such as its "Calico Saloon" and "Calico Railroad."
Back in the desert, however, the remote Calico site was never a huge success, and the Knott family donated it to San Bernardino County in 1966.
"We had pretty much rebuilt it as much as we could," Russ Knott said. "We really had no special reason [to keep it] as long as somebody would take it and preserve it and care for it. And the county has done that very well."
Today, the site retains that commercial undertone, from chapels where couples are married to faux shootouts on the main drag. Calico is considered an old-school preservation effort.
"Since its reconstruction it has always had that kind of commercial aspect to it," said Todd Bothel, collections and historic property manager at the San Bernardino County Museum. "It teaches a little bit of history. But it's not the normal type of historical education."
However, it remains a popular reminder of another time in the San Bernardino County desert, and it is financially self-sufficient, Tucker said.
"People, when they go to places like that, they expect to buy souvenirs," Russ Knott said. "It's not too commercial. People really like to go out there. I think it's worked out well."
Five buildings were destroyed--the Mystery Shack, the Pottery Shop, the Spice Shop, the Basket and Candle Shop and the Bottle Shop--along with a popcorn wagon, said San Bernardino County fire spokeswoman Tracey Martinez.
More recent additions to the Calico site were made of adobe, not wood, and those buildings acted like bookends for the fire, preventing it from spreading closer to more historic structures, Tucker said.
Firefighters were well aware that they were protecting history when they arrived, Mennecke said. They showered the historic structures with a "water curtain"--wetting them so they would have more protection from the heat and fire.
"They were very intense flames," he said. "All we could do was pick a spot and keep the fire from spreading."