The Ghost of a Town Emerges From the Past

Times Staff Writer

An old bridge has risen from the dust, and the foundations of the schoolhouse and church are peeking up from the dry lakebed. The ghost town of Old Kernville -- emptied and flooded by the U.S. government more than 50 years ago -- has reemerged, uncovered by a drought-shrunken lake.

Despite last week’s rain, the receding waters of Lake Isabella reveal more remains of the town known as Whiskey Flat in gold mining days and immortalized by writer Bret Harte, who may have used the mining town as the setting for a short story, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.”

In the 1940s, the government claimed the town and land to build a dam and reservoir. Townsfolk moved a few buildings and homes to higher ground, and what they couldn’t move -- including the schoolhouse, general store, jail and the 1898 Methodist church -- they dynamited. Their foundations and ruins are visible in the bed of the largest artificial lake in Southern California, about 50 miles northeast of Bakersfield.


The drought that has gripped the West for six years has drained so much water from Lake Isabella that it is at about 16% of capacity, down from 580,000 acre-feet to 95,000 acre-feet. A bathtub-like ring stains the newly revealed canyon hillsides along a shoreline of more than 36 miles.

It isn’t Atlantis, but since the 1860 town has resurfaced, the Kern River Valley Museum has been booming. Local historians sift through the lake bottom for clues to the past, and tourists shoot pictures of old streets and foundations that may one day be submerged again.

There were glory days for Kernville, years of Wild West shootouts and, later, the celluloid type on Movie Street. The setting served as an Old West movie set and as a backdrop for such films as 1939’s “Stagecoach,” starring John Wayne.

But it was also the site of a little-known Indian massacre, where in 1863 the U.S. cavalry slaughtered 35 Tubatulabal and Kawaiisu Indians.

Harvey Malone, 78, a former mayor, retired Southern California Edison Co. engineer and fifth-generation resident whose great-great-grandmother’s first husband was killed in the massacre, pointed to concrete steps leading to the ruins of the town’s third schoolhouse.

“It was built in 1938 and was the first school in the Kern River Valley to have indoor plumbing,” he said.

At first, the Gold Rush of 1849 appeared to have bypassed this part of the valley in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Not a town, stagecoach stop or ranch was noted on an area map until gold was discovered half a mile from town in 1860 by Lovely Rogers.

The prospector’s mule had gotten away from him and, when Rogers picked up a heavy stone to throw at the mule, he noticed the glitter of prosperity in the mountainside. Rogers’ 42-ounce gold nugget became the beginning of the Big Blue mine, the leading producer of what would be several mines in the area.

Later that year, pioneer Adam Hamilton pitched a tent, threw a board across two whiskey barrels and opened a saloon he called Whiskey Flat -- and a town was born. Hamilton later became its first city clerk.

Not fierce winters, knee-deep spring mud and scorching summers, nor gunfights and swindlers, could keep fortune-seekers away from Whiskey Flat. It was a town of miners, outlaws, secessionists and hard-working ranchers who had quick tempers, fast guns and their own code of swift justice. In 1883, unpaid miners torched the Big Blue mine, and in 1892, history records, the Gibson brothers shot and killed the Burton brothers in a mining dispute.

Cattle ranchers, Cornish miners and Basque sheepherders had moved in and pushed out Native Americans -- about 1,700 members of the Tubatulabal, Kawaiisu and other tribes who once lived peacefully around Whiskey Flat.

But after several harsh winters and with little or no food, the Indians began stealing horses and killing local ranchers’ cattle that were overrunning their farms. An estimated 60 white settlers and 200 Indians would die in a two-year conflict.

Answering the settlers’ plea for military protection in 1862, a contingent of soldiers set up outposts north and south of Whiskey Flat, in Independence and Visalia. From those cavalry posts, troops tried to quell Indian hostilities.

In April 1863, Army Capt. Moses A. McLaughlin and 70 soldiers surrounded a large band of Indians camped on the Kern River nearly two miles from Whiskey Flat.

“The boys and old men [Indians] I sent back to the [Indian] camps, and the others, to the number of 35, for whom no one could vouch, were either shot or sabered,” McLaughlin wrote in his report.

By July, McLaughlin had captured nearly 1,000 Indians from the Kern and Owens valleys and escorted them on a merciless six-month march of more than 200 miles to Ft. Tejon and the San Sebastian Indian Reservation. A few months later, only 380 remained on the reservation; most of the others had escaped to their homeland in the shadow of Mt. Whitney.

McLaughlin was court-martialed for his harsh treatment of the Indians and discharged. Later, he committed suicide. Three memorial crosses stand on the site of the massacre.

A year after the bloodbath, the women of Whiskey Flat decided the town needed to escape its notoriety, so they changed its name to Kernville. It was derived from the Kern River, which was named for Lt. Edward Kern, a topographer with pathfinder Lt. Col. John C. Fremont’s 1846 mapping expedition.

By the late 1870s, a church, three hotels, several businesses and three saloons had sprung up and more than 200 miners were employed at the Big Blue mine. The mine was worked intermittently until 1942, yielding nearly $12 million in gold.

“During World War II, the old Movie [Street] set was taken to the Barstow area and used for bombing practice,” Malone said.

Old Kernville and the adjacent town of Isabella were condemned by the federal government in the late 1940s to build the dam and reservoir to provide irrigation for parched farmland and flood control. But the town’s merchants, who served many of the large cattle ranchers and timber companies, were reluctant to leave the Kern River Valley.

So several of the old houses and other buildings were moved to vacant land that would become Kernville -- joining about 500 residents -- before 1953, when the old town was flooded. (The foundations of Isabella are at the deepest end of the lake.)

Today, Kernville’s century-old buildings, Pioneer Cemetery on the lake’s edge and the remains of the closed Big Blue mine give the place the appearance of a Hollywood film set. But there’s no fakery here. Part of Kernville’s appeal is the dignity with which it has been allowed to age with little commercialism.

California’s wild and woolly Gold Rush era hasn’t been forgotten in Kernville. February will be the 50th year for its hometown hoedown known as Whiskey Flat Days.

Thousands of visitors are expected to quadruple Kernville’s population of 2,000 for events that will include frog races and a greased pig-catching contest. The four-day party -- for which residents wear frontier garb -- is set for Presidents Day weekend.

“Even if El Nino kicks in like expected,” Malone said, “those old foundations will still be here for folks to see” during Whiskey Flat Days.