Old Ghost Town Is Getting a New Lease on Life

Times Staff Writer

Some say ghosts walk the dusty streets of this abandoned silver-mining town.

With a murder a week in the 1860s and '70s, bloodshed permeates its history.

Cerro Gordo, meaning "fat hill," is an Old West settlement in the shadow of Mt. Whitney, on the eastern outskirts of Lone Pine. After the Civil War, it became "fat city" for silver miners, who shipped their diggings to Los Angeles.

Unlike other California ghost towns that are parks -- such as Bodie and Calico -- Cerro Gordo is privately owned. And the owner intends to restore it in honor of his late wife, whose family owned the 100-acre-plus town.

Michael Patterson's goal is to keep the town in a state of "arrested decay" and to finish its first chapel, all dedicated to Jody Stewart Patterson. He has braced sagging buildings and rebuilt others so carefully that nothing looks new. The only sound in town, Patterson says, "is the whistle of the wind blowing through all the bullet holes in every building up here."

The town prospered after the Civil War until 1888, when it was abandoned -- except for occasional zinc-mining revivals.

"Growing up here, a fifth-generation resident of Owens Valley, Jody had never heard of Cerro Gordo," Patterson said, until she bought a 25% share of the town from her uncle in 1973 and the rest in 1984. Her uncle's wife had inherited the town.

Patterson, a history buff and former wind-energy entrepreneur, shared Stewart's love of the Wild West and began helping her restore the town in 1985. The couple were married in 1999. She died in 2001 of cancer and is buried in the cemetery atop the hill.

This tough little town, 8,500 feet high above the dry lakebed of Owens Valley, once boasted a population of 4,800 hardy souls and 1,600 mules. It had 700 working mining claims and 37 miles of tunnels, plus five hotels, seven saloons, two brothels and a 600-plot graveyard.

"The mines of Cerro Gordo built Los Angeles as much as the Owens Valley water did," Patterson said. "This was California's Comstock Lode," producing 4.5 million ounces of silver in the 1860s, '70s and '80s.

A group of Mexican miners found silver here in 1865 and named the site Cerro Gordo, after a mountain pass in Mexico. Victor Beaudry, a former prospector and French Canadian merchant at nearby Ft. Independence, was impressed with the quality of the ore. He opened a general store in town and began staking claims to mining property, according to the 1948 book "City-Makers" by Remi Nadeau, a descendant of a town pioneer.

The mines proved to contain a fair amount of silver, but prospectors were hampered by another sort of ore that seemed worthless. But in 1867, San Francisco miner Mortimer Belshaw tested a sample and found that it was rich in lead, essential in smelting silver ore. Beaudry and Belshaw became partners, transforming the mining camp into a boomtown.

In 1868, Belshaw took the first wagonload of silver 250 miles south to Los Angeles. "Each ingot or bar was 18 inches long, weighing about 83 pounds," and worth about $35, Patterson said. The ingots were displayed at hotels, banks and businesses, boosting Cerro Gordo's reputation as another bonanza, like Virginia City, Nev.

Beaudry and Belshaw awarded a three-year freight contract to French Canadian Remi Nadeau, an ancestor of the author. He hauled 30 tons of ore a month to Los Angeles with 20-mule teams and, on the return trip, carted lumber, grain, flour, potatoes, chickens, picks, shovels, machinery and whiskey to Beaudry's store, where they were sold at a hefty profit.

By then, nothing could keep fortune seekers from Cerro Gordo -- not fierce winters, knee-deep spring mud, gunfights or swindlers.

Miners lubricated with whiskey settled fights over women and politics with pistols. Claim jumpers tunneled into the base of the mountain from all sides, prompting more gunfights.

There was no genteel side of life here -- no schools or churches -- but Cerro Gordo had its charms. At separate ends of town, two buxom madams and their bevies of painted, frilled and scandalously clad ladies welcomed miners and threw lavish parties. The miners found them just as alluring as the silver.

Cerro Gordo's deadliest mine disaster struck in the early 1870s when a cave-in killed at least eight and as many as 35 Chinese miners. They were mining in limestone below the 200-foot level and failed to shore up the tunnel with timber, former Cerro Gordo mining foreman Fred Fisher told a Times reporter in 1950. Their bodies were never recovered.

About this time, two steamships -- the Bessie Brady and the Molly Stevens -- shaved four days off the 28-day trip between Cerro Gordo and Los Angeles by speeding silver ingots across Owens Lake. On the opposite shore, near Cartago, the silver was loaded onto wagons and shipped to Los Angeles via a string of changing stations.

Meantime, Cerro Gordo was becoming a community. In 1875, Lulu Lewis, 15, and Army Lt. Al Wopplehorst exchanged vows before hundreds of guests in the first wedding at the two-story American Hotel, the fanciest in town. (And it's still standing.)

After dancing until dawn, according to Dorothy C. Cragen, author of the 1975 book "The Boys in the Sky-Blue Pants," the wedding party rode down the hill, holding tightly to empty kegs in the beer wagon, then continued celebrating aboard the Bessie Brady.

The steamship Molly Stevens was dismantled in 1882 and its engines were installed in the Bessie Brady. Work was nearly complete when the Brady burned at the dock. There was no silver aboard, according to Robert C. Likes and Glenn R. Day, authors of the 1975 book "From This Mountain -- Cerro Gordo."

Yet rumors persist that the Molly Stevens capsized on the lake in 1878, killing 14 and depositing a booty of silver at the bottom. According to Times stories, an anchor was dug up from the dry lake in 1951 and, 11 years later, a pilot discovered a rusted propeller and lifeboat. As late as 1988, a group of Orange County businessmen-turned-treasure-hunters went drilling but found nothing.

The railroad arrived in 1883, making it easier to move the silver. Nadeau sold his mule teams and built a Los Angeles hotel at 1st and Spring streets -- where The Times now stands.

But the price of silver began to drop in the late 1870s, and by 1888 Cerro Gordo was practically deserted. Only 30 to 40 miners remained, "getting their living as best they can," according to a state mineralogist's report that year.

Cerro Gordo achieved some Hollywood fame in several sagebrush sagas, including 1957's "Night Passage," starring James Stewart and Audie Murphy; 1966's "Nevada Smith," starring Steve McQueen; and 1967's "Waterhole #3," starring James Coburn and Claude Akins.

For decades, Cerro Gordo was pretty much left to the ghosts, until Stewart and Patterson turned a building into a bed-and-breakfast in 1986.

Patterson keeps a photograph of a town ghost: a hotel window screen that appears to show the face of a man with deep-set eyes, a big nose and a square jaw. Supposedly it's Alphonse Benoit, who was killed in a nearby woodcutters camp in the 1870s, Patterson says. He destroyed the screen to placate his jittery wife.

Today, Beaudry's general store is a museum filled with antique leftovers, including empty whiskey and beer bottles, a pair of long johns with shell buttons, ceramic vases, medicine bottles and kerosene lamps. The only modern thing is the guest registry, which recorded nearly 4,000 visitors last year.

"It's mostly the rust and dust that people appreciate about the museum," Patterson said.

B&B; guests brave an 8-mile steep and narrow gravel incline in four-wheel-drive vehicles to stay in Belshaw's 1876 home, complete with 156 bullet holes, or in the 1904 bunkhouse. Dinner is served in the 1871 hotel.

The town's authenticity extends to the period plumbing -- or lack thereof.

"A guest wrote thanking us for the nice touch of talcum powder in the outhouse," Patterson said. In fact, he said with a laugh, "It's quicklime."

cecilia.rasmussen@latimes.com

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