Darwin California

Darwin is a unincorporated community, gold mining town and ghost town located in Inyo County, California about 22 miles from Keeler. The town was named for Darwin French, who lead a party of prospectors into Death Valley in 1860 looking for the mythical gunsight lode. This prospecting eventually lead to the wash, canyon and town named in his honor.

The site which became Darwin was formed in 1874 following a discovery of lead and silver. The overall grwoth of the town was limited by its water supply which is piped from over eight miles away. This discovery coincided with near by Panamint, although the rush to Darwin was more muted. Darwin has a population of about 700 at this time.

The Coso Mining News published weekly from 1875 – 1878 by T.S. Harris. The newspaper closed in September 1878 and the publisher moved up north to Bodie. The moved of the newspaper is symptomatic and followed by many others including miners seeker greener pastures. The town of Darwin had a remaining population of about 250 people. Despite the plunging population the town still supported six saloons, four stores, three restaurants and a drug store. Between the years of 1874 and 1877 newspapers reported at least 80 murders.

Darwin is a rarity and survived its original boom. The town remained viable until World Was I, when larger mining operations could profit of lower yielding ores. A post office opened in 1875 and closed in 1902. Eventually, the post office reopened and remains open today.

The Darwin Store run by Reynolds and Etcharren Partners, 1906.  |  Photo: Courtesy of the Eastern California Museum.
The Darwin Store run by Reynolds and Etcharren Partners, 1906. | Photo: Courtesy of the Eastern California Museum.

Darwin Today

In 2011, a documentary called Darwin is available on Amazon Prime. The documentary is described, “Propelled from society by tragic turns, the isolated community of Darwin, Death Valley (population 35) must now find ways to coexist in a place without a government, a church, jobs, or children.” I did watch the documentary and found it interesting. However, its focus was on the people living there now and not much on the history.

Recently, Brent Underwood, owner of Cerro Gordo featured Darwin on his youtube channel. He was scrounging old boards from buildings in Darwin to help rebuild Cerro Gordo. I am not sure how I feel about damaging one old town to rebuild another…

Darwin Town Summary

NameDarwin, California
LocationInyo County, California
Latitude, Longitude36.268056 -117.591667
Elvation4,790 ft ( 1460 m )
GNIS241269
Population3500
Post OfficeOpen
NewspaperCoso Mining News ( Nov. 6, 1875 – Sept. 4, 1878 )

Darwin Town Map

Resources

Cerro Gordo California

Located in the Inyo Mountains on the eastern side of Owens Valley, Cerro Gordo California is a currently a ghost town after almost 100 years in operation from 1866 to 1957.  Several buildings still survive, including the general store, assay offices and hoist house. Cerro Gordo, spanish for “Fat Hill” is located on private land and permission to visit must should be obtained.

Cerro Gordo overlooking the then full Owens Lake.
Cerro Gordo overlooking the then full Owens Lake.

The town site is currently on the ridge of the mountain range, and accessible from either the western side in Owens Valley, or from the East from the Saline Valley Road.  Founding of the site is credited to Pablo Flores who began mining near Buena Vista Peak.  Initial development of the area was hindered by Native American activity in the area.  The establishment of Fort Indepence helped “control” this activity and the amount of activity in Cerro Gordo increased.  Early efforts were primitive with most mines being open pits or trenches and smelting was done in adobe ovens.

Mortimer Belshaw
Mortimer Belshaw

The location began to develop with the foundation of the first store at Cerro Gordo by Independence businessman Victor Beaudry.  He soon acquired several claims in exchange for payment of debt at his store and soon built two smelters.  

In 1868, Mortimer Belshaw established a partnership with another stakeholder the Union Mine.  He secured financing from Los Angeles, and built the first road, a toll road known as the “Yellow Road”, which gave him a lot of control over shipments coming down the mountain.

Cerro Gordo was famously a rough and tumble town and claims that a murder a week was commonplace. Water is not available at the townsite and several attempts were made from bring the life sustaining liquid to the town. For a time, water was piped in from several springs many miles away. The springs dried up when the Owens Lake was drained by Los Angeles in the 1920’s. Water was brought up by burro and for a time it was pumped up from 600 feet down the Union Mine. The ore was delivered down hill to Keeler utilizing an aerial tramway. From Keeler, the ore was transported some 275 miles to the small port city of Los Angeles.

The townsite was place for sale and the ghost town was sold for $1.4 million dollars along with some 360 acres surrounding and 22 structures remaining. The development group which features Brent Underwood is hoping to turn the town into a destination of sorts. While undergoing renovations, the American Hotel burnt down on June 15th, 2020 along with the ice house and a nearby residence. Brent Underwood is currently living full time in the town and uploads videos about once per week on a YouTube channel.

It is clear from his videos that Mr. Underwood has a passion for the area, the town, the history and some point, I would love to pay him a visit.

Town Summary

NameCerro Gordo
LocationInyo County, California
Latitude, Longitude36.53771, -117.795031
GNIS220862
Elevation8500 feet
Population4000

Cerro Gordo Trail Map

Resources

Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery

Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery
Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery

Located just outside of Independence, Inyo County, California the Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery has played an important role in the preservation of the Golden Trout.  Beyond the hatchery’s primary purpose, the site makes an excellent location to pull off the highway, relax in the shade and enjoy a picnic lunch.  This is how I was introduced to the hatchery 30 years ago, and it is still much anticipated stop each time I travel the 395 highway.

The fish hatchery began life in 1915, when the town of Independence raised money for and subsequently purchased a 40 acre parcel of ideal land in Oak Creek.  Using foresight not seen in our time, Fish and Game Commissioner M. J. Connell directed he direct the design team “to design a building that would match the mountains, would last forever, and would be a showplace for all time.”  Charles Dean of the State Department of Engineering and the design time team decided upon a “Tudor Revival” architectural style.

Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery Display Pond
Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery Display Pond

Utilizing a budget of $60,000 the hatchery project was started in March 1916 and complete one year later.  The building was built using 3200 tones of  local granite quarried nearby, boasts walls up to three feet thick and features a Spanish Tile roof.  When the facility was brought online in 1917, the hatchery could produce two million fry per year.  The fish hatchery operated until 2008, when on July 12th a flood and mudslide tore down the Oak Creek watershed which in 2007 was burnt in a wild fire.  The resulting mudslide buried the fish rearing ponds, destroyed four buildings and killed the entire population of Rainbow Trout.

The pond offers some beautiful flowers in the spring.

Currently a restoration project is in process, however the fate of the hatchery operation remains unknown.

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Goldbelt Springs

A discovery by the famous prospector “Shorty Harris“, led to the founding on the Goldbelt Springs mining district off Hunter Mountain Road in Death Valley National Park, California. The earliest known occupants of this area were a seven member family Saline Valley Panamint Indians who, despite the higher elevation, would winter in the area.

A sorting screen at the Calmet Mine in the Goldbelt Springs Mining District, Death Valley National Park, California
A sorting screen at the Calmet Mine in the Goldbelt Springs Mining District, Death Valley National Park, California

Gold was discovered in the area, just a few miles away by Frank “Shorty” Harris in the later half of 1904. Following “Shorty”, miners migrated into the area utilizing a route from Ubehebe via Willow Springs. Soon, small claims were staked out on the northwest slope of Hunter Mountain. Harris, L.P. McGarry, E.G. Padgett (Pegot or Paggett), Joseph Simpson, and W.D. Frey were among the first credited with strikes. In January, 1902 the Gold Belt Mining District was established and recorded.

A sign clearly marks the Calmet Mine
A sign clearly marks the Calmet Mine

Initially the site looked good for mining development. There was a water source and fuel to facilitate mining operations. High grade gold ore with small silver veins was discovered on four foot ledges prompted optimism in the sight. The ore was assayed at $8 – $176 or $38 to $240 in gold depending upon the source. On this news, plans for a town were starting to be developed.

A completely flattened structure at Goldbelt Springs, Death Valley, California
A completely flattened structure at Goldbelt Springs, Death Valley, California

In February of 1905, enough capital was available from investors from San Francisco to allowed expanded exploration of the area. Not much is available of this exploration, however by the fall of 1905 and exploration was abandoned. It could be inferred that the ore quantity and quality was not sufficient to justify the expense to those investors.

Regardless, smaller operations continued in the area of Goldbelt Sprints, from 1905 to 1910 including operations by Annetta Rittenhouse of Los Angeles, H.W. Eichbaum of Venice, L.P. McGarry of Pioneer, and W.S. Ball of Rhyolite.

More Ruins near the old mining camp
More Ruins near the old mining camp

In 1916, “Shorty” Harris again road into the area near Hunter Mountain. World War I had increased the price of tungsten. Harris pulling from his previous exploration probably knew of the mineral, and soon found a tungsten mine. By March, he had produce several hundred pounds of tungsten ore worth some $1500.00.

An abandoned truck silently waits for its owner to return in Goldbelt Springs.
An abandoned truck silently waits for its owner to return in Goldbelt Springs.

Throughout the 1940s and 1960’s various small operations were mining the area. This would include mines called Calmet and also nearby Quackenbush. The site today has smaller ruins. A truck and mine are still visible and an ore sorting platform is standing at the Calmet location. The wooden structures are completely flattened by time and the elements.

An old mine tunnel
An old mine tunnel

Mine Summary

NameGoldbelt Springs
LocationHunter Mountain, Death Valley National Park, California
Latitude, Longitude
ProductionGold, Silver, Copper, Tungsten, Talc
Year Productive1904 –
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Alabama Hills

Located near Lone Pine, CA the Alabama Hills are an awesome spot to visit and explore in Inyo County.  Large boulder formations erupt from the ground and create a maze of canyons, trails and roads. This feature in itself, is more than enough fun to justify a trip to this area, however add to the equation that the Alabama Hills has appeared in more Hollywood movies than one person can name and you have the perfect combination of terrain and nostalgic history.

Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine, California
Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine, California

The location are featured in many “Western” movies and is the birth place of the Lone Ranger, Star Trek and Iron Man. A final punctuation mark is the area is located in the foothills of Mount Whitney (14,505 ft), the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states.

Access to the locations is extremely easy, just follow Whitney Portal Road west out of Lone Pine, and take a right turn on  Movie Road. From here the possibilities are almost endless. The BLM publishes the “Movie Road Touring Brochure” which gives directions on how to find the film locations of some of your favorite movies.

Looking down on the Alabama Hills and Owens Valley from Whitney Portal
Looking down on the Alabama Hills and Owens Valley from Whitney Portal

There is an over-abundance of camping locations within this location.  I would love to camp in this site, with the only draw back being the number of tourists driving the trails. This is actually a big draw back for me.  Most of the trails are easily accessible by almost any vehicle on the market. My last trip, we saw a brand new Porsche driving movie road.  

Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, California
Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, California

The routes are short and easy traisl, however, there are a labyrinth of roads and canyons to explore and get lost. The fun can be search for and finding the filming locations of some of your favorite movies or televisions shows..

The area is managed by BLM. Camping is allowed by the BLM, however camping should follow all rules, regulations and the leave no trace principles in order to protect this resource and camping destination. Personally, my preference is to camp at the nearby Tuttle Creek, Lone Pine, or Mt. Whitney campgrounds.

Take your time and enjoy.

Alabama Hills Trail Map

Resources