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Judy Crowell: Calico — California’s Silver Rush Ghost Town

The former mining town off Interstate 15 is rich with history, landmarks and, according to lore, a few ghosts

By Judy Crowell, Noozhawk Contributing Writer |

Out in the middle of nowhere — actually in the midst of the Mojave Desert off California’s Interstate 15 — sits Calico, a former mining town, now ghost town, historical landmark, camping ground and tourist park.

A schoolboy wandering through the Calico Peaks in 1882 discovered a silver-bearing rock and the rest, as they say, is history.

By the mid-1880s, Silver Ring Mine was California’s largest producer of silver and borate, bringing more than 3,500 people from all over the world to settle, with $86 million in silver revenues and $45 million in borate.

Soon the town had five general stores, three hotels, brothels, boarding houses, restaurants, a schoolhouse, several saloons and a couple of jails conveniently located next door to the saloons. In 1896, the Silver Purchase Act was enacted, driving down the price of silver to 63 cents an ounce from $1.31. By the turn of the century, Calico was a ghost town.

The town sat, gathering dust and tumbleweed until 1951, when Walter Knott, the founder of Knott’s Berry Farm, purchased the town and, using old photographs, restored it to its mid-1800s condition. In addition to the many original buildings he restored, he built several rather gaudy Victorian structures and false facades, adding to the lure of the current-day park.

Today you can experience gold panning; a ride on the Calico/Odessa Railroad through one of the original mines, the “Glory Hole”; witness a gunfight stunt show; and explore several original buildings learning of the Gold Rush days in the Old West.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a ghost town without a few ghosts. Two miners known as the Mulcahey Brothers lived in the Maggie Mine. Brave souls who venture down into the shaft these days have reported extreme cold spots and feelings of “one’s hair standing on end” in the brothers’ living quarters.

A tourist claims to have been knocked off the fence of Hank’s Hotel. No one was in sight. Suspected culprit? The ghost of a bad-tempered old cowboy who owned the hotel back in the day.

Allegedly, the most oft’-sighted ghost in Calico is one Lucy Bell, who with her husband owned and ran a general store and was the oldest living resident in town, dying in the 1960s at age 93. Most often she’s seen walking at night between the old general store and home. Occasionally she’ll remove one or two pictures from the walls of the main museum in town, once the home of the Bells.

Named Calico after the mountain range to the northeast that appears “calico colored,” this town is not a destination. Rather, it’s one of those places you happen to come upon serendipitously if you happen to be meandering through the Mojave Desert — or perhaps on your way to Las Vegas.

Who knows? You may just run into Bell or one of the Mulcahey Brothers. A lot less risky than a night in Vegas, I’d wager.

Noozhawk contributing writer Judy Crowell is an author, freelance travel writer and part-time Santa Barbara resident. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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