The “Fat Hill” in the Inyo Mountains that helped build Los Angeles.
You’ll find lots of places around Owens Valley that helped Los Angeles grow into the metropolis that it is today, including this “reverberating” smelter east of Keeler, CA used to “roast” galena ore from the Cerro Gordo mines into bullion bars, approximately 18 inches long and weighing up to 65 pounds depending on the silver content.
From there the silver was shipped across Owens Lake (itself largely responsible for much of LA’s growth) on the steamer Bessie Brady to Cartago and then loaded onto wagons and shipped to Los Angeles via a string of changing stations.
While most of LA’s residents speed along Highway 395 on their way to play in Mammoth Lakes or other northern Inyo County destinations, many fail to recognize just how much this tough little ghost town, 8,500 feet high above the now dry lakebed of Owens Valley, played in the growth of the big city they’re escaping from.
Construction of the first wagon road up to Cerro Gordo began in July of 1868.
Originally built as a toll road, Yellow Grade Road (named after the yellowish hues of the shale it was built upon) climbs over 5500 feet in less than 8 miles from Owens Valley to the townsite of Cerro Gordo. On the narrowest sections of the road, where wagons once met and could not pass, men would often have to disassemble the smaller wagon in order for the larger one to pass.
Pablo Flores, had been scouring the hills of California and Nevada for precious metals in 1865, when he first discovered silver and lead on Buena Vista Peak.
Renamed Sierra Gordo and then Cerro Gordo (“Fat Hill”), it became part of the Lone Pine Mining District in 1866.
Businessman Victor Beaudry of nearby Independence, California, became impressed by the quality of silver being taken out of Cerro Gordo and opened a store near the mine. He soon acquired several mining claims to settle unpaid debts and proceeded to have two modern smelters built. Beaudry continued acquiring mining rights from debtors until he soon owned a majority of the richest and most productive mines in the area, including partial interest in the Union Mine.
It was the arrival of Mortimer Belshaw in April of 1868 that would transform Cerro Gordo into the booming mining town it was destined to be. Having had experience with silver mining in Mexico, he recognized that a smelter would transform the district into a major producer and later that year he not only completed it but also controlled the only road up to the booming camp.
By 1869, Cerro Gordo had become the largest producer of silver and lead in California, yielding ores that assayed at least as high as $300 per ton.
Freight wagons delivered so much silver bullion from Cerro Gordo that the Los Angeles News, in February, 1872 stated, “To this city, Cerro Gordo trade is invaluable. What Los Angeles now is, is mainly due to it. It is the silver cord that binds our present existence. Should it be unfortunately severed, we would inevitably collapse.”
By 1871 the town of Cerro Gordo was booming.
At it’s peak, the population (a mix of Anglo, Indian, Hispanic and Chinese workers) tipped the scales at 4,800 hardy souls (and 1,600 mules), most living in bunkhouses and earning a top rate of $4 per day. The mining camp included general stores, saloons, restaurants, at least two hotels, two competing dance hall-brothels, doctors’, lawyers’ and assay offices and blacksmiths — but no church, school or jail. It was known as a lawless and dangerous place and violence, often fueled by alcohol, was quite common. Payday was followed by carousing at the saloons and brothels and often ended in gunfire; men sandbagged their bunks to insulate themselves against stray bullets.
In 1875, the mining town suffered a series of setbacks, necessitating the shutdown of its furnaces. These problems resulted from a scarcity of ore in the mines and the temporary drying up of its water supply.
Two years later, the Union Mine buildings burned to the ground and even through the damage was eventually repaired, the mine was left in debt.
The fire, along with falling lead and silver prices and declining yields of ore from the mine, signaled the end of major mining operations by 1879.
Cerro Gordo became a virtual ghost town.
Built in 1871, the American Hotel still stands today and is said to be the oldest hotel in California east of the Sierras.
A little gift shop now stands in the place of where the hotel lobby once stood.
Not as big as the original ingots but still worth something.
Make sure to check in with the caretaker when you arrive. A $10 donation and signature on a liability waiver is required before you explore.
They also take other kinds of donations but I would recommend reaching out to them before showing up with a bunch of boxes of VHS tapes like these.
The upstairs of the American Hotel, where men working a shift in the mines used to be able to rent a bed in one of the dormitory rooms for 12 hours at a time, is off limits but there’s still plenty to see downstairs including the huge bar, ornate dining room, kitchen and sitting rooms.
Small quantities of lower-grade silver ore continued to be extracted into the 20th Century. In 1907, high-grade zinc ore was discovered at the 900- to 1,000-foot level in the Union Mine. In 1916 electricity reached the town and the mines of the district. Although the town had gained a new lease on life, it never reached anywhere near the enormous production and resulting riches from the boom years of the 1870s.
Another silver discovery was made in 1925 and by 1929 the new discovery was in production and Cerro Gordo was once again saved from becoming a ghost town for a few more years. The mines of Cerro Gordo finally became quiet in 1933. Several attempts were made at locating new ore bodies in the Union mine but none were really that successful.
The old general store is now used as the museum.
The inside is filled with lots of interesting things to see.
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. The 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. An anchor was dug up from the dry lake in 1951 and, 11 years later, a pilot discovered a rusted propeller and lifeboat. There was even a group of Orange County businessmen-turned-treasure-hunters who went digging in the lake in 1988, but no silver was ever found.
Victor Beaudry & Mortimer Belshaw
Puppet Lama History
The Friends of Cerro Gordo (FOCG) is a nonprofit Public Benefit Corporation and is not organized for the private gain of any person. It is organized under the California Nonprofit Public Benefit Corporation Law for charitable purposes and operated exclusively for exempt purposes within the meaning of Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986. Directors and officers are volunteers who dedicate their time, passion and knowledge to the operations of the charity. The specific purpose of the Friends of Cerro Gordo corporation is to assist in the preservation, interpretation, and public enjoyment of the former mining town known as Cerro Gordo, Inyo County, California, USA.
Per Mindat.org: “Workings include underground openings with a length of 48,279 meters and an overall depth of 274.32 meters. The greatest vertical dimension of the stopes was about 1,000 feet. The mine was developed by a 900 foot shaft with levels at 85, 200, 400, 550, 700 and 900 feet. A 200 foot deep winze was sunk from the 900 foot level extends to the 1000 and 1100 levels. A second winze was sunk 250 feet and gave access to the 1030 and 1150 levels S of the shaft. Total underground workings are about 30 (32) miles in extent. During the period 1943 to 1945, the Golden Queen Mining Co. shipped 750 to 1,000 tons of ore, which assayed 17.5% Pb and 13.2 ounces/ton Ag. Total production was estimated to be over $17,000,000 (period values). The recorded production since 1906 is over $6,000,000.”
The view overlooking the general store/museum.
The Assay Building includes even more incredible history inside.
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. Their bodies were never recovered.
The his and hers outhouses are in pretty decent shape for a ghost town.
Possibly the oldest building in Cerro Gordo, the home of Mortimer Belshaw, built in 1868.
Take HWY 395 to HWY 190 and then turn left on HWY 136. Drive 4.6 miles and turn right onto Cerro Gordo Road (aka Yellow Grade Road). Drive 7.7 miles until you reach Cerro Gordo Ghost Town. Check in with the caretaker before you explore.