For years it seemed like every time I’d drive through the Mojave Desert on the way to Vegas I see the signs pointing to Calico Ghost Town, and think next time! It’s just off the highway, only a couple of miles, but it always seemed like I was in a big hurry to either get to Vegas, or to get back home, or I had a passenger who wasn’t interested, or I was a passenger and the driver wasn’t interested, or it was the middle of the night, or it was too hot… Get the picture? It just never happened.
But last summer I was driving alone, and I wasn’t in a big rush for once, and when I saw the signs I knew this was the time!
The town originally boomed in the mid 1880’s when it sprouted up near several silver and borax mines. With a population of 1200 at it’s height, it was a prosperous little town with four dentists, several churches, a newspaper, and of course lots of bars and brothels! It was a true wild west town, in every sense. But by the turn of the century the mines were no longer producing, and the population moved on, and the town essentially died. In the 1950’s the Knott Family, of Knott’s Berry Farm bought the town, and using old photos they restored the few remaining original buildings and then rebuilt many of the structures that no longer existed. There’s a definite “theme park” feel to much of the town, but that’s okay – it’s still fun – and it’s not a bit slick, like Disneyland – it’s rustic, and rough, and feels somewhat authentic. A dozen years or so after acquiring it, the Knott Family donated the renovated town to San Bernardino County.
My family visited Calico back when I was a kid – during it’s second hey dey – as a county regional park. I remember it feeling like a cross between Little House on the Prairie and Knott’s Berry Farm – old houses and old fashioned clothing crossed with ghost stories and lots of candy! My favorite things during that trip were a house made entirely of bottles, other houses built into the hillsides, and the sticks of hard candy. So as I drove up this time, those were the things I most wanted to see.
I was surprised to see no one at the gate – no one to collect the fee to get in – just an open gate. It was after 4pm on a hot summer day, and the town was virtually deserted. Just a few tourists – speaking French, Italian, and German – but no English. I was virtually the only one from California in the whole place – except for a handful of employees closing up the shops that line the main street. So I headed straight for the bottle house – somehow I just knew where to find it – childhood memories can be pretty vivid! I was a little disappointed though when I read the sign and realized that it had built by Knott’s employees, in a style that “may” have existed in Calico – but there’s no guarantee there actually was ever a bottle house in Calico back in 1885. All these years my memory was of this great house made of bottles that was over a hundred years old and built by a miner – but that’s not exactly accurate. Try over 50 years old and built by the employees of a theme park! But it’s still fun to see.
I also stopped in at the general store and bought some root beer barrel candy – just as good as I remember! And I marvelled once again at the beautiful rock that surrounds the town – and was facinated once again by the houses built into that rock. It’s not hard to understand why Calico was a good spot for mining, if you look at the huge walls of rippling rock everywhere.