|From my vantage point nestled about 8200 feet just below the rocky crag formerly known as Buena Vista Peak, I peer from
the old wavy, multi paned window looking south-west at the tiny glints of light traversing north and south on Highway 395.
The sun is giving into the eternal fight between dark and light, silhouetting the southern Sierra Range as the prominent
mountain features and folds gradually become lost in darkness.
A cool reception in April for my introduction to “ghost town sitting.” Over the next week I would learn the many moods of the
fabled Ghost Town Cerro Gordo, freezing, sunny, warm, quiet, thunderous and everywhere in between. The windows of
Belshaw’s general store directly across appear watery slate-like black reflecting the waxing moon, but contrasting with the
grey corrugated siding like two giant eyes peering out from the past. In daylight the house I occupy, built around 1868 for
Mortimer Belshaw, creaks and moans in the expansion and contraction of the sun’s various moods.
Directly in sight, the old American Hotel built in 1871 by John Simpson is reputed to be the oldest standing hotel east of the
Sierra’s. Her boards twist and curl battling the elements. Her siding cursing all that nature confronts, she is slowly losing her
battle but yet still clings proudly to this century.
Here the town straddles modern day and rustic history lacking any running water. In the earlier years water made its way to
town packed by burro trains. In ensuing years a number of attempts were made to provide a stable water supply for Cerro
Gordo but none of them lived long. In 1870 a pipeline ran from Cerro Gordo and Mexican Springs bringing water over the
hill but due to a number of issues, supply was erratic often necessitating the use of burro trains to supplement the towns
supply. In 1874 another enterprise the Cerro Gordo Water Works brought water from Miller Spring ten miles away; however,
the town’s ravenous consumption of 35,000 gallons of water per day depleted the spring in 15 months. Then as now water
problems plague the arid desert reaches.
Perusing my options I noted across from the Belshaw house is the bunkhouse built in the 1900’s to house the miners of the
Zinc era. A shower room sits directly adjacent, a shower room who’s corrugated cladding sits basking in the afternoon sun. On
the warmest days, waves of heat distort the view of the hillside behind it.
I filled the reservoir with “gasp” two gallons of drinking water. Several matches later the burner on the Zodi hissed to life. I left
the pump running and the water recirculating until steam wavered across the green confines of the water reservoir. Standing
in the shower enclosure with the trickle of water warm water was refreshing. Even a trickle of warm water was invigorating. It
took a long while to get my hair, dried by the winds and desert, wet enough for shampoo. I lathered deep copious suds but as
I started to rinse with eye burning, tear drawing froth going down my face, the pump shuddered and the line recoiled like a
snake in protest. With one eye open, I shook the motor without causing effect, I then began to beat it against the side of the
enclosure, no change. I cycled the power button on the battery pack, no change. I beat the battery pack within inches of its
life before it gave up and decided to see things my way. The trickle resumed, ah finally but as I was enjoying this trickle of
luxury, the low rumble of an engine echoed through the canyon. Hope against hope that it would keep going but the sound
of tires wrestling with gravel abruptly stopped followed by the thud of two separate doors.
Standing with nothing but flip-flops I peered around the corner to see who the invaders were. Parked in the road directly
under the no trespassing sign sat a silver Jeep. They were out and making their way to the store/museum. Momentarily I
thought about the scene from Dances with Wolves where Costner confronts the Indian with nothing on but a pistol (perhaps
not true to script but hey it’s my story). Ridiculous I thought...
I rushed to dress and made my way across town to find them at home on the porch of the Belshaw Store peering down at me
as I approached. I learned that they came up from the rugged Lee Flat side of the mountain. In a mild Austrian accent they
explained the rough road and how they filled in sections to make the grade passable. He was a professor recently retired from
Stanford but I don’t recall her occupation. Cerro Gordo though was a regular stop on their backcountry outings. After some
small talk, they soon were billowing dust headed down canyon for whereabouts unknown. That day, I walked the town with a
number of groups refining my story with each reiteration.
One evening near dusk two gentlemen arrived from the Czech Republic. Their borrowed horseless carriage brought them
limping up the Yellow Grade Road on three legs as the right front tire preached a sermon of the road with a shrill high
pitched voice. With little concern for the vehicle, the driver more intent on the town, and taking pictures asked if he could
have a tour. I suggested that perhaps the vehicle should be moved to a level section before the tire went completely flat. He
tossed me the keys and asked me to move it for him as if he did not want to lose a minute of his adventure to some minor
A few days later, I stood inside the museum on my figurative soap box giving my spiel about Belshaw and Boudrey. I had not
noticed the details of the bearded gentleman who entered but at a lull in conversation, he bellowed MATT JONES? In
typical Wild West fashion I stepped back from my adversary not knowing what I was confronting. Looking past his beard, my
eyes met his; my mind flashed back to somewhere around 1999, Ben?
I had not seen Ben in 15 years!! Of all places Cerro Gordo!?!? What are you doing here, I said? He explained, he asked a guy
at the other end of town about Pleasant Point a peak he wanted to bag and was told to come see Matt up at the Museum for
directions. I believe that he was as surprised as I was. He was in a hurry to bag the peak before dark and set off. He returned to
the house for dinner and cocktails where I learned that he sold every extra worldly possession and quit his job to set out on
walk about and adventure. I pondered that with great envy as he departed into the darkness for yet another peak to bag.
Glancing towards the window to the north, I noted an ever so slight luminance from the white paint around the sill. It was not
much. If my eyes had not become accustomed to the dark, it would have been unnoticed. One of the many noises deflected
my attention momentarily but I turned back to the north facing window entranced on the glow. With my curiosity intact, I
stepped out into the frigid evening breeze. I noticed the glow crawled ever so slightly around the railing of the porch in front
of the Belshaw store. Cold icy fingers driven by the wind pushed through and around my jacket. I shivered and the hair on the
back of my neck stood at slight attention. I stepped forward and peered over the railing down at the town below.
From here I could clearly see the light in the third room of the bunkhouse was on, casting a soft glow. I pondered; there is no
one else in town? I could not see a vehicle either at the campsite or near the bunkhouse. Campers from the previous night
had not used the bunkhouse, why is the light on? I shivered again, now the hair on the back of my neck stood straight. There
were no shadows in the window and it did not appear there was any movement from inside. I pondered more…what would the
harm be of leaving the light on? It gives it that occupied lived in look. Ah but what of the cloth covered ball and tube wiring
from the previous century, I thought?
Keeping all the B rated horror movies in mind, I thought perhaps I should walk quietly and stealthily in the dark to the
bunkhouse. I then thought don’t be an idiot someone just left the light on. I fumbled for the Toyota keys, uncharacteristically
of a horror movie it started with the flick of the ignition. I positioned the truck as close as I could to aim the lights at the front
door. My only success was creating deep long shadows that my imagination and the boogie man could hide in.
I stepped up to the door noting that it was still latched. With my flashlight in hand, I walked in with each step the floor
creaked. I fumbled around looking for the light switch. Just left of the door, the black switch clicked but nothing happened.
My flashlight beam pierced the room and stopped at the reproduction kerosene lamp hanging from the ceiling over the wood
table. I turned the rotary switch at the bottom with a click the illumination of a single bulb reached out reflecting dim light
from the overhead lamp shade. It cast heavy dark shadows into the corners of the room and a darkened circle onto the blue
painted tongue and groove wood ceiling. Outside the wind fought every splinter of the building, screaming and howling as it
attempted to enter the building. Darkened rooms greeted me with each step down the hallway. Momentarily stopping at each
room, I scrutinized them with all the intensity of a single double “A” powered flashlight. I made my way to the room the glow
emanated from. I pulled the metal chain on the light fixture, no go, the light was still on, I pulled again but the light fought
back. I grabbed the light in one hand and pulled the chain with the other. The light darkened subtly glowing as it faded. I
now stood in the darkened room.
My next task was to make it back through the gauntlet of darkened rooms, each step again bringing forth an eerie creak in
response to my footfall. Outside the wind still screamed tearing at the corrugated roofing. I reached for the still swaying lamp
over the table, with a click all radiance ended. I latched the door and headed into my own high beams. I thought that was
stupid. I can’t see anything! Again B rated movie…check the back seat and bed of the truck…ok drive back to the Belshaw
house. It took a while for sleep that evening with the never ending bumps in the night. A few weeks later I told Robert the
usual caretaker about my experience. He raised an eyebrow and said hmm…that usually happens to me with the American
Hotel, the lights coming on, on their own that is.
The succession of people wishing to venture through a real Ghost Town soon dropped that night’s ghostly insurrection from
memory. A number of people enquired how I liked the tranquility of the town. I explained that there was not much serenity
during the day with the number of people that visit. I explain during the evenings the breeze is the predominate sound.
Occasionally it ceases tempo and acquiesces. During those times the sounds of nature cease, overshadowed by a low groan
coming from the repeater directly above the town. This really was not a contradiction of the passing of the century, however.
When the town was in full blossom noises from mining activities, bars, brothels, and many gunfights would have echoed
through the canyon. Smoke from two smelters at alternate ends of town would have dominated. No matter which direction
the wind blew the town would smolder with the north end of town housing the Belshaw Smelter and west holding the Boudrey
Smelter, but perhaps the wind was favorable to none at all? Without wind smoke flumes from the chimneys’ would have
chokingly crept into every crevice of town.
Today the smelters are quiet. Their skeletons are reminders of time when Cerro Gordo was a prosperous place and Los
Angeles was an up and coming sleepy pueblo. Mule Teams and freighters no longer traverse the grades or require metal
skids to keep heavily laden wagons on course. Tolls are no longer required on the Yellow Grade Road but they are sometimes
paid by unwary travelers in terms of damage to their not so road worthy horseless carriages.
To assist in preserving the town a non-profit organization “The Friends of Cerro Gordo” has been formed. Friends of Cerro
Gordo can be found on Facebook and your donations are appreciated. For further adventure, I recommend Cecile Page
Vargo’s book Cerro Gordo A Ghost Town Caught Between Centuries and as a companion From This Mountain -Cerro Gordo
written by Robert C. Likes and Glenn R. Day. This book is out of print but can be found at a number of places online.
PLEASE NOTE - CERRO GORDO IS PRIVATELY OWNED TOWN - RIGHT TO PASS IS UP TO THE
DETERMINATION OF THE OWNERS AND THOSE ACTING AS AGENTS ON THE OWNERS BEHALF
Happy Trails – Matt & Kat
|Wandering with Matt & Kat