In which we discover a little corner of the Old West
When people east of the Mississippi think of the West the character that tends to spring to mind is that of the cowboy, riding and roping across the plains. But in the Far West, in the arid high deserts between the Rockies and the Pacific, it’s the prospector and miner that was the predominant type. And it was mining and the hope of mineral wealth, rather than cattle, that brought on the great westward migrations.
Long before and long after the great Gold Rush of ’49, metals and minerals—gold, silver, copper, tungsten, magnesium, and crystals and semiprecious gems beyond count—lured people to the hot, forgotten corners of the West’s desert fastnesses.
Last weekend I made a jaunt to one of these places, a place called Randsburg, California, in a Western corner of the Mojave north of Edwards Air Force base along Highway 395. Billing itself as a “living ghost town,” Randsburg boasts perhaps 80-odd living souls. (And they are, for the most part, odd).
The Kern County gold vein was discovered in the mid 1890s. Rand Camp was built soon after and named for the rich gold country of the Rand in South Africa. The settlement grew quickly, became a town, and its name was changed to Randsburg. The gold, silver and tungsten mines have had their ups and downs, and today what economy there is depends mostly on Off-highway Vehicle
aficionados who enjoy the many motocross paths nearby, and the occasional Old West tourist, like me.
First I stopped in at the White House Saloon for a spot of lunch and the requisite shot-and-a-beer. It’s a homey place, with the look and feel of the authentic Old West, operated by an appropriately surly couple in their 60s.
Next I hit up the Rand Desert Museum. Here the docent showed me a large piece of silver ore. The piece he holds in his hands weighs a good 15 or 20 pounds. He also showed me a strongbox used for shipping gold. A box full of pure gold ingots one foot square, he told me, would weigh 1500 pounds. There’s plenty of silver left up there, he told me, but geothermal activity causes temperatures in the tunnels to rise to 200F, making it impossible to extract.
TIP: If you're a savvy mining engineer with a keen knowledge of geo-thermodynamics, there's opportunity for career advancement in Randsburg.
The Joint offers grown-up refreshments to townies and tourists alike. The bartender- owner, Olga, says she’s 95 years old and “still works every day.” Another patron here, a local from nearby Johannesburg, told me that one mine in the area is still in operation and that it extracts something like 1,500 ounces of gold per month. They don’t dig anymore, though, but extract the gold from the mine’s heap leach pads
, were the gold-to-dirt ratio is a scant .02 ounces per ton.
The Randsburg General Store and Soda Fountain is a gem. In addition to necessities and sundries, it offers books on local interest and boasts a soda fountain where you can order real phosphates—chocolate, raspberry, orange and so forth. I had cherry. Tasty!
Parts of the town seem mysteriously semi-inhabited, like this building on the slopes of an abandoned mine on the outskirts of town. I was trying to get a snap of a road runner, but he seems to have escaped the frame.
An abandoned mine, derrick toppled, graceful in repose.
Road Trip to Randsburg, Kern County, Calif.
Rating: ♠ ♠ ♠ 1/2