Inyo Co., CA
Squeezed into Lucky Jim Wash, a 4700' high
valley between the Darwin Hills on the north, China
on the south, Argus Mountains on the east, and Coso Mountains
on the west, Darwin, California
is a ragtag “pair of mining towns” on the western outskirts of Death Valley.
Darwin is a
simple matter. You enter from a 5˝ mile
long spur running southeast of State Highway (SH) 190, which junction is 48
miles southwest of Stovepipe Wells (which is in the heart of Death Valley), or
12.8 miles east of the junction of SH 190/136 at the east end of the dry bed of
Owens Lake. That junction is either 14.7
miles northeast of Olancha, or 17.6 miles southeast
of Lone Pine depending on which end of the “lake” you come in from.
Darwin is a two-part
one sprawls indiscriminately across sloping desert real estate, and is a
hodge-podge conglomeration of mostly unoccupied, chocolate-brown wooden
buildings interspersed with large gaps filled only with memories and desert
scrub. Desiccated, rusty- roofed
false-fronts and tiny, weather-beaten cabins battle over territory with dead
Volkswagen bugs and busses, Hillman Minxs and
Airstream trailers. In fact, the dead
car population far exceeds the breathing people population of 40.
two consists of straight rows of decaying company houses, stuck to the
non-level hillside of Mt.
half mile northwest of “downtown”. Here
desert winds ruffle the sage on the south slope of the Darwin Hills and slap
loose strips of plasterboard against naked stud walls of broom closet-sized
worker cabins. Tin roofed Quonset huts
and mill buildings lord over them like sleeping sentinels.
Darwin rests quietly
now. However, in 1860 things were way
different. The gold mines of the
California Motherlode region had faded, and
prospectors began to head east back over the Sierra Nevadas
in search of rumors and legends. With
the discovery of silver in Washoe (the area now called Virginia City, Nevada),
excitement about additional silver in the desert regions increased. People remembered the stories of the various
emigrant parties, especially the group now known as the Death
Valley 49ers. Those
emigrant parties are reported to have found several rich outcroppings of silver
and gold, and with the borrasca settling in the
mining country, those legends loomed larger and larger, creating a tremendous
amount of interest.
early 1860, a prospecting expedition headed by Dr. E. Darwin French set out
from the central California town of Visalia. His group made big news in that small town,
and they sent dispatches of their journey back to the newspaper, the Visalia
Weekly Delta. From those
dispatches we have a very good record of their progress and the excitement they
felt when they explored the rocky, dry landscape southeast of Owens Lake. Their goal was the “Lost Gunsight Mine” and also what was then called “Silver Mountain,”
neither of whose real locations were known.
party never found the Lost Gunsight Mine or Silver Mountain,
but they did discover rich silver outcrops, staked claims, and headed back to Visalia to record
them. Upon their return to the mines,
they were followed by hundreds of others, and soon mines developed and the
rugged mining town of Coso was born. The Coso mines are
now inside the northeast corner of the Naval Weapons Facility and are NOT accessible to the public.
Coso Mines were the first major silver strike in the
Southern California area, and that camp acted as a base for prospectors that
missed out on good claims there, and roamed further afield in search of
treasure-laden ores. The treasure was
found, and rich deposits of silver were discovered at Panamint, Lookout (Modoc
and Minnietta Mines) and Cerro
November 1874, silver-lead ore assaying at $700/ton was discovered on the south
slope of a dry mountain about ten air miles northeast of the faded camp of Coso. By February
named after Dr. French, was a formal town with graded streets and real
businesses. Some of these commercial
establishments included a pair of butcher shops, drug store, hotel, livery
stable, three restaurants, and probably some saloons. On May 12, 1875, the post office opened. In July water was piped in from the Coso
Mountains, and the first
silver bullion was shipped from the rapidly growing camp’s new Wells Fargo
office. A baseball team was also
organized. By November, The Coso Mining News, a weekly newspaper announced the
booming town’s virtues to the world.
May 1876, over 1000 people swarmed the streets and Darwin
was the biggest town in Inyo
County. Because of its isolation, even from the
isolated towns of Lone Pine and county seat of Independence,
reputation as a rough town grew, deservedly.
Gunplay and its resultant deaths were common, along with stage
robberies, and general assaults.
Darwin was not
all bad. The Centennial Celebration at Darwin on the Fourth of
July 1876 was the second largest in the county.
The entire community – at least the ones who didn’t go to Lone Pine –
pulled together for the celebration.
peak year, with a population of 3500 or so.
Violence continued unabated, and a smallpox epidemic swept the
community. The mines created much-needed
jobs for the town, and life went on as usual.
Late in the year, and through early 1878, a national economic slowdown
hard. Production slowed, and mine owners
scaled wages back from $4.00 per day to $3.00, which upset the miners. In May they struck, violently.
September, the newspaper office closed its doors and editor/publisher T. S.
Harris packed up the presses and headed north toward the boomtown of Bodie. He was
followed by many of the miners.
Darwin’s fate was
sealed. In October it was reported in
paper that the town still had “two or three hundred people, four stores, three
restaurants, five saloons, one drug store...” etc. Six months later even they were either gone,
or forgotten, because on April 30, 1879, a suspected arson fire that began in
the Darwin Hotel, ripped through town.
This was the second time in six months a fire started in the
hotel. This time, it didn’t get put out,
and fourteen other businesses in downtown Darwin
were toast. Destroyed were the hotel,
four saloons, six stores, a couple offices, livery and the water works building. Inside one of the stores was the
stage/freighting office and post office, all of which were lost. However, the lower part of downtown didn’t
burn -- this time.
many mining towns, Darwin
never completely died. In
1880, 85 people still remained.
In 1908 a ripple of excitement occurred over working of some low-grade
ore deposits. The ore was shipped to the
recently re-opened smelter in nearby Keeler, and life stirred in the moribund
town. During the next decade more mines
opened and older ones were re-worked. A
new hotel was built, and the town began to show true signs of a resurgence. Then on
August 17, 1917, a second major fire took out three homes, an automobile
service garage, the brand new hotel, a saloon and a storehouse. Less than a year later, in July, 1918 a third
fire swept down the other side of Main Street destroying a home, the Darwin
Hotel, a pool hall, saloon, the store/post office and a number of outbuildings.
Darwin staggered but
refused to fall.
1919 major development began on Mt.
and a company town was built to house all the miners needed to work the Wagner
& Company Mine. Wagner was only the
first of several lessees and owners of the property until 1942 when the mine
was closed be the government order that all mines were to be closed for the
1926 the Eichbaum toll road was pushed through Darwin and into Death Valley. In 1929 tourist cabins (like a motel) were
built and a slight surge in tourist activity brought a little more life back
into the quiet mining town. In 1937 the
state highway (SH 190) was built, and Darwin
lost its life giving tourist trade.
the War ended, Anaconda Copper Mining Co. purchased the property and reopened
the facilities, and within a couple years the Anaconda’s Darwin Mine was the
number one lead mine in California. The mines remained in operation until the
1970s. The remains of that company camp
almost overshadow the original site of the town.
Darwin is accessible
only via its main entry road, and is majestic setting, especially from late
fall to early spring when the mountains are covered with heavy snow and the townsite and valley are dusted with clean white
powder. Cobalt-blue skies and a low sun
angle highlight details of each building, and the historic town of Darwin gleams like a tiny
jewel set in the vastness of its isolated setting: a jewel that invites all
followers of GHOST TOWN USA for a visit.
This was our GHOST
TOWN OF THE MONTH for Nov/Dec 1999,
This is one of the towns featured in my
newest book, GHOST
TOWNS: Yesterday & TodayTM.
Sec 38 (Ctr Sec 24), T19S, R40E, Mount Diablo Meridian
/ 36° 16’ 05” N
/ 117° 35’ 30” W
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UPDATED: September 21, 2009
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