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DARWIN

Inyo Co., CA

 

By

Gary Speck

 

 

Squeezed into Lucky Jim Wash, a 4700' high valley between the Darwin Hills on the north, China Lake Naval Weapons Center 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.

 

Reaching 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 ghost. 

 

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.

 

Part two consists of straight rows of decaying company houses, stuck to the non-level hillside of Mt. Ophir, 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. 

 

In 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.

 

French’s 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.

 

The 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 Gordo.

 

In 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 1875 Darwin, 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.

 

In 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, Darwin’s reputation as a rough town grew, deservedly.  Gunplay and its resultant deaths were common, along with stage robberies, and general assaults.

 

However, 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. 

 

1877 was Darwin’s 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 hit Darwin 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.

 

In 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 the Independence 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. 

 

Unlike 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.

 

In 1919 major development began on Mt. Ophir, 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 “War Effort”.

 

In 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.

 

After 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, Jan 2000.

 

This is one of the towns featured in my newest book, GHOST TOWNS: Yesterday & TodayTM.

 

Location:

·        Sec 38 (Ctr Sec 24), T19S, R40E, Mount Diablo Meridian

·        Latitude: 36.2679969 / 36° 16’ 05” N

·        Longitude: -117.5917348 / 117° 35’ 30” W

 

 

 

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FIRST POSTED:  November 01, 1999

LAST UPDATED: September 21, 2009

 

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