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Cerro Gordo and Owens Valley History

Robert Desmarais is no ordinary caretaker, living as he does in a ghost town 8200 feet above sea level. He is also an historian, story teller, geologist, chemist and licensed blaster. He speaks of the people who inhabited this place as if he’d known them all personally, which due to the eerie nature of this town, he might well have. Robert is in the process of putting together a book on the history of the town. Hopefully it will be available before long, as just the few stories he told us made me want to learn more.

On a late April day, snow still thick on the high peaks, I joined the Eastern Sierra 4X4 Club for a trip up the rugged, steep dirt road to Cerro Gordo. We drove south out of Bishop, known as the “Little Town with a Big Back Yard,” and headed south to Lone Pine, where we picked up the 136, the road over to Death Valley. Just past the fading town of Keeler, we turned left and abandoned the highway for a dirt road that wound up eight miles to this historic mining town. Bishop indeed has a very big back yard.

It was clear, long before reaching our destination, that my two wheel drive car wouldn’t have made it, particularly on a steep section with loose rock. A good SUV with fairly high clearance would do just fine in dry weather. A four wheel vehicle could continue on the White Mountain Talc Road, which runs along the ridge and is supposed to return to the 395 at some distance north, but don’t take my word on that before heading out.

Cerro Gordo was considered the Comstock” to Los Angeles, with tons of silver bullion taken from the rich ore in these mountains. The Union, the main mine, drops about 1100 feet straight down, the ore car, still supposedly operational, reaches down 900 feet, and was last used years ago for an Annenberg Foundation video documentary. The foundation paid for the use by restoring the boiler room and pully in the huge building that sits just above the town and can be visited if escorted by Robert.         Over 32 miles of shafts connect to this vertical hole, and there are over 50 total miles of mines at Cerro Gordo. During the mining years, miners got 30 ounces of silver from every ton of ore, which was considered rich ore. While coal miners suffered from Black Lung Disease, silver miners got silicosis from the silica dust. We were shown an underground rebreather that was used by the miners, as sulfur dioxide was a mining hazard.

Complete article to appear in California Explorer.

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