Calico Ghost Town: From Silver Boom Town to Tourist Trap

Between the glittering searchlights of Hollywood and the buzzing neon of Las Vegas sits the Mojave Desert, desolate, but with colorful rolling hills. Tucked into one of the hills just north of the fabled Route 66 sits the town of Calico, once a bustling silver mining town that has since turned into a tourist attraction. While we had visited Calico a couple of years ago, during that visit we barely scratched the surface of all the town has to offer as well as learning its history.

A large metal sign of a miner holding a shovel marks the road to turn down to go to Calico. Along the bottom reads "Calico Ghost Town" in black letters.

A large wooden sign is attached to a wooden fence overlooking a mining area, the sign reads "Calico Ghost Town 1881 Largest Silver Mining Camp in California 1896"

Calico's Main Street. Wooden buildings flank a paved road that leads up toward a colorful hill.

Myself, wearing a straw cowboy hat, a black shirt featuring an opossum and raccoon dressed in cowboy attire by a campfire, and blue jeans, standing in front of the school house.

A wagon sits in the middle of the street, a flat top wooden building sits behind with white letters painted on the front reading "Lane's General Merchandise"

While California is mostly known for its famed gold rush of 1849 of the northern area, the southern California area had many silver mines, one of which was Calico. When silver was discovered here in 1881 many came to find their fortune, and over 30 miles of tunnels were blasted and carved under the colorful mountains, which is where the town gets its name. It is said that one night some weeks after silver was discovered the men gathered together to name the town, and one of the men said “Look at them mountains, boys, they’re as purty [sic] as a gal’s calico pettyskirt [sic]. Let’s call ‘er Calico.” From tents arouse a classic western boom town, complete with post office, saloons (22 in fact), newspaper, schoolhouse, hotels, restaurants, general stores, red light district, and China Town. Oh, and of course a cemetery, which is still in use.

Calico’s heyday was short lived. Silver was valued at $1.29-1.31 per ounce when it was discovered in Calico in 1881, but the eve of the 20th century in 1899, silver plummeted to 53 to 63 cents per ounce, and the miners and the town that silver built pretty much abandoned, left to the desert wind and critters. While I’d like to say that the buildings here are the ones that saw the rise of fall of the silver mines, Calico was ravaged by two fires, and most of what you see today was constructed in the 1950s under the watchful eye of Walter Knott, yes, the very same Walter Knott of Knott’s Berry Farm fame. The original buildings include what are now the Calico Park Office, Lane’s General Store, Lil’s Saloon, Lucy Lane’s House, and the Zenda Mining Co. building.

Walter Knott’s Calico roots extend past his purchase of the property in 1950. Knott’s uncle, John C. King, was sheriff of San Bernardino County from 1879 to 1882, and grubstaked three prospectors (this means that King supplied prospectors with money and equipment to explore the area, and share in the discoveries) in the area, who discovered the silver, and the Silver King Mine was born. Decades later, Knott and his wife were homesteading near Barstow, and for a short period of time Knott took a job at a resurrected mine in Calico. But they soon gave up the desert life and moved to Buena Park where they eventually struck it rich with the boysenberry. But part of Knott never forgot about Calico. When he purchased the land it had only five of its original buildings left, so he set to the task of reconstructing the town, but with a bit of a tourist flair.

Among the recreations of many of Calico’s buildings, including its school house (although at two-thirds the size it originally was) were attractions, such as “Calico Krazy House” today known as the Mystery Shack, the Calico-Odessa Railroad, still in operation today, and made the Maggie Mine viable to tour so visitors could see how mining operations worked. Knott also created a cable tram, and much like Knott’s and Disneyland, Calico also featured burros for visitors to ride, although neither remain today. Perhaps the most iconic building is the Bottle House, inspired by the various bottle houses known to be built in other mining towns, most notably in Rhyolite, Nevada.

A stone and adobe sign sits in the middle of Main Street reading "1881 Calico Lives Again. Under the auspices of Knott's Berry Farm Buena Park Calif. buildings shall be rebuilt on their original sites. Walter Knott is dedicating Calico Ghost Town to the memory of the heroic silver mingers who lived and toiled here. The preservation of this singular California heritage is also dedicated to you, the visitor, as a constant source of learning and enjoyment. Please respect his historical property. -Walter Knott" A smaller bronze plaque reads "Calico Founded circa 1881 produced $55,000,000 silver restored by Walter A. Knott 1950 Historical Marking & Dedication by the Native Sons of the Golden West 07.25.1961."

The large restaurant, which features a long open porch with rocking chairs out front, a pair of white doors, an upper balcony with sagging banister. A white sign with brown letters reads "Calico House Restaurant"

Angled view up at the Sweet Shoppe. A street lamp in the foreground features frosted glass that reads "Calico" in black script.

The train covers toward an empty desert.

Close-up of a sign that is cut and painted to look like a scroll. Hand painted letters read "Haircut .50 Haircut (Fancy) .65 Shave & Haircut .75 Mustache & Beard Trimmed .25 Bath (reg.) .50 Bath (lineament rub) .75"

A wagon sits in the foreground of a photo, with a small building further back. A sign by the door reads "Calico Ghost Town Park Office"

Myself, standing in front of the Calico bottle house.

A long hand painted sign reads "Calico Candle Shop" a green tree hangs low touching the sign located on the shop's roof.

A small adobe building a tin roof reads "Mine Tour Maggie Mine Co."

Myself, walking through the dark tunnels of the Maggie Mine

A statue of a miner with a donkey.

A small wooden building with a painted sign reading "Telegraph" at the top.

Interior of the sheriff's office, with an iron pot belly stove, desk, wanted posters, and clock.

Myself, wearing a straw cowboy hat, a black shirt featuring an opossum and raccoon dressed in cowboy attire by a campfire, and blue jeans, standing in front of the Blacksmith Shop, a large, two story wooden structure.

A building made entirely of bottles. Bottles are used to spell out "Calico" in large letters near the roof line. Another sign hanging from the top reads "Other Side"

A six pointed star made out of different colored bottles.

A painted sign with letters reading "Mystery Shack" in western style letters.

A mummified cat sits in a display case, text below reads "Calico Chupacabra"

A tree grows out of a wagon left in the middle of the street. A small adobe building behind.

Myself, wearing a straw cowboy hat, a black shirt featuring an opossum and raccoon dressed in cowboy attire by a campfire, and blue jeans, standing in front of the school house.

A view looking toward the Maggie Mine, with the mine train ride next to it.

The Calico Schoolhouse, a small wooden building painted white with blue trim and a small bell tower. It sits alone against the colorful Calico hills.

Inside the schoolhouse, which features portraits of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, a large blackboard and several school desks.

A long low wooden building features a sign reading "Pico's SIlverload"

The ornate corner of the R&D Fossils & Minerals shop, with a leafless tree stretching out across.

A small adobe building with wooden covered porch features several signs, including "Dr. A.R. Rhea" "1884 Drug Store 1896" and "Lil's Saloon See the Famous Gunslingers of the Old West"

Inside Lil's Saloon, which features a mirrored bar, paintings of old west figures high on the wall, and a band performing.

A wooden sign reads "No Spittin No Drunkiness No Loose Woman" with several letters backwards.

The adobe building that was once home to Lucy Lane, a sign out front reads "Lane House & Museum"

Myself, wearing a straw cowboy hat, a black shirt featuring an opossum and raccoon dressed in cowboy attire by a campfire, and blue jeans, standing in the doorway of a structure made of rocks and build into the hill.

Straight on of the Sweet Shop, a tall, two story building of wood.

Adobe building with a sign out front reading "The Zenda Mining Co."

A low rock wall makes a fence around the Calico Cemetery, which features an entry with an arch and sign reading "Calico Cemetery"

Wooden tombstones, the epitaphs lost in the desert winds. Rock mounds cover the graves.

An adobe and wood two story building built on a hill.

Overlooking the town of Calico, which sits in a small ravine. Small wooden and adobe structures pop up with colorful hills behind.

Myself, wearing a straw cowboy hat, a black shirt featuring an opossum and raccoon dressed in cowboy attire by a campfire, and blue jeans, standing in front of an adobe building with an aged wooden door.

It’s unclear as to why Walter Knott eventually gave up on Calico. Some say it was that he simply wasn’t unable to turn a profit, others was that Knott’s Berry Farm was growing into a full fledged amusement park and needed more of his attention. Whatever the reason, in 1966 Knott donated the property to San Bernardino County, who still control it today, and it is run as a county park.

Today Calico sits as part tourist trap, part history lesson. Shops sell cap guns and cowboy hats, the fabled Mystery Shack still has tall tales to tell, but the train ride offers a delightful tour of the outlying areas with history tidbits along the way, and the Maggie Mine gives a glimpse into the tough and true ways of mining.

A place as fun as Calico has even found some fame in other forms. In February of 2020 one of my favorite musicians, Kesha, released her “High Road” music video, which featured Calico as well as the abandoned Rock-a-Hula Waterpark.

In the fall, the town hosts Calico Days with various festivities such as a miners triathlon, school lessons, gunfights, live music, and a burrow run, which I would very much like to do. So perhaps we will find ourselves back in Calico this autumn.

Mosey down the streets of Calico at 36600 Ghost Town Road in Yermo. For further details on admission (it was $8 per adult at the time of our visit), camping, attractions, and more, please visit Calico’s website.

What’s Near By?

Abandoned Jenny Rose Restaurant

Abandoned Rock-a-Hoola Waterpark

Peggy Sue’s 50s Diner

Beyer, John R. “Opinion: Beyer’s Byways: A (brief) history of Calico Ghost Town.” San Bernardino County Regional Parks, 2 February 2020. Accessed 11 April 2022.
Calico Ghost Town. Calico Print Shop, 1959. Print.
Plaques on site.

Leave a Comment!

2 comments on “Calico Ghost Town: From Silver Boom Town to Tourist Trap”