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.
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.
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.