Cerro Gordo is perched on the western slopes of the Inyo Mountains. Frank Foster

California ghost town famous for riches and rowdiness prepares to welcome guests

Dotting a rugged slope in the Inyo Mountains are the remains of one of early California’s great engines of prosperity.

During its 1870s heyday, Cerro Gordo, or “fat hill,” was a rollicking silver town of 4,800 people and 1,600 mules, ruled by the six-gun. It generated so much trade that the Los Angeles News editorialized in 1872: Should the link between Los Angeles and the mining town be severed, “we would inevitably collapse.”

Like dozens of California ghost towns whose fortunes rose and fell with the mines, Cerro Gordo was all but abandoned by the 1950s, its tin and wooden structures left to decay in the high desert wind. But now it’s attracting dreamers once again.

An undated photo of Cerro Gordo during its mining days, with Owens Lake in the distance.

via Cerro Gordo Mines

In 2018, a pair of entrepreneurs sank their life savings into the $1.4 million price for all 300 acres of Cerro Gordo. They’ve been at work ever since restoring the town and its 22 historic structures, among them a saloon, a church, a general store, and a small theater.

One of the new owners, Brent Underwood, 32, said the goal is to open Cerro Gordo as a tourist destination, with overnight accommodations in original homes and hotel rooms along with on-site camping. Guests could be welcomed as soon as late summer, pandemic permitting.

In contrast to the look-but-don’t-touch historical parks run by the state, such as Bodie, Cerro Gordo will be more immersive, Underwood said. “I’d love to create a place where people could come and really experience the history and stay in the exact buildings that the founder of the city stayed in.”

A mule team in Soledad Canyon, circa 1875. The freight company hauled hundreds of tons of silver from the Cerro Gordo mines to Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Public Library

More than just a ghost town, Cerro Gordo is a magnificent perch. At 8,500 feet, it faces the plunging Death Valley from one side of the property and the soaring peaks of the southern Sierra Nevada from the other.

For quarantine-weary Californians, a place so removed from the ordinary could be a tempting escape.

Last year, Frank Foster, a photographer based in Victor Valley, made several trips out to Cerro Gordo for a photo project. He shared some of his images with the California Sun, below.

A crumbling mining structure in Cerro Gordo.

Frank Foster

The abandoned American Hotel is said to be the oldest hotel in California east of the Sierras, erected in 1871.

Frank Foster

Cerro Gordo is surrounding by dramatic landscapes.

Frank Foster

An old assay office, seemingly frozen in time.

Frank Foster

A hotel bar where miners once mingled.

Frank Foster

Dilapidated structures are being restored by Cerro Gordo’s new owners.

Frank Foster

A structure used to store explosives.

Frank Foster

The stone chimney of a fallen smelter.

Frank Foster

Cerro Gordo’s theater will show films once again, Underwood said.

Frank Foster

The view from the hotel porch.

Frank Foster

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