I have been to Calico Ghost Town more times than I can remember. When I was a kid we lived in Barstow California and I went with the school and my family a few times a year. My favorite attraction in Calico is the Mystery Shack, a house of optical illusions similar to the Mystery Shack at Goldfield Ghost Town in Apache Junction, AZ.
Calico is an Old West mining town that was founded in 1881 and was then first abandoned in the mid-1890s after silver lost its value. In the early 1900s, it would make a small recovery when a cyanide plant was built to recover silver from the unprocessed Silver King Mine’s deposits.
In 1951, Walter Knott purchased the town from Zenda Mining Company and transformed it into the Calico Ghost Town. In 1966, he donated the town to San Bernardino County, and Calico Ghost Town became a County Regional Park.
When I visited it in the mid-1970s, they had an Old West Gunfight as they do in Goldfield Ghost Town. The buildings and attractions are the same layout and look but long gone are the days of the dirt roads and gunfights. The camping area has expanded since the 1970s but the Iconic CALICO is still painted atop Calico Mountain.
History of Calico Ghost Town
In 1881 four prospectors were leaving Grapevine Station (present day Barstow, California) for a mountain peak to the northeast. Describing the peak as “calico-colored”, the peak, the mountain range to which it belonged, and the town that followed were all called Calico.
The four prospectors discovered silver in the mountain and opened the Silver King Mine, which was California’s largest silver producer in the mid-1880s. A post office was established in early 1882, and the Calico Print, a weekly newspaper, started publishing.
The town soon supported three hotels, five general stores, a meat market, bars, brothels, and three restaurants and boarding houses. The county also established a school district and a voting precinct.
In its heyday, the town also had a deputy sheriff and two constables, two lawyers and a justice of the peace, five commissioners, and two doctors. There was also a Wells Fargo office and a telephone and telegraph service.
At its height of silver production during 1883 and 1885, Calico had over 500 mines and a population of 1,200 people.
The discovery of the borate mineral colemanite in the Calico mountains a few years after the settlement of the town also helped Calico’s fortunes, and in 1890 the estimated population of the town was 3,500, with nationals of China, England, Ireland, Greece, France, and the Netherlands, as well as Americans living there.
The Decline of Calico Mining Town
In the same year, the Silver Purchase Act was enacted and drove down the price of silver. By 1896, its value had decreased to $0.57 per troy ounce, and Calico’s silver mines were no longer economically viable.
The post office was discontinued in 1898, and the school closed not long after. By the turn of the century, Calico was all but a ghost town, and with the end of borax mining in 1907, the town was completely abandoned. Many of the original buildings were moved to Barstow, Daggett, and Yermo.
An attempt to revive the town was made in about 1915 when a cyanide plant was built to recover silver from the unprocessed Silver King Mine’s deposits. Walter Knott and his wife Cordelia, founders of Knott’s Berry Farm, were homesteaded at Newberry Springs around this time, and the Knott family helped build the redwood cyanide tanks for the plant.
The End of Mining Operations
The last owner of Calico as a mine was Zenda Mining Company. In 1951, Walter Knott purchased the town from Zenda Mining Company. He began restoring it to its original condition, referencing old photographs.
Walter installed a longtime employee named “Calico Fred” Noller as resident caretaker and official greeter. In 1966, he donated the town to San Bernardino County, and it became Calico Ghost Town Regional Park.