Due to generous and frequent rainstorms throughout the winter, the Spring of 2016 promised a Death Valley super bloom rivaling none other. On an early February morning we packed up our automotive steed and took off to explore it for ourselves. We were not disappointed.
While we were in Death Valley, we decided to explore some other places on our short list. Later that same day, we discovered Ballarat.
Our first thought was it was not as hard to get to as some other sites would lead you to believe. The dirt and gravel road was certainly tame enough for any 2-wheel drive vehicle.
In its heyday, from 1897 to 1905, Ballarat was home and headquarters for about 500 people. Ballarat was named after a well-known gold producing camp in Australia in the 1850s. Young Australian immigrant George Riggins suggested the name.
For more than 20 years the district had been combed by prospectors holed in at Post Office Spring, about one half mile south of the site upon which Ballarat was subsequently built.
Here the government had a small Army post and here, soldiers, outlaws, and adventurers received their mail from a box wired in the crotch of a mesquite tree.
Ballarat hosted 7 saloons, 3 hotels, a Wells Fargo station, post office, school, a jail and morgue, but not one church.
Although the Pleasant Canyon mines east of town were Ballarat’s biggest producers, there were a few hopeful contenders in the neighboring canyons. The richest of these were the O.B. Joyful in Tuba Canyon, discovered in 1897 by Bob Montgomery and a couple of partners who named it for their favorite whiskey.
Other mines included colorful names like The Gem in Jail Canyon, and Shorty Harris’ World Beater. The real excitement came in 1900, when the news got out that a Nevada rancher named Jim Butler had made an enormously rich strike in Tonopah, 150 miles north of Ballarat, way beyond Death Valley.
Almost all the mines in the Panamint mountains were shut down as miners and mine owners alike went off “to see the elephant”, the Montgomery brothers included. The Panamint mines eventually shared this excitement, but Ballarat never fully recovered.
The exodus in 1901 dealt Ballarat a crippling blow, and the elements tried to do the rest. A terrible storm ripped through the town that summer, smashing several houses, killing one woman, and kiting off everything loose.
Up in the Panamints it unleashed a cloudburst that sent flash floods down the canyons to the north, destroying the little Gem mill in Jail Canyon and sweeping away many of the abandoned buildings in old Panamint.
A year later, just as Ballarat was starting to recover, another cyclone wrought even more havoc, tearing the roof from Calloway’s hotel and other adobes and leveling every frame building that was left. Then came a rush of water down Pleasant Canyon, demolishing an old mill and flooding the battered town.
Ratcliff Consolidated Mines reopened in 1902. By the summer of 1903, it turned out another $250,000 in bullion, bringing the total production of the mine to approximately $450,000.
The Montgomery brothers returned and found a rich chute in the abandoned World Beater mine, renaming it the Republican. A few other new companies joined the Ballarat revival, but they produced little for anyone but their promoters.
By 1905, when George Montgomery finally ran out of high-grade in the old World Beater, the mines around Ballarat had produced nearly a million dollars in gold, becoming the Death Valley country’s most productive hard-rock district.
Frank “Shorty” Harris, born in 1857 in Rhode Island, was famous for discovering the rich Bullfrog strike in 1904 on the other side of Death Valley that surpassed the mines around Ballarat. Shorty lived in Ballarat off and on, until his death in 1934. He described himself a “single blanket-jackass prospector.”
Shorty recalled, “The best strike I ever made was in 1904 when I discovered the Rhyolite and Bullfrog district. I went into Boundary Canyon with five burros and plenty of grub, figuring to look over the country northeast from there.
When I stopped at the Keane Wonder Mine, Ed Cross was there waiting for his partner, Frank Howard, to bring some supplies from the inside. For some reason Howard had been delayed, and Cross was low on grub.
“Shorty,” he said, “I’m up against it, and the Lord knows when Howard will come back. How are the chances of going with you?” “Sure, come right along,” I told him, “I’ve got enough to keep us eating for a couple of months.”
The Bullfrog excitement was the biggest thing of its kind ever seen in Death Valley and Amargosa country. Ernest “Ed” Cross and Shorty Harris found the green-stained ore that gave a name to the buzz.
The gabby little man, barely 5 foot 4, with big ears and blue eyes, and a bushy mustache, had a weakness for “Oh Be Joyful” whiskey which got the best of him. But Shorty’s partner, Ed Cross, a quiet, sober young newlywed, held on long enough to get full measure of his share.
Shorty was one of a handful of miners and prospectors who hung on in Ballarat, but the town faded after his death.
Shorty is not buried in Ballarat. The location of Shorty’s grave, alongside his best buddy Jim Dayton, is 36° 12.453′ N, 116° 52.2′ W. There is a marker in Death Valley, on West Side Road 12.3 miles south of Badwater Road when traveling south. West Side Road is unpaved but it is graded and maintained to accommodate passenger vehicles.
Ballarat began to decline when the Ratcliff Mine suspended operations. Nearby mines also began to play out, and in 1917 the post office closed. All that remained were a few diehard prospectors.
Assayer Fred Grey, a 53-year resident of Ballarat, lived on the edge of the dry lake long after the mines closed. Chris Wicht kept his saloon open, catering to other desert rats and wanderers. The assay office is one of the most complete buildings still standing.
Noted Death Valley character, Seldom Seen Slim, born 1881 in Illinois, whose surname was Charles Ferge, said these words many times, and they are the epitaph on his grave at Ballarat, California.
According to those familiar with his famous lack of personal hygiene, he reputedly smelled like the animals he referred to. Slim had a reputation as a recluse with a cantankerous side.
Slim didn’t believe in showers or baths because “bathing was a waste of water”. Although, he did make into town for his annual haircut and bath whether he felt he needed it or not!
The Woodland Daily Democrat included Slim in its 1927 piece titled, “Where Sourdoughs Ride in Motor Cars and Gold is Where You Find It”, which included a photo of Slim panning for gold in a little bit of dirt taken from underneath the famous Dodge Brothers Scout Car, “Old 150,000” in Weepah, Nevada. Slim chanted,
“Seldom Seen Slim was nary a machine,
came to Weepah without a bean,
but now he’s struck it very rich
and soon he’ll be riding in a limousine.”
Seldom Seen Slim was a visitor to Trona when the time came to stock up on supplies of tobacco for his corn cob pipe and to replenish his bottle of hooch.
His reputation was so widespread as legends goes that Walter Knott had statues of “Seldom Seen Slim” made and placed in his Knotts Berry Farm and Ghost Town in Buena Park, CA. There’s even a large wooden cut-out of Seldom Seen Slim which greets visitors on their way to Calico, a ghost town rebuilt by Knott.
However, when interviewed by The Independent Press-Telegram in March 1965, Seldom Seen Slim denied it was him. He stated, “Anybody can call himself Seldom Seen Slim, but there’s only one Seldom Seen Slim, prospector.”
Slim emphasized the last word with a furious puff from his pipe and spat on the ground. Seldom Seen Slim explained there were several other men who posed as him using the same moniker. He recalled one even came to the mountains, boasting his name until he was confronted by a friend who told him, “You’re not Seldom Seen Slim.”
Maybe that’s why for a man with the name “Seldom Seen,” he was sure seen a lot.
Slim was found ailing in his rundown trailer in Ballarat’s ruins and was taken 25 miles to Trona, where he survived only five days.
Slim’s funeral was in Boot Hill in 1968 and was broadcast on television around the country before cable, as he was the last of a breed of prospectors who spent their lives living on the Mojave Desert in and around Death Valley. He was the first to be buried in the Ballarat cemetery in half a decade.
According to The San Bernardino Sun when reporting Seldom Seen Slim’s death on August 13, 1968, tales about Slim were legion. He had prospected in the region for half a century, filing on a record number of claims but never trying the harder work of developing them.
The reporter added Slim had a sense of humor. In Ballarat, in which he was the sole inhabitant, he posted a sign which read, “Slim’s Place. Free parking.”
After Slim’s death, at the age of 80, the United State Department of the Interior approved the naming of a peak in the Panamint Mountains in honor of Charles Ferge. The peak is now named “Slim’s Peak”.
Ballarat continues to exemplify the Old West. Many movies have been filmed in Ballarat.
Today, Ballarat has one full-time resident. As of June 2013, Rocky Novak and his dogs, Potlicker and Brownie, live in the town.
Rocky runs the general store on afternoons and weekends to supply tourists, and is working on repairing the water pipes that supply the town, for which he is paid by the government. Rumor has it Rocky is very fond of iced cookies.
Note from 2023: We understand the store has changed hands since our article was written. Rocky has moved on.
Every summer, a woman named June and her son move into the former jailhouse/morgue.
Ballarat is located 3.6 miles from the pavement of the north-south Trona-Wildrose Road (California 178), north of Trona. There is a historical marker at the turnoff. 36.04712° N, -117.2251° E. The road to Ballart is in pretty good shape, making it an easy trip in most any two or four wheel drive vehicle.
And now, more about that super bloom…
It was spectacular!
Death Valley & The Amargosa; A Land of Illusion by Richard E. Lingenfelter, 1986
Loafing Around Death Valley; A Personal Narrative of People and Places by William Carruthers, 1951
Half a Century Chasing Rainbows by Frank “Shorty” Harris as told to Phillip Johnston, Touring Topics: Magazine of the American Automobile Association of Southern California, October 1930
A Summer Visit to the Panamints by Harold O. Weight, Desert Magazine, July 1960