Calico sprang out of the hot California desert in 1881. Eight years later, about the time Calico was a full-fledged boom town, a child was born in San Bernardino to a preacher from Tennessee. The boy’s name was Walter Marvin Knott. Years later, he would own the town where he worked as a carpenter for his uncle.
It is not a coincidence that the tall red-shirted miner sign supplied by Walter Knott welcoming visitors to Calico bears the likeness of reclusive miner Seldom Seen Slim, of Ballarat in Death Valley. Every thing in Calico was carefully planned, right down to the last rusty nail.
What better place than Calico for our new RV’s shake-down cruise? We packed up our supplies, our two dogs, and off we went!
A popular story is that the town of Calico was named by miner Joe Joiner in 1882 for the area’s multi-colored hills that were “as purty as a gal’s calico skirt,” an inexpensive colorful cotton fabric printed with a small, overall pattern. Others note miner John Peterson was the first to call it the Calico-colored mountain.
The Calico Mountains were originally named for A.P. Green, a member of the U.S. Department of the Interior Survey of 1856. Back in 1865, the Calico Mountain range was known as the Color Mountains.
The large white letters spelling out “Calico” painted near the top of King Mountain were completed in 1958 by Walter Knott, the imaginative gentleman who created Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California.
Sixty-five years ago, a friend took Russ Knott, then 25, to visit the decrepit ghost town of Calico. Russ was intrigued by its history and approached his father, Knott’s Berry Farm founder, Walter Knott, with the idea of restoring the site as a campground for Boy Scouts and other service organizations.
In 1952, Knott purchased the ruins of the town and began restoring it. He paid Zenda Gold Mining Company $13,500 for the townsite, 57 acres and the water supply. He eventually deeded it to San Bernardino County and they renamed it Calico Ghost Town Regional Park. The town is California Landmark #782, and in 2005 Senate Bill 906 made Calico California’s Official Silver Rush Ghost Town.
Calico was a mining town 6.6 miles northwest of Daggett and 10 miles northeast of Barstow. Calico Tunnel Mine was a silver mine in the Calico area discovered in 1881. The original discovery of silver was credited to three miners, John McBride, Larry Silva and Charlie L. Meachem at the head of Wall Street Canyon. The were looking for the other end of the Comstock Lode.
A selection from an article appearing in the Petaluma Courier, on May 23, 1883, extolling the virtues of Calico:
“. . . lively town, not a year old — eight large stores — sixteen saloons — other places of business . . . genteel people — lots of nice girls in Calico!”
Can’t disagree with that.
Waterloo Mine was owned by Oro Grande Mining Company, and located two miles east of Calico. Other mines sprang up. In the Spring of 1882, only 100 people lived there. At its peak, Calico boasted an estimated 3,500 residents. J.G. Overshiner and E.E. Vincent began publishing a two page weekly newspaper, The Calico Print in 1882. A favorite small printed material popular for ladies dresses of the time period was also called calico. Nice play on words, gentlemen.
Water for the town was hauled from Ball & Drew’s well on Calico Lake. The first school in Calico was held in the kitchen of the Hartman Building House from 1882 until 1885 until a second school was built at the cost of $3,000 and was used until 1899.
Nowadays, in addition to Calico’s whimsical shops, old fashion candy stores and restaurants offering delicious food and refreshments, you can experience gold panning, guided horseback tours and the “Mystery Shack,” which feels like the laws of gravity do not apply here. Its mysteriously slanted floors and humorous guided demonstrations of water that runs uphill and straw brooms that stands with no support will surprise skeptics.
Don’t forget to tour the mine and take a ride on the quaint Calico-Odessa Railroad train. Friendly docents and rugged gunfighters dressed in period costumes adds to the flavor of the Old West for your entire family. Calico’s nighttime ghost tours are always a big hit and sell out quickly.
A seven mile long narrow-gauge railroad that ran ran from the Silver King Mine ore bin to the mill at the base of Elephant Mountain from 1888 to 1892. There were two stage lines between 1885 and 1887. In 1889 the Daggett & Calico Railroad and the Waterloo Mine Railroad merged into the Calico Railroad, which was known as the Daggett & Calico Railroad. The tracks were dismantled in 1903. But you can still ride Calico’s pint-sized version of the Calico-Odessa train.
Twice every week, Fanny Mulcahay of Calico would ride her horse side-saddle and carry the mail from Calico to Borate and back. It was called the Calico-Borate Pony Express. This lasted until 1898 when the Borate & Daggett Railroad was completed then carried the mail.
The first class had 58 students and was taught by school marm, Mamie Mooney. Now try saying that three times fast.
Calico’s reputation as a ghost town is well deserved as there are numerous reports of actual ghosts being sighted. Lucy Bell King Lane, a longtime resident who ran Lucy Lane’s General Store has often been seen in her store.
Margaret Olivier, the last schoolteacher, has been seen teaching in her classroom. Tourists who have talked with Margaret thought she was part of the staff dressed in period costumes, only to find out she has been dead since 1932. There is even the ghost story of Dorsey, the shepherd dog that carried the US Mail between various mines.
“Country singer Kenny Rogers recorded an album in 1972 about Dorsey called “The Ballad of Calico.” It was the eighth studio album by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. The album is a country-rock concept album about the real-life town of Calico, California. The entire double album was written by Michael Murphey and Larry Cansler and the songs tell the stories of individuals who lived in the town. One of the songs was titled, “Calico Silver.” ~ Chip Curley @YouTube
They say a photo speaks a thousand words. In the photo above, we caught about 140 years of history. From Calico, looking across Calico Dry Lake, to the USMC Logistics Base, and beyond to Elephant Mountain and the town of Daggett.
Naturally, if we include the age of the long departed Calico Lake, the scene goes back much more than 50,000 years. By the way, yes, that is a skeleton hanging around, enjoying the view. These parts don’t take kindly to claim jumpers.
The first area burial was in 1869, 13 year old Bobby Stephens, a young traveler following the Mojave River. The site became Calico Cemetery in 1882 and is still in use; the most recent burial was in 1999.
The Lane House Museum provides an excellent opportunity for history buffs to examine artifacts and devices engineered for miners who worked 10-hour days in 100 degree weather, and housewives who prepared supper, cleaned the laundry and completed other chores.
As legend has it, the ghost of Lucy Lane still lurks between The Lane House Museum and Lane’s General Store, her residence and place of business.
Visitors can explore the Maggie Mine, which leads explorers down an authentic mine, 1,000 feet into the mountain, and shows the mining conditions of the 1890s. Maggie Mine sits directly under the “O” in the large Calico sign.
Walking up the hill to ‘downtown’ Calico, we stopped in at the Calico House for Salisbury steaks and mashed ‘taters. The grub was excellent, and the ambiance of the crunchy peanut hulls underfoot with spectacular views from their outdoor dining area matched in every way. To fill out the western experience, they also have ice cold PBR on tap, and big ‘uns too!
We had an amazing time glamping for the first time at Calico. We didn’t tow a car with us but Calico offered us everything we needed. As is often the case with Calico and the area, the wind prevented us from extending our awning or using the grill and fire pit but we didn’t mind. Camping hair don’t care!
Everyone we met was friendly and helpful, as we did have some questions about hooking up our sewer for the first time. People camped in tents, trailers and RV’s. The bathrooms and showers were well-stocked and clean. Kids had a great time riding their bikes in the quiet campground. The howling wind –or was that Lucy Lane?– awakened us at 3 a.m. but the familiar sounds lulled us back to sleep. Lucy, you got some ‘splainin to do.
A bright dawn greeted us later that morning. It was the first time I used the gas stove. It was also the first time I set off the smoke alarm. After a good laugh and an old-fashioned country breakfast, we enjoyed strolling for photo ops just before the park opened.
The quiet was surreal. For a moment, it was like stepping back in time. As for our Thor A.C.E. 27.2 Class A motor coach, it performed like a champ despite a few human errors. We’re already booked for Palm Springs next weekend, and like Willie sang, we can’t wait to be on the road again!
Calico campground features 265 spaces featuring picnic tables, full-service restrooms with hot showers, and fire rings. Dry, partial and full hook-ups and dump stations are available. Prices vary from $30-$40 a night depending on your choice of site.
Pets with up-to-date vaccination records are welcome. There are two separate campgrounds, so check their online map to choose your selection wisely when making reservations. It is a short walk to town and we were fortunate to reserve the first campsite closest to the dirt path to town.
Calico even offers small camping cabins for $65. a night, sleeping up to four. There is also a bunkhouse for groups up to a maximum of 20, costing $160. a night. All cabins have a minimum two night stay on weekends and holidays.
36600 Ghost Town Road Yermo, CA 92398
I-15 at Ghost Town Road Exit
Open daily 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. except Christmas Day
Another choice for RV’ers is the Barstow-Calico KOA, Exit 191 off I-15 and left on the Outer Highway. This KOA has received the President’s Award for exceptional quality standards and customer service and has a 4 out of 5 star rating. As always with any unfamiliar business, we encourage you to read Yelp reviews.
Once Upon a Desert, A Bicentennial Project by the Mojave River Museum Association, Edited by Patricia Jernigan Keeling, 1994
Mohahve VI by the Mohahve Historical Society, 2011, Edited by Fran Elgin, Larry Reese, John Marnell et al.