October 2004 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts



The History of Darwin

by Cecile Page Vargo

        Somewhere between Lone Pine and Death Valley, in a hot dusty, remote and desolate area, lies the mere shadow of a town called Darwin. The first white travelers to pass through the area were the Death Valley 49'ers coming from Salt Lake City to the California goldfields. In 1850, Dr. Erasmus Darwin French came through on a search for the Lost Gunsight Mine, which was believed to be in the Panamint Valley. In 1861 silver ore was discovered ten miles southeast of Darwin and the Coso Mining District was formed. October 1870, William Egan, J.C. Watt, and Paul W. Bennett, discovered pure galena near the springs of Darwin Canyon. By the 24th of that same month, James Brady (famous for the steamers he ran across Owens Lake) joined the three men to organize the Granite Mountain Mining District. The discoveries went virtually unnoticed at the time. In the fall of 1874, discoveries made by the Brown Brothers, William and Robert, were announced in the Inyo Independent newspaper. Miners and entrepreneurs flocked to the site. The new Coso Mining District was formed at this time, as well as the town of Darwin. Erasmus Darwin French, more than likely, never visited the town that grew around the area he had traveled through so many years before.

The mines and one-time tourist cabins of Darwin today are as dead as the occupants of the town's cemetery.

        Typical of mining towns of the era, Darwin became a rough and tumble town with rich producing mines, claim battles, gunfights, robberies, etc. It quickly grew from flimsy canvas hovels to substantial buildings with flourishing businesses. By February 1875, Darwin boasted a hotel, three restaurants, two butcher shops, a livery stable, two stores, seven saloons, a drug store, as well as a doctor's and a lawyer's office. Soon there were two baseball teams, the Inyos and the Independents. The Wells Fargo office and post office followed. Victor Beaudry, also of Cerro Gordo fame, piped in much needed water. In May of 1876, the Inyo Independent declared Darwin "the most important mining district and largest town" of Inyo county. Colonel Sherman Stevens began building a tramway from Darwin to the shore of Owens Lake to transport the massive bullion production. The town population soared to 3,500 people by 1877. More than 226,672 ounces of silver and 1,920,261 pounds of lead were recovered from the mines.  

Off to Bodie

        July of 1878, news of rich discoveries in the Bodie Hills sent miners and businessmen flying north where prospects suddenly looked better. Coso Mining News editor T. S. Harris loaded up his press and moved with them. His first issue of the Bodie Standard declared he "would not make the trip of 190 miles again for all the unoccupied houses and deserted mines of Darwin." Darwin's population dwindled to 300 people. Fire, the fear of all desolate towns, destroyed 15 major buildings in April 1879. June of 1880, the population was reduced to 80. By 1882, congressman Samuel D. Woods passed through town and declared, "it seems as yet impossible that it could be a town where humans lived... There could be no living in the higher sense in a place so devoid of everything that makes life even physically endurable. The principal business place of the town was a saloon. No hotel was visible and we were compelled to take our breakfast at a little restraint." Renewed prospect interests during the first and second World Wars sparked some hope for the town--only to be short lived.
        For a time between 1920-1937, Darwin attracted attention to the world once again. H. W. "Bob" Eichbaum built the Death Valley Toll Road, and his wife built a resort at the end of the road in Stovepipe Wells. Darwin became known as the " Gateway to Death Valley."  Alas, in 1937, Highway 190 was built re-routing the traffic and the tourist trade, and Lone Pine got the honor. Darwin's fate was written in the sand.
        Today Darwin appears more ghostly than most ghost towns. The ramshackle buildings and old trailers that house Darwinís few residents seem to have eyes peering from their darkened windows. A stop to the old miners' dugouts on the way to the cemetery may surprise you with a Darwinite spending his summer there to keep cool. The cemetery itself is truly haunting. Everyone should go to Darwin at least once in their lifetime. Darwin is a town truly in a class all of its own.


Darwin, California

by Robert P. Palazzo

Western Places


Death Valley & The Amargosa, A Land of Illusion

by Richard E. Lingenfelter

University of California Press



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