February 2004 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts



Enterprising Women of the Western Mojave Mining Camps

First Came the "Ladies"

by Cecile Page Vargo

           When word got out that a few lone prospectors were digging for gold in the El Paso & Rand Mountains of the Western Mojave area of California , more men followed.  They came on foot, burro, mule, or wagon, hoping to strike it rich and go on to bigger and better things in life.  They spent their days dry washing, digging and blasting, and if they were lucky they were rewarded with a few nuggets of the precious yellow metal.  They lived in dugouts in the canyon walls, or built cabins with rock foundations and canvas tops that barely protected them from the extreme desert conditions that could dip below freezing in the winter, and above the century mark in the summer.  The wind always seemed to howl, blowing dust on their person and everything surrounding them.  The rain, though seldom, came with a vengeance when it did arrive, turning dry narrow gullies and canyons into raging rivers, washing away anything that stood in it’s path.   

          If the prospecting was good, and rich strikes were discovered in the multicolored hills around them, more prospectors followed and more substantial settlements began growing around the lonely dugouts and cabins.  Supplies would be brought in, and stores would be set up.  More often than not the first establishment to set up shop would be the primitive saloons consisting of a wood shack or lean-to with a bar inside made of two whiskey barrels and a wooden plank.   The saloons wet the miners parched throats, and helped them to forget their families in civilized towns far away, but the more they drank they still found they were thirsty for female companionship.  The “ladies” would be the first to come in to quench that thirst until the camps grew into real towns, and more respectable women arrived.  

  Mexican Nell Comes To Goler Camp

         In 1893 a curvaceous dark-eyed woman came down the mountains of Tehachapi across the desert to the Black Mountain diggings in the El Paso ’s.   She came on a freight wagon with  food and mining supplies, and her latest lover.   “Mexican Nell”, was her name, and she was described as having “temperaments as volcanic as the peak the camp was named after.”    Word was that the camp in Goler Gulch was the place to be, so Nell said good bye to her partner in Black Mountain , and secured her belongings to the back of a burro she had gotten from a miner.  She wound her way up and down the sandy trails to the new camp, hailing the boys as she rode in. She was ready and “willing to relieve the camp of its tedium and the boys of their dust.”     Though there were many saloons, Nell, and the girls that eventually followed her to Goler, preferred Nugent’s where they could listen to the sound of the fiddle, guitar and accordion, and join the old time miners as they sang favorite old camp songs.  As the evenings would wear on and the voices became weary from singing, the lonely miner could trade in gold dust or nuggets for one of Nell’s girls and go back to a tiny room or crib for a few hours of  “companionship.”

Charlie Koehn’s Bartender

          Charlie Koehn brought mining machinery to Mojave for a gold mill, then moved to Kane springs and developed a waystation.  Supplies were freighted in, and the first mail deliveries began at a cost of 25 cents an item.  His post office was in operation until 1896, when  a post office opened in Garlock.   Koehn also had a bar in Goler.    His handsome mustached bartender was courted by one of the ladies of the evening. Every night she brought him a home cooked meal, keeping him fat and happy.  As more girls and more tents moved in to town, the bartender began having midnight suppers cooked by one of the new girls.  Eventually, the two cooks discovered each other and the bartender had to go back to cooking his own meals.

Garlock Boom Town       

         Not too far from Goler, the camp of Garlock, formerly known as Cow Wells, or El Paso City , was booming.  Eugene Garlock, whom the town was named after, could not process the ore fast enough.  The Kelly, Smith, Henry, McKenna and Visalia mills were built to help ease the load,  and several smaller mills sprouted up all over the area.  More miners and families began moving in, and more businesses were being built to provide services for them.  Jim McGinnis’ new store was the third to open with much needed supplies.  Dr. W. H. Wright began doctoring people and providing medicines from his office and drug store.   A. J. Doty built a two story hotel on the main street.   Wells Fargo agent, Ed Maginnis, kept busier than ever shipping gold . 

          In 1896, a man named John Miller  built a  rock building across from the stage stop at A. J. Doty’s Hotel.  At first glance the pretentious building appeared to be a bank, but the inside housed a bar, gambling room, and rooms for his girls.  Miners visited John in his back office to sell the gold they had found, then spent their earnings gambling, drinking, and visiting the girls on their way out.

 One Time At Rand Camp       

          In the hills east of Goler and Garlock, the tiny camp of Rand, built near the Yellow Aster mine discovered by Burcham, Mooers, and Singleton, showed even greater promise.   As the ore was pulled out of the mines the town of Randsburg grew up around the original tent camp.  The Gordon brothers ran a livery stable on the corner opposite the present day Randsburg Post Office.   The Wells Fargo Stage stop was conveniently located next to the stable, a vacant lot and Big Ella’s.  The stable could tend to the tired horses, and Big Ella’s six to eight girls could tend to the weary  male travelers.      The early Randsburg red light district grew up in the haphazard town, with “the fluzy barn” right in the heart of the business district. 

          A transient came to Randsburg in December of 1901 and went to the dentist to have a tooth removed.  Unfortunately, all too late, the dentist realized that the man also had smallpox.  After the Christmas holiday, more than 200 people were infected.    A huge tent , dubbed the “Pest House”, was set up to quarantine many of the sick.  Some of the first that were sent there were the ladies from the red light district.  Although they were quarantined, the ladies still managed to have visits from the town’s men.  When the doctor found out about it, he hired a couple of respectable family  men to stand guard with shotguns at the entrances, and the visits stopped.   Meantime, those who were not ravaged by the smallpox, or were immune from it, took care of those who were sick.  Even the healthy red light ladies pitched in and did their share of nursing.  Many a respectable Randsburg woman, sick with the smallpox, found herself being taken care of by the women they had once scorned. 

          One day during the smallpox epidemic, Doctor MacDonald was called to Madam Fay’s parlor.  There she was lying in bed in a darkened room, complaining of a headache,  the light bothering her eyes, and her face was red and swollen.  She told the doctor that she had put croton oil on her face by accident and needed something for the itching and burning it had caused.  Of course he happily obliged her by doing so.  Weeks later, Madam Fay ran in to the doctor on the street  and laughed over  how she had pulled a good one over on him.  Turns out that the madam had actually had the smallpox, and wanted relief from the symptoms she had from it, but did not want to be sent to the Pest House.   Her scheme had worked.

Fre nch Marguerite

          Marguerite Roberts aka “French Marguerite”, ran a popular parlor house in Randsburg in the early 1900’s.  She was constantly having charges brought against her and was condemned often by the  local newspaper:

          “That the said Marguerite keeps and runs a dance hall in the very center of the business section of our town; that it is so situated that ourselves and our children are compelled to pass and repass this abominable brothel every time we go to the post office, the drugstore, the meat market, and the Wells Fargo Company office.  Second, that we are continually being insulted by the inmates of this brothel, who are common prostitutes.  Therefore, we ask in the name of high heaven and common decency that your honorable body will revoke the saloon license of said Marguerite, and that the other place be licensed to run on the principal streets of our town”. 

          “Conditions are fast ripening in that section for a repetition of the big fire last June.  The business men who own the adjoining buildings, not having recovered from the losses occasioned by the last fire are not in a position to erect adobes.  A fire is liable to start during a drunken orgy any night, and once started would quickly wipe out the whole lower half of town, businesses, homes, rooming houses, hotel, and on these windy nights it is hard to tell where it would stop.  Under the law our officers have the power to enter all places of unsavory reputation frequented by women and arrest and punish as vagrants everyone found therein.”

         In her book Desert Bonanza, Marcia Rittenhouse Wynne tells the story of her grandfather’s run in  with Marguerite.   Unhappy with charges Judge Wynne had brought against her, Marguerite grabbed a nearby bottle of ink and threw towards his head.   As the judge  ducked to avoid being hit by the bottle, the ink hit the wall behind him and splattered all over him.  Like many prostitutes, French Marguerite had a temper to watch out for. 

Hot Time in Red Mountain

           The 1920’s came in with a roar, and the place to be was a little town southeast of Randsburg and Johannesburg .   Silver was being pulled out of the Kelly Mine in large amounts and the town of Red Mountain, originally known as Osdick after one of the miners, was born.  During a time when alcohol was prohibited and prostitution was frowned upon throughout most of the United States ,  Red Mountain became the place to go for both.  Los Angelenos would drive 150 miles to enjoy the ever popular Saturday nights in the desert.  At least 30 saloons ran wide open, hotels had full bars, gambling and rooms with girls.  The post office was apparently the only place in town one could not buy a drink. 

          The Annex, Little Eva’s, The Monkey House, The Northern, The Owl, The Pacific, The Red Onion and the Silver Dollar were just a few of the popular spots in Red Mountain.  The girls that worked there were considered good looking, clean and good company.  Those that weren’t didn’t stay around long.  Most were known by one name, that was easy for the boys to remember.  There was “Lois” who was stocky but noted for being a neat dresser, and  tall red-headed “Kathy”.  “Jerry” at the Silver Dollar was short and dark, and considered quite beautiful.  Tex ”, at the Owl, charmed the men with large expressive hazel eyes, and her heavy Texas accent.   “Carmen”, a chunky girl, was dark and good looking.  “Latin Rita”, was petite and  emotionally charming.   Quite a few of the girls went by the name of  “Rose”, but one in particular stood out not only for her beauty, but the fact that the boys liked her in spite of her habit of stealing their wallets.  And there were the two Indian girls, “Indian May”, and “Cokie Joe”. “Cokie Joe” earned her name from her favorite drink, coke and gin. 

          Many brothels offered more than just booze and women.  Little Eva’s was famous for its reading library next to it’s bar.  Irene’s was noted for being the friendliest, but  was not as popular as the other places.  The place run by “Sugar Pie”, had the most disciplined girls, but she herself was considered good company.  The men enjoyed talking to her, and apparently she was a good dancer. 

          The buxom madam known as “Red Mountain Hattie” had a reputation for treating her girls as if they were her daughters.  She was very choosey who she allowed to come visit them.  She also enjoyed drinking with the men and getting acquainted with them herself, before she decided if the gentleman was an appropriate customer for her house.  Poor Hattie, turned her Ford over near Lancaster one day while returning from Los Angeles .   Drinking was the cause of her accident, more than likely.  She had very little cash on her when she got to the Picker Brothers Garage asking them to repair her vehicle,  and they weren’t the type of place to favor credit.  Hattie quickly put up her massive diamond ring for security and identified herself as one of the Red Mountain girls.  The mechanics immediately began doing the repair work she needed done.

          One Red Mountain bartender remembered most of the working girls of Red Mountain as brunettes, with only a few redheads, and no blondes.  They never stayed long and were always on the move, looking for better money and better living conditions.   Some did stay on, married and made good wives.  For the most part they stayed to themselves, and away from the decent women of the community.   A wife in Randsburg even noted “They were a high class girl for the type they were.”

Life is not a bed of Roses

         Life as a prostitute, of course, was not all rosy and grand, even in Red Mountain , where the law looked the other way.  Shootings and brawls often broke out.  One girl, who went by the name “Arkansaw”, enjoyed many of the older miners as her regulars, but was jealous of a particular miner who came in and treated all the girls, and did not dote specifically on her.  The man went to Los Angeles for a few days, then came back to have “Arkansaw” give him a hard time for drinking and not treating her to one.  His reply  was “I don’t have to treat you whores any longer; I’ve got my own woman now.”  A stranger  got after him for his slander, and demanded an apology from him.  Of course he offered none, and was shot.  

        In Randsburg, an innocent girl came to town answering an ad for a honkytonk.  It didn’t take her long to realize that the job she had applied for was not what she had been expecting.  She stayed behind locked doors, refusing to open them for anyone.  Some of the miners realized the mistake she had made, and sent for her brother, who came in to town making discreet inquiries, hoping not to create a commotion.  He posed as a customer and asked to be shown the new girl.  When the girl realized it was her brother, she let him in and they began figuring out how she could escape. Unfortunately, the house madam figured out what was going on,  and sent a bouncer named “Big Mitch” to her room.  The bouncer and the madam hollered outside the door, threatening to break the door down and kill both the girl and her brother if they didn’t let them in.  The door began to splinter as they pounded on it creating an opening.   The brother drew his gun,  and fired at “Big Mitch”, then grabbed his sister and they ran away.  It was said that when “Big Mitch’s” bouncing days were over, and he cashed in his last chips, no one but the madam cared.  She insisted her employee’s killer be put to trial.  Judge Wynne was hired as the defense lawyer in the case, self-defense was pled, and the young girl’s brother was acquitted of the charges. The madam was enraged, and vowed to kill Judge Wynne.          

          Little remains in Garlock today, and even less in Goler.  A drive through Red Mountain and Randsburg and you will see the places like The Owl, The Silver Dollar, The White House, and the Joint are still open for a drink or a bite to eat, as well as lively conversation with prospectors old and new but the red light ladies are long gone.  Visit these towns on a quiet week day when the tourists and ohv’ers are not crowding the streets and you may faintly hear the girls and the miners, the strains of  music laughter, singing and perhaps the sounds of a brawl and gunshots, as the gusty winds whistle through the lonely desert streets.


Desert Bonanza

by Marcia Rittenhouse Wynn

The Arthur H. Clark Company

Glendale, California

Out of Print  


Gold Gamble

by Roberta Martin Starry

Engler Publishing

George N. Engler & Associates

Now available through www.amazon.com

Special thanks to Daphne Worsham, Robin Flinchum, and David A. Wright for helping with research and inspiring me.  Thanks to Marty, for the pictures of downtown Randsburg!  


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