January 2007 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts






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Explore Historic California!

     Not too many years ago, the family station wagon was the magic carpet to adventure. Today, that family station wagon is likely to be a four wheel drive sport utility vehicle or pick up truck. SUV's and other 4x4's are one of the best selling classes of vehicles. Ironically, industry statistics show that once purchased, few owners will dare to drive their vehicles off the paved highway. Click your mouse through our website and enjoy our armchair adventures and the histories behind them. If you are interested in taking one of our guided tours with your vehicle, please contact us at: info@explorehistoricalif.com.

     Several years ago, we bought our first SUV. We went to a one-night class at a local community college entitled "How to 4-Wheel Drive" by Harry Lewellyn. The following weekend we attended the hands-on day tour. We liked what we were doing so much that we began going out nearly every weekend and learned how to negotiate a variety of dirt roads. Our spare time was spent doing research on the history and ecology of our favorite areas. A one-day outing turned into 16 years of leading others on mini-vacations throughout Southern California and the Owens Valley.

     Our 4WD outings involve driving on easy to moderate dirt roads and are ideally suited to novice and intermediate level drivers. All tours are suitable for stock vehicles in good condition, although some tours do have vehicle size restrictions.

     Our tours are operated under permits issued by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and other authorities.

     We share our knowledge of the backcountry over the CB radio with our guests. We frequently stop to explore mining areas, old and new, and ponder the rocks, plants and animals we may encounter. We'll occasionally visit an old cabin or deserted mountain lookout.

     California has a fascinating history, from geologic unrest and prehistoric petroglyph scribes to the "Radium Queen of the Mojave" and the "Human Mole of Black Mountain." Load up your 4X, fasten your seatbelts and get ready to explore historic California.

Roger, Cecile and Marty

At the End of the Road---Yesterday

 Story and photos by Robert C. Likes

NOTE:  This story was originally written for Desert Magazine, but never published.  In Likes’ words, the story is “only a window exposing a trip taken forty-three years ago, through a canyon called Surprise, on a road that no longer exists.  For those accepting the challenge, the reward at the end of the road was priceless.  I find it interesting those magic moments can no longer be duplicated.  A historic passage that was maintained for more than a hundred years is forever closed to the traffic it was built to carry.” 

          When the misguided emigrants of 1849 managed to escape from Death Valley on route to the gold fields of California, they told anyone who would listen of their desperate struggle to survive the hardships encountered in that “hell hole”.  Despite stories of pure silver in the mountains west of this valley, the region was given such an evil reputation it remained unexplored and cursed for years.  Only after the Comstock Lode silver strike in Nevada in 1858 were these forgotten stories of treasures revisited.  Exploring parties were organized to backtrack the forty-niners and thoroughly prospect this section of the Mojave Desert.  Darwin French headed a party of fifteen men to explore the area from Owens Valley east to Death Valley in 1860.  Dr. S. G. George lead another party into the same area in 1861, but devoted more time searching the Panamint Mountains that form the western wall of Death Valley.

The Panamint City smelter's smokestack as seen in 1963. It is one of the few surviving structures today.

          Although these exploration parties were successful in mapping this previously uncharted region of California and naming many of the landmarks, the legendary bonanza of silver in the Panamints remained just that¼a legend.  Several rich mineral deposits were discovered in other sections of the desert, but the mysterious mountains west of “the big sink” retained their secret.  It was not until another decade had passed that silver was found in the Panamint Mountains, but not on, or even near, any of the routes taken by the forty-niners in their frantic departure from Death Valley.  The rich veins of silver were discovered just below the crest line on the west side of the mountain range, south of Telescope Peak.

          The year was 1873, and at the head of Surprise Canyon, at an elevation of more than 6,000 feet, a legend was born.

          It is interesting to note the first man to scale Telescope Peak was W. T. Henderson, a member of the previously mentioned Dr. George, party.  Henderson named the peak because “he could see for 200 miles in all directions as clearly as though a telescope”.  Yet the elusive silver they searched for was discovered twenty years later only two and a half miles from the lofty peak where Henderson stood.

          Several books and numerous articles have been written about the brief, but colorful history of Panamint City.  They usually begin by telling you how the town rose and fell in short span of three years, and its’ population never exceed three thousand.  They describe how the mile long main street of fifty structures boosted mostly of saloons, and give lengthy accounts of robberies and killings, concluding, like the town, most of her citizens were as far from law and order as you could get.  They inform you Panamint City’s mines never paid off as silver producers, that more money was put into the ground than was ever taken out, and when the rich surface ores disappeared, so did most of her people.  They tell about sudden cloud burst that sent a wall of water down the canyon, destroying what was left of the dying community.  They usually close by saying the ruins of a smelter and a few stone buildings are all that is left to see.

          And they are right¼.almost.

          Only one road went to Panamint City in 1874, and it still can be found a mile north of the adobe ruins of Ballarat on a windswept alluvial fan made of sedimentary fill left from a million winter storms.  A good dirt road takes you steadily up from the valley floor and soon deposits you at the wide entrance to Surprise Canyon.  Staying to the south side and above the deep gorge whose perpendicular banks of sand and rocks were carved by raging flash floods, the road moves deeper into the canyon until it reaches one of the true oases in this part of the desert.  This is Cris Wicht’s camp.  The cool water in the large pond comes from a spring that runs year round.  The trees and abundant growth of greenery are in stark contrast to the barren, inhospitable country around it.  The abandoned wooden structures are relics of a mining effort made here in the early 1900’s, and have no relationship to the Panamint City era.

A pickup makes its way through the confines of Surprise Canyon in 1963. The route today is impassible with ordinary vehicles, and closed to vehicular access.

          The road continues on, dipping down into the very bottom of the gorge, and the towering canyon walls quickly close in as if objecting to its’ presence there.  The grade begins to rise sharply as the road gets down to business of gaining altitude.  You twist and climb for several miles between solid rock walls scarcely sixteen feet apart.  Willows growing on the right complete with the road for room in the narrow passageway.  The confining sides of the canyon open slightly, but the steep grade continues as the road relentlessly seeks its’ destination.  Water seepage into the canyon makes traction on the exposed bedrock difficult.  The miles pass slowly, and the rising temperature gauge of your vehicle gets more frequent glances.  Suddenly, the canyon widens and the grade eases, then rounding a turn, the road finally delivers you into one of the most remote locations in which a town was ever born.  Your first reaction upon arriving is relief, followed closely by admiration for the caliber of men that drove stagecoaches and freight-wagons on daily trips through that canyon.

          The road moves gently up through the middle of what seems to be a large, long box canyon.  Roofless stone cabins can be seen clinging to the slopes on either side.  Other ruins, half filled with rock and soil, are scattered about the floor of the canyon.  These picturesque dwellings dot the landscape for half a mile, and provide an insight into living conditions that existed for some of Panamint City’s less fortunate citizens.  Although small and primitive, they were well constructed with mortar, indicating their occupants were planning to stay.

          Another area on the south side is terraced.  Narrow rock pathways that substituted for streets, carried men and beast in between crowed living quarters of tents and hastily built wooden structures.  The large number of these terraced sites suggests the speed at which the town grew.  With limited space on the canyon floor, the population had to seek less inviting locations to set up housekeeping.

          The smelter and mill ruins at the eastern end of the canyon dominate the scene, drawing you like a magnet.  And well it should, for it was literally the very heart of the town.  When it stopped beating, Panamint City died.  Standing like a sentinel keeping watch over the ruins, the remaining brick chimney rises eighty-five feet in the air like an obelisk memorializing an amazing achievement.  You wander through the maze of carefully bricked passages and beautifully formed arches, and marvel at the talent and knowledge that went into the construction of this structure in such a wild and isolated location.

View of old structures and smelter as seen in Panamint City in 1963.

          Camp is made early in the evening on high ground.  After dinner you enjoy a hot cup of coffee and watch the last traces of daylight quickly fade behind the distant Argus Mountains, barely visible through the v-notch at the west end of the canyon.  The purple and dark blue silhouettes of the canyon wall surrounding you are curtains to the outside world.  You watch the layer of dark clouds closing in, and make a mental note there might be rain before morning.  You wonder how many other uneasy nights were spent in the buildings that lined Panamint City’s only street because they were also aware of their vulnerable position on the canyon floor.

          Dawn finds you trying to shake the stiffness from your body while waiting for that first welcome cup of coffee.  The clouds are already breaking up overhead, and by the time breakfast is finished, the north walls of the deep canyon are bathed in bright sunlight.  They stand out boldly against the blue sky, challenging man to invade their lofty heights just as they did nearly a hundred years ago.  And invade them man did, for all the mines   were located on the pine covered ridges high above Panamint City.  Their location alone is vivid testimony to the strength and endurance of the men who worked them.  

          The slanting rays of the sun chase the last chilling shadows from the canyon, and you take time to leisurely roam the boulder strewn ruins.  It is not hard to imagine the incredible volume of churning water, laced with crushing rocks and vegetation, that came roaring down upon the town.  The abruptly rising ridges that hem the entire length of the canyon allowed no escape.  Had not the mines closed down, and the town been deserted, the incident would have been disastrous, but as it was, nature was merely burying Panamint City's ghost.

          This is the Panamint City I knew.  A ruin that rewards its visitors with a better understanding of the cold statistics recorded in the pages of history.  A place that gives you the deep thrill of standing in the shadow of time knowing yesterday is just a touch away.  A land that confronts us with the same challenges it did our forefathers so we might have a greater respect for their accomplishments¼¼.and a tolerance for their weakness.

          If you are one of the restless few who enjoy following the dim trails in search of yesterday¼¼welcome to Panamint City.


Robert C. Likes, along with Glenn R. Day, is the author of FROM THIS MOUNTAIN---Cerro Gordo. Known over the CB as “Ramrod”, Likes traveled the dusty trails of yesterday more than four decades ago as president of the Ghost Town club of Atomics International, which later became Rockwell International. Some of his traveling companions at the time were engineers and scientists who built the rocket engines that propelled U.S. spacecraft to the moon.

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Visit Panamint Charlie's website for more Panamint City history.



The Desert

 A poem by David Likes









Beneath heated blue, distant memories exist
Amidst scents of mesquite and wildflower bloom
Parrying about in corners of our minds
They un-shadow themselves, from time-to-time

 And with slightest urge

 They emerged to us, once again found
Off apparitioned mines of forgotten shafts
Off purpled bottles from weathered ground
Off Joshua Trees and old Topo maps
They summon us, to once again come 'round

 And as we always will

 We return to places, kept well in thought
Off whiskey bottles and tumbleweeds
Off  Mojave heat and ghost towns sought
Off Devil's Rope and blistered feet bled
We return again, and again, as is our lot

 As desert winds call

 They beckon to us, and summon us to fate
Off cracklin' campfires and star-filled skies
Off CB tethered caravans, to keep us straight
Off pear blossoms and dry-gully drives
They beg us, a plead, before it's too late

 Santa Ana whispers their names

Off arid summer breeze
Cerro Gordo
Wafting sage scented tease

Years lost in pillowed dreams
Where fatigued minds are washed
In cold Sierra streams
Where sons of pioneers linger
Among fire-lit sing-a-long
Where Marty Robbins dies
Of Felina's love, so strong
Where Lorne Greene still sings
Of 16 Tons and what you'll get
And John Wayne still rides
Another Alabama Hills sunset the desert!


NOTE: David Likes is the son of Robert C. Likes and dedicated this poem to his father, "A strong and principled man that gave his family the opportunity, and in-doing-so, the learned ability, to notice and appreciate all things small but meaningful, even in the stark environment of  The Desert.  Robert C. Likes is also a published author of the book From This Mountain, a contributing writer to Desert Magazine, accomplished and award winning artist (oils), a husband to my mother for some 55 years and a father of three that stood his ground and never walked away."

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