October 2015 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts









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Friends of

Cerro Gordo

The Friends of Cerro Gordo is a 501(c)(3) public benefit corporation established to assist in the preservation, interpretation and public enjoyment of Cerro Gordo.

Help support these efforts by becoming a member.

Click on the FOCG logo (above) for additional information and to join or make a donation.

Membership is only $10.

Now Available

Cerro Gordo

A Ghost Town

Caught Between


Cecile Page Vargo's collection of Cerro Gordo stories, true, farce and somewhere in between, is being published in a new book, Cerro Gordo A Ghost Town Caught Between Centuries.

ISBN: 978-0970025869

The book gives glimpses of Cerro Gordo from the silver and lead mining days through the early twentieth century zinc era to its modern place as, according to author Phil Varney, "Southern California's best, true, ghost town." There's even a possible solution to the location of the fabled "Lost Gunsight Mine" that former Cerro Gordo owner Mike Patterson once suggested.

We are proud to team with the Historical Society of the Upper Mojave Desert (HSUMD) in Ridgecrest, Calif., to bring Cerro Gordo A Ghost Town Caught Between Centuries to print. This is their first major publishing venture. The book is  available for sale directly from HSUMD or through selected book sellers.

Contact HSUMD directly to order:

P.O. Box 2001, Ridgecrest, CA. 93556-2001.

Phone: 760 375-8456

Email: hsumd@ridgenet.net

Announcing our Arcadia Publishing Book:



Cerro Gordo

by Cecile Page Vargo and Roger W. Vargo

ISBN: 9780738595207

Arcadia Publishing Images of America series

Price: $21.99

128 pages/ softcover

Available now!

(Click the cover image for ordering information)

Available at area bookstores, independent retailers, and online retailers, or through Arcadia Publishing at (888)-313-2665 or online.

Mules can taste the difference--so can you

Friends of Last Chance Canyon is a new organization interested in sustaining and protecting areas within the El Paso Mountains, near Ridgecrest, California. The main focus is preserving and protecting historic sites like Burro Schmidt's tunnel and the Walt Bickel Camp.

Please click on either logo to visit the FLCC site.

We support

Bodie Foundation
"Protecting Bodie's Future by Preserving Its Past


Click on Room 8's photo or phone

951-361-2205 for more information.


The Panamint Breeze is a newsletter for people who love the rough and rugged deserts and mountains of California and beyond.

Published by Ruth and Emmett Harder, it is for people who are interested in the history of mining in the western states; and the people who had the fortitude to withstand the harsh elements.

It contains stories of the past and the present; stories of mining towns and the colorful residents who lived in them; and of present day adventurers.

Subscriptions are $20 per year (published quarterly – March, June, September & December) Subscriptions outside the USA are $25 per year. All previous issues are available. Gift certificates are available also.

To subscribe mail check (made payable to Real Adventure Publishing) along with name, address, phone number & e-mail address to:  Real Adventure Publishing, 18201 Muriel Avenue, San Bernardino, CA 92407.

For more information about the Panamint Breeze e-mail Ruth at:  echco@msn.com

It's always FIRE SEASON! Click the NIFC logo above to see what's burning.

Visit Michael Piatt's site, www.bodiehistory.com, for the truth behind some of Bodie's myths.

Credo Quia Absurdum




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 the website and enjoy our armchair adventures and the histories behind them.



Introducing Robin Flinchum and the Red Light Ladies of Death Valley

by Cecile Page Vargo

Back in the days before the invention of MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and the other social media which have taken over our lives and become our primary way of communicating with each other, a group of backcountry explorers and desert, ghost town and mining camp history lovers banded together on a website site called death-valley.us.

Early in 2003 Robin Flinchum, from Tecopa, joined the group and the discussions quickly turned to historic literature on the areas we loved, and the history of the women. Robin and I eventually got to meet each other in person and shared a few adventures in various parts of the desert. I introduced her to Tonie Segar of Burro Schmitt’s Tunnel, and she landed what turned out to be the last recorded interview with Tonie, then months later Robin and I stood side by side singing Amazing Grace at Tonie’s memorial service.

Robin pays tribute to Nancy Williams at her Darwin gravesite (L) and poses with Cecile and Maggie at Lola's cribs in Cerro Gordo.

Robin was working on a history of the red light ladies of Death Valley, so I introduced her to Cerro Gordo and its ladies, Maggie Moore and Lola Travis. Her passion and thorough research brought Lola Travis to life as she found historical documents, and living relatives of the demimonde of the famous silver mining town in the Inyo Mountains. I still remember vividly the dark and chilly night she spent in the remnants of one of Lola’s cribs from her Palace of Pleasure, and I will never forget when she and I presented Mike Patterson with the only known picture of Lola as a respectable woman in her senior years.

Robin and Cecile pose in the doorway of one Rhyolite's buildings.


Though there were many miles between Robin and I, the magic of the computer age, emails, and death-valley.us gave us the opportunity to become fast friends and share our historical resources, as well as adventures together. In addition to the women of Cerro Gordo, we travelled to Darwin and placed flowers on the grave of Nancy Williams, and on to Rhyolite on the other side of Death Valley to pay our respects to Panamint Annie and others buried in near by Bullfrog. We explored Rhyolite for its red light district and stood together on the site of one of the brothels. With Robin’s encouragement I followed her to the Death Valley History Conference, where we each presented separate papers, and in my case, my public speaking and writing career began thanks to her. 

Robin’s research and writing became a self-published series of pamphlets she entitled Death Valley Red Light Chronicles, introducing the brave women who chose an alternate way of life to make ends meet in a bygone age in the mining towns and camps of  of Death Valley and surrounding areas during a time when there were few possibilities for women to make a living on their own. Over the years Robin’s dedication to her book was set aside as she took time out for husband and family, but she never forgot the ladies that she had gotten to know as she time travelled through history.

Recently, Robin started on the history trail again and found more information to add to her old archives. In some cases she had to pick her brain to find the old archives, or figure out where she had gotten the information from. As it all came together again, she presented a proposal to a publisher, and today I am happy to announce that my dear friend and mentor, Robin Flinchum, has published her complete chronicle of the prostitutes and madams in a new book entitled Red Light Women of Death Valley published by The History Press, available on Amazon and at selected book stores, museums, and visitor centers in and around Death Valley and Owens Valley.

Robin will speak about her work and have book signings at:

Author Talk and Book Signing

Eastern California Museum (Independence)

Saturday, October 24, 1-4 PM

Shoshone's Old West Days
Shoshone Museum
Friday, October 30, 6 PM

Death Valley History Conference
(Requires a paid registration)
Saturday, November 7, 11 AM

Friends of the Library
Pahrump Community Library
Saturday, November 21

In honor of Robin and her works, which include stories of Lola Travis, Petra Romero, Martha Camp, Nancy Williams, Mona Bell, Diamond Tooth Lil, and more, this month’s Explore Historic California re-visits our ghostly encounter with Lola Travis at Cerro Gordo (EHC, August 2011).



Today & Yesterday: The Life and Times

of Cerro Gordo

by Cecile Page Vargo

The old green Toyota 4Runner headed up modern highways that vaguely traced the routes of freight wagons heavy laden with bullion and supplies that helped to waken a sleepy Los Angeles and turn it into a thriving metropolis.  The way was quick and easy with light to moderate traffic and warm breeze, as the couple reached the almost halfway point of Mojave. Street names of Belshaw, Cerro Gordo, Nadeau and Panamint stood in tribute to the people and places that bridged modern city and the forgotten mining camps that built it. Gas stations, sit down and fast food restaurants and railroad tracks blocked the view of most of the historic named street signs.

Fourteen and one half months had passed since their last visit to the mountain that was once so rich in silver the bars sat stacked up waiting to be transported around the now dry lake bed and down the same paths they had just come up. Obligations at home, and in the mining town several hours further up the highway than the one they were headed to, had stalled intended visits. But the old camp high on the Fat Hill called to them, and at last they were at the intersection of the highway, and the dirt road getting ready for the ascend up the famous Yellow Grade Road.

They made the turn onto the dirt and went up it a short way, then paused for a brief moment as the dust kicked up ahead of them and muffled the sounds and view of the long train of mules with their jingle-belled collars, and thunderous hoofs, pulling blue painted wagons. Within a blink of an eye the dust cleared, and there was nothing there but empty shale covered dirt road. They started the 4Runner, two or three times, with no luck and realized they were stalled. A look under the hood, and several more attempts, and they managed to turn around and go back to the highway. The 4Runner stalled again, and then suddenly found new life once they hit the pavement and headed towards the nearest semblance of a town where they wound up waiting four hours for parts to be delivered before they could turn around and attempt the Yellow Grade again.

The second turn up the dirt road from the pavement five hours later was successful. They paused at the spot the dirt had kicked up and brought history to them earlier in the day. But the portal to the past had closed, and they continued up the steep and often rocky and winding road. At the top of the mountain, the Fat Hill, Cerro Gordo, awaited them, the handful of struggled architectures standing much as they had left them so many months before.  

Panoramic view of Cerro Gordo townsite (center) and Union Mine (right) looking northeast.

The days were long and quiet with only few four wheel drive vehicles daring to wander up to hear the stories the couple had to offer.  They puttered around, dusting and sweeping the old hotel and museum, scavenging for more histories as they did so. The time past slowly, with an occasional hike and a good cooked meal and lots of speculative conversations between them. A collection of old pictures from a little known era, entertained them.  It was well and good, in spite of the lonesomeness.

It was the last evening of their stay, and their bellies were full of his cooking. They cleaned up the dishes and left over food, then pulled up chairs on the long narrow porch of the red painted building said to be the home of one of the mining moguls during the big

The 4Runner parked in front of the red painted Belshaw House.

heyday. The warmth of the day had chilled with the setting of the sun and the wind kick up. A mouse played peek-a-boo on the porch steps as the darkness set in. A heaven full of stars provided all the light they needed, as they sat there.  It was so quiet, you could almost hear the entire population of 1872 in their nighttime activities, laughter, singing, angry shouting, a gun shot or two, and the tinny sounds of saloon pianos.  An occasional shooting star lit the town all the more, and the breeze would still for a moment, proving it was all just a dream of by gone days, and the mountain echo playing games with their own voices.

He looked at the watch on his wrist, and announced he was ready to call it a night. She nodded her head and stood up as he did. He headed straight for the bedroom and was soon snoring.  She tended to closing down the old house for the night, then joined him under the patchwork quilt that covered the canopied bed. She laid awake, her head on the pillow face up, and her thoughts to keep her company.

The minutes slowly went by turning to hours, and she was surely not having any luck with the histories and tales that kept going through her mind keeping her from slumber. Something compelled her to get up, and look out the oval pane of the front door. The moon had come round giving the town an eerie glow, and shadows swayed with the still going breeze. One particular shadow appeared to have four legs and two heads, and was fast coming up the hill and thundering past the house rattling the floorboards underneath her bare feet, and shaking the windows. A whirlwind, she thought.

The whirlwind laughed wickedly at her as she turned to go back to bed. The house jolted with a loud noise, and the windows of the house lit up like daylight for a brief moment, then she swore she heard more laughter and shouts…and gunshots. “An earthquake!” she screamed, waking her husband. The house jolted again mildly, and her husband now awake, replied, “Mine cave-in!”

He grabbed his clothes and scrambled outside with her. A red glow appeared at the north end of town lighting the broken down tramway trestle. He was out on the street and headed towards it up the hill, when he heard her scream behind him. In her haste, she had tripped on the old wooden porch steps, and was flat on her face.

He turned back to offer her hand. She was sitting up in a mild state of shock, her face smudged here and there with blood. “I’ve broken my noise…” she said, then wiped her lip with her tongue and tasted blood.  Her jaw felt as if it had slammed into her brain. He laughed at her, and wiped her up with his shirt.  “Your bruised, and your tooth is chipped, but your fine…” he assessed to her dismay.  She whimpered a little, then took his hand for help up. Her knees shook so she couldn’t stop them. But it wasn’t her knees, it was the ground again, and there were more loud noises and light coming from the buildings under that tram. “Let’s go!” he said, and held her hand as they made way up the hill towards the commotion.

A warm glow emanates from the site of Lola's "cribs" under a starry sky at Cerro Gordo. 

The assay office and the whore house cribs stood beneath the broken tramway. The shaking and the noise had stopped, and the bright glare was gone. The only sign that anything had gone on was a faint red light bleeding out the back of the two cribs. The wind kicked up around them, the dust flew, and the two headed four legged shadow turned into a horse with an elegantly dressed Hispanic woman.  Her laughter echoed as she hopped off her horse, tethered it, and stood before them. 

“Welcome to Lola’s,” she said. 

They rubbed their eyes and tried to wish the view away.  Surely, it wasn’t possible.  “C’mon,” Lola said, “Join me inside.”

They followed her past the cribs and to buildings that were non-existent in the light of day. She opened the door and took them inside, pointing each of them to seats at a long bar.  She went behind it, grabbed a bottle and took a swig, then offered them each one.

“Haven’t been here in years, but the place doesn’t look too bad,” she laughed. “A little dusty, and lonely, but the liquor is still stocked and well aged. Looks like you modern caretakers have been doing your job.”

They each took their swigs, not to offend, and sat there with eyes affixed on Lola Travis, the infamous proprietor of the Palace of Pleasure.  A million questions ran through their heads, but their tongues wouldn’t cooperate to ask them. Lola’s deep brown eyes twinkled, and there was a glimmer of a smile, contrary to the mean demeanor that she was notorious for.  She threw back her full of head of black curls.

Her accent was thick, but understandable as she began her tale. “I was thirteen years old when I arrived in Sonora, on the western side of the Sierras. Came all the way from Chihuahua, Mexico with my little brothers. It was 1850. I left Florentino and Martin with a young woman at the boarding house I found to live in, and found work in one of the colorful Fandango halls and managed to keep my siblings fed and clothed. Florentino was 4, and Martin was 3.  Florentino had a taste for the gold and silver, and we followed it. I met Granillo and married him, and he gave me three children, two girls and a boy, and then he died. So we followed Florentino to the mines.”

“I had some financial backing thanks to a shrewd business sense, and many hours in the Fandango halls. While Florentino tried his hand at prospecting, I bought property and put up a saloon and a house in Lone Pine on the Eastern side of the Sierras.”

Lola paused and took another swig from the bottle, then passed it around to the couple. As they took their turns with the bottle she began again. ”The money was good, but not good enough. The silver coming out of the mountain looked more promising. So I followed Florentino to the mining camp high on the mountain. As quick as the miners could make their wages in the mines of Mr. Beaudry and Mr. Belshaw and I drained them of it right here with my fine whiskeys and my beautiful girls.”

The light from a lamp on the bar flickered as Lola spoke, occasionally shimmering on the many chains of gold jewelry she wore on her neck and on her wrists. He fingers fumbled with the fine bracelets. “It was a hard life, but I was tough. I raised my siblings and my children with a hard hand.  They didn’t understand at the time, but as they grew older it made sense to them, and they grew up well. The camp was rowdy, and the men and my girls could be bad.

There were fights, and bloodshed, but I kept the children away from it, as best I could, and managed a good reputation in a bad sort of way.”  Her deep voice segued to a wicked laugh that haunted the night.  Another swig, and a wipe of her face, “I made my riches, moved on and eventually retiring respectable in Bakersfield well into my 70’s.”  She laughed again, ”And my legacy lived on-few knowing what my past really was.”

The bottle was passed across the bar once again. As the man reached to take it, the wind kicked up, and a bolt of lightening lit up the tram in the distance. Everything shook violently and they held on to the bar. The fire went out on the lamp, and Lola began to fade before them. Suddenly it was morning, and the sun was in their faces, shining through the bedroom window of the house they called theirs during their visits to the mountain.  Between them on the quilt was a copy of “The Life and Times of Cerro Gordo’s Lola Travis” by Robin Flinchum. Lola’s elderly portrait on the cover seemed to snicker at them, as they noticed it lying there.

Editor's note: While we can't promise any visits from mule teams or long dead madams, Cerro Gordo is an interesting destination for a day visit. The townsite is located in the Inyo Mountains, eight miles east of Keeler off Highway 136 in Inyo County, California, near Lone Pine. Visiting hours are daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission, including a town tour and history is $10 per person.  Cerro Gordo is privately owned and a caretaker is there 24/7.


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