Monday, October 29, 2012

Calico Ghost Town

The town of Calico, now abandoned (sort-of), is a ghost town in more ways than one.

Portions of the old abandoned town of Calico have been re-built and are now a regional historic park in San Bernardino County.  The setting, in the Calico Hills in the California portion of the Mojave Desert, seems eerie and otherwordly at the best of times.  And, naturally, the old town is said to be haunted.

Among the ghosts of Calico are Lucy Lane, who was born in Bismark - which overlooked Calico - and married John Robert Lane when she was 18.  The Lane's ran the general store, but left Calico when it was in decline in the late 19th century, only to return again in 1916, and take up residence in several different buildings throughout the remained of her long life (she lived to the age of 93).  Her spectre is said to have been spotted walking between the last house in which she lived (now a museum dedicated to the Lanes) and the store that she and her husband ran, wearing a black lace dress (which, naturally, many people hold is the dress in which she was buried).  Also, her rocking chair in that final house is said to often start rocking on its own.  Also, people working in the store have reported seeing movement out of the corner of their eyes, as well as hearing odd sounds, all of which is naturally credited to Lucy.

The Lane Museum, Lucy Lane's final home

The school house, which occupies the highest spot in town, is said to be another hot spot for spectral activity.  Some visitors have reported seeing a small, moving ball of red light (sometimes said to emit a beam of white light from within it) within the school house; and numerous visitors claim to have seen both female adults (thought to be school teachers) as well as children, all in late 19th-century clothes, through the windows of the school.  One very common sighting is that of a girl, aged 11 or 12, who is primarily seen by children and teenagers, appears in the window and seems to be aware of passers-by, though she vanishes mysteriously.

Calico schoolhouse, and the bridge crossing the gully to it
One story holds that two British tourists visited the schoolhouse, where they interacted with a costumed staff member who was playing the part of a school teacher.  They had their picture taken with her, but, upon having the film developed, discovered that she did not appear in the photos.  Follow up inquiries found that there had been no costumed staff members at the school on that day.

At the old hotel, people report feeling unseen hands grabbing, pulling, and (in one case) punching them.

Hank's Hotel, where you can get groped or assaulted by a ghost

The mines were dangerous, if sometimes rewarding, places to work, and so it is no surprise that many men met their ends there.  It is, perhaps, even less of a surprise that many people believe these tunnels and shafts to be haunted by the spirits of the past workers.

Looking out from one of the old mine tunnels
While intriguing, and rather creepy (having been in one of the tunnels, myself), I must admit that I am a bit disappointed by what is said about the mine tunnels.  It's vague, non-specific stuff about weird uneasy feelings and cold spots (which, really, is not uncommon underground).  In the midst of these much more wonderful stories about apparitions and strange phenomenon, can't help but be something of a letdown.

Other ghosts said to haunt Calico include the apparition of "Tumbleweed" Harris, the last marshal of Calico (whose tombstone int he cemetery is pictured above); Dorsey the mail-carrying dog (subject of a Kenny Rogers song), whose specter has been reported at the Calico cemetery; a ghost named Esmeralda who is said to haunt the old theater (now a mineral shop); and a mysterious woman in white who wanders the outskirts of town.  And, of course, there are numerous claims of feeling as if one is being watched, people just glimpsed out of the corner of one's eyes, weird smoke-like mists, and the now-ubiquitous claims of "shadow people."  All in all, Calico is rich in ghostly as well as historic lore.

Commentary: Calico was founded in 1881 by a group of miners who headed into the local mountains looking for silver. Within two years, the town had grown to house around 1,200 residents, had 500 mines, and the usual accompaniments of a successful old west town (justice of the peace, post office, hotels,restaurants, numerous brothels, etc.). Before long, Colemanite borate (an ore of Boron that can be purified, and can itself be used for the manufacture of glasses, medicines, cosmetics, as well as for numerous industrial processes). The town swelled to 3,500 people, with settlers from both Europe and Asia joining the American settlers. However, the Silver Purchase Act of 1890 had the effect of reducing the price of silver. As the decade wore on, Calico's silver mines became less economically viable, and the town began to depopulate. By 1898, the post office shut down, followed by the school, and the town was pretty much abandoned by 1900.

 In 1915, an attempt was made to recover unclaimed silver from the old mines, using cyanidation (a metallurgical process for the extraction ore using the chemical properties for cyanide). While this did result in the brief resurgence of silver mining, it did not cause Calico to boom again. In 1951, Walter Knott, of Knott's Berry Farm, bought Calico and began restoring many of the buildings. While the purchase of historic buildings by the wealthy is hardly unusual, this was a unique turn in two ways: 1) Walter Knott had, as a young man, been a local homesteader and helped to build the cyanidation facilities, and 2) he turned it into a historic park with restored buildings, repaired or re-built based on old plans and photographs, and donated it to the County of San Bernardino in 1966.

 So, that is the history, but what is one to make of the ghost stories? Certainly, people may well have had strange experiences here, but a few things should be kept in mind when evaluating these tales of dread. As is the case with California's missions, western ghost towns are among the few signs of antiquity on California's relatively young European-historic landscape. As such, they tend to attract tales of ghosts, as they are among the few places/objects that most Californians will encounter that seem old and semi-mysterious.

 Another part of the equation is that tourism is both important to the local economy, and increasingly harder to come by. Calico is located off of the appropriately named Ghost Town Road just off of Interstate 15, one of the major thoroughfares between southern California and Las Vegas. The region was once an important stopping-off point for travelers on Route 66, but as the Interstate Freeway system has become more efficient (and cars more comfortable), sight-seeing road trips have taken a backseat to those travelling to get to a particular destination. As a result, the old reliable stopping places along the way have had to step up the razzle-dazzle in order to get travelers to pause for a bit and check things out.  In this context, it shouldn't surprise us to see a historic park playing up local ghost stories in order to bring in more travelers - and indeed, when I visited in October, of 2012, the entire place was done up with, frankly, very tacky prop skeletons and ghosts in order to advertise the various "haunted" events.

All of which makes it difficult to tease out what people have actually experienced from the hype.  Still, without the hype, I'd likely not have been made aware of the stories, so there is that for which one might be grateful.

The sign pointing to the ghost town, photographed after sunset

Sources:  Legends of America, Paranormal California, Calico Ghost Walk