Thursday, November 11, 2021

HGB Ep. 410 - Cerro Gordo Ghost Town

Moment in Oddity - The Steamboat Arabia

The Arabia Steamboat Museum is found in Missouri and remembers the Steamboat Arabia tragedy. The Steamboat Arabia was built in Pennsylvania in 1853. The steamboat spent its time transporting passengers along the Missouri River and she also carried cargo like merchandise for stores and the mail. The Arabia didn't  work very long as she sank on September 5, 1856. The Missouri River was a treacherous river and one of the biggest dangers were fallen trees that were hard to see because they would lie just under the surface of the water. On that fateful day, the Arabia hit one of those trees and sank in a matter of minutes. The 150 passengers and crew on board managed to make it to safety, so no one died. Over time, the Missouri River shifted. That didn't reveal the Arabia though as it had sunk 45 feet underground. A group of four men led an effort in 1988 to excavate the steamboat and they found a large collection of pre-Civil War artifacts and glass bottles that still held their contents. Some of those contents were preserved pie fruit and pickles. One of the excavators ate some of the preserved pickles and found them to not only be edible, but still fresh and that, certainly is odd!

This Month in History - Sistine Chapel Opens to the Public

In the month of November, on the 1st, in 1512, the Sistine Chapel ceiling opens to the public. The Sistine Chapel is the chief consecrated space in the Vatican and someone very talented was needed to paint frescoes on the ceiling. Michelangelo, the greatest Italian Renaissance artist in human history, got the call from Rome in 1508. He had started his life in art at the age of thirteen working as an artist's apprentice. His talent was soon discovered and nurtured. Michelangelo crafted such works as the Pieta and David before he was called to paint the ceiling of the chapel. The frescoes he created were epic and featured nine panels of Biblical history, starting with The Creation of the World. Other panels feature the Creation of Adam with God and Adam stretching their arms out towards each other, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and Noah and the Flood. Figures from the Old Testament can be found along the sides of the panels and Michelangelo used fictive architectural molding and supporting statues to pull everything together. The work took four years to complete and is a masterpiece.

Cerro Gordo Ghost Town (Suggested by: Julie Shjandemaar)

The ghost town of Cerro Gordo is found in California's Inyo Mountains. This fairly prosperous mining town was established in the mid-1800s and had been mostly abandoned for decades. New life was breathed into it recently after being purchased in 2018 for almost $1.5 million. This mining camp had been a dangerous place to live. People died from gunfights, disease and mining accidents. And now it would seem that spirits still remain because of all those deaths. Join us as we explore the history and hauntings of the Cerro Gordo Ghost Town!

Cerro Gordo was founded in 1865.  The name in Spanish means “fat hill" and the peak sits eight miles east and 5,000 feet above Owens Lake, which had actually been a lake at one time, but is dried up now. Pablo Flores is credited with discovering silver ore here and he began mining and smelting operations. Growth for the mining town was slow as Native American populations kept people from coming. Fort Independence was built nearby and the soldiers here expelled the Native American populations. Everything was very primitive with this early operation. The ore was smelted in adobe ovens. Another miner named Jose Ochoa was pulling as much as 1.5 tons of ore out of the San Lucas Mine every 12 hours. As word about the silver ore got out, more miners came. 

The quality of the ore caught the attention of a Quebec-born sutler at Fort Independence named Victor Beaudry. He was a businessman and he decided to open a general store in the town. Beaudry was a smart man and he would trade provisions with the miners in exchange for portable silver and lead that the miners had smelted together. Beaudry also extended credit to the miners and this enabled him to eventually foreclose on their claims and he soon owned most of the Cerro Gordo mines. This included a half-interest in the largest, the Union, perched above the camp. Beaudry built two modern smelters in the town with his money as well.

The road in and out of the town became treacherous with bandits waiting to grab ore from miners heading down into other towns. Tiburcio Vasquez was a highwayman who worked in California from 1854 to 1874 and the Vasquez Rocks north of Los Angeles was a frequent hideout for him and so they named this for him. He was a real ladies man and considered handsome and a great dancer. His trademark was to bind the hands of his victims and leave them face down in the dirt. Vasquez was captured in 1874, tried and sentenced to hang. This execution took place on March 19, 1875. He had a lieutenant named Cleovaro Chavez and they would stop people to ask for "tolls." This became a lucrative business with dozens of teamster teams taking the route to Los Angeles with ore and then back to Cerro Gordo with liquor and sundries. The teamsters would try to warn each other if they ran into bandits and some would stash the ore along the road to come back for later. Vasquez and his crew left the area after stopping a stage coach near Cerro Gordo and shooting and wounding a man.

In April 1868, mining engineer Mortimer Belshaw arrived from San Francisco with plans to build a smelter. He bought a one-third interest in the mountain's largest galena lode, which is silver-bearing lead ore. Many of the mines, including the large Union Mine, were tapped into this vein of silver ore. He and his business partner Abner B. Elder built the Yellow Grade Road that led up to the mines. He also built the Belshaw House, a two-bedroom, 1-bathroom house that still stands in the mining camp and has served a variety of purposes from a private residence to a bed-and-(cook-your-own)-breakfast that sleeps up to five. Belshaw and Elder found a third partner, President of the California Paper Company Egbert Judson, and they formed the Union Mining Company. The group went forward with building a steam powered smelter and ran the thing 24/7. The smelter produced 120 silver and lead ingots a day, each weighing 85 pounds.

At this point, Beaudry and Belshaw were in competition, but they realized if they worked together, they could control the whole town. They produced so much ore that it couldn't be hauled down the mountain fast enough. Remi Nadeau was a French Canadian freighter they hired to haul the ore to Los Angeles in a trek that took three weeks. The ore would be separated at the refinery in Los Angeles.

As the town grew into a boomtown, trouble came with it and law enforcement tended to stay away from the town, which had about 5,000 residents at its height. There was at least one murder every week and shootouts were a normal occurrence. The danger was so bad that miners would stack sandbags in their beds in order to take the impact of stray bullets that might be flying when they were sleeping. A horrible mining accident happened in the 1870s when a mine collapsed and trapped around 30 Chinese miners. They were never rescued and are still buried underground. 

A man named James Brady took over the shipping contract in 1871 and he had a new method. He had established the town of Swansea on the east side of Qwens Lake and launched an 85-foot steamer he named Bessie Brady after his daughter. This saved at least two days in transport, so more money was being made. At least for a little while. Rain is not a usual thing in California, but at this time, torrential rains fell and Brady fell behind. Then Brady and Belshaw got into a fight over mining rights that ended up in court. Brady won, but he lost the shipping contract. Nadeau took over the freight again in 1873, but he wanted in on the action this time and so he was made a full partner in a freighting company they called Cerro Gordo Freighting Co. It was also decided to build stations along the route to make the trip easier.

Belshaw and Beaudry were considered Bullion Kings at the height of the mines' output. In total, the mines produced $17 million in silver and lead ore. That equates to $400 million in today's dollars. The mining industry helped to build Los Angeles. It's sad to think that this town became a mostly forgotten ghost town after spending nearly $350,000 on local farmers feed crops like barley and hay. The town was diverse with a large mix of Hispanics, Chinese, Whites and Native American, most of whom worked the mines for $4 a day and had a life expectancy of five years. John Simpson and his wife had built the American Hotel in 1871, there were two dance hall/brothels, blacksmiths, assay offices, a couple of general stores, saloons, restaurants and bunkhouses. Interestingly though, there were no schools, churches or a jail. 

Commerce slowed down in 1877 when the Union burned down. It was rebuilt, but left Belshaw in debt and he shut down his furnace and cut the pay to $3 a day. Many miners left and the Union closed down in 1879, Beaudry shut down his furnace after that and sent the last shipment of ore in November of 1879. Beaudry died in 1888 and Belshaw died in 1898. The best story is Nadeau's. He was smart and invested his money in wine grapes, barley and sugar beets. He bought land in downtown Los Angeles and built the Nadeau Hotel in 1886. This hotel was demolished in 1932 and a new building was built that is the Los Angeles Times Building that is part of Times Mirror Square today. 

Interesting story connected to this location from Haunted Places by Dennis William Hauck:

This wasn't the end for Cerro Gordo. Low grade silver ore continued to be pulled from the area mines into the 20th Century. High-grade zinc ore was discovered in 1907 in the Union Mine and a different kind of smelter was built at the base of the mountain and the ore was moved in buckets on a cable tramway. The operation was slightly successful until Louis D. Gordon bought the title and incorporated the Cerro Gordo Mines Co. Business started booming as 20 tons of zinc ore were mined daily. The ore was shipped via railway to the United States Smelting and Refining Co. in Utah for processing. Silver and lead were still being pulled between 1911 and 1919. Many of the tunnels were extended and while they aren't safe to enter now, there are 37 miles of tunnels snaking through the mountain.

American Smelting of Utah took over the mines from Gordon in the 1920s and then the U.S. Army came during World War II to get zinc out of the mines for the war effort. The zinc was used to make pennies because the copper was needed for war equipment. The pennies were steel and coated with the zinc to prevent rust. By 1959, the mines were no longer in use. W.C. Riggs had bought the property after the war and he hired a woman named Barbara and her boyfriend to work as caretakers. Barbara had previously worked for RKO Pictures and had been married to an assistant director. So apparently she ran away to a ghost town with her boyfriend. Riggs went bankrupt and didn't pay the couple, so they took him to court and were awarded ownership of Cerro Gordo in 1949. Eventually the boyfriend died and Barbara married Jack Smith. They sold the property to Jack Smith's niece Jody Stewart and she and her husband Mike began restoring the buildings and turning the ghost town into a tourist attraction.

They turned the general store into a museum and reopened the American Hotel. The Belshaw House was turned into a bed and breakfast where the guests make their own breakfast. A bunkhouse dating to 1904 was also opened as a place for up to 12 guests to bunk. In 2001, Jody died and Mike followed in 2009 and Mike's son Sean Patterson inherited the property. Sean hired a caretaker to continue the restoration and give tours. On July 13, 2018, a man named Brent Underwood spent $1.4 million to purchase Cerro Gordo along with some partners. There were twenty-two structures still standing of the 500 that were once here. These included the mining operation, Belshaw House, the American Hotel, a general store, an assayer’s office and Lola’s Palace of Pleasure. Underwood is the current owner and actually spent part of the pandemic snowed in on the property.

Underwood has spent 2020 and 2021 exploring his ghost town and refurbishing buildings. He has rappelled 1,100 feet underground into the tunnels and posted the videos on YouTube. Many parts of the Union Mine hadn't been seen in decades and Underwood found lots of artifacts in the mines and in the town. Many of these items told the story of the miner's lives. There were love letters, mining claims tobacco tins, old newspapers, divorce settlements and bank documents. There was even still some dynamite down in the mines. Things were really moving along for Underwood until tragedy struck. The historic American Hotel, the Crapo House and the Ice House at Cerro Gordo burned down in what is thought to have been an electrical fire in an early morning fire on Monday, June 15, 2020. In a weird coincidence, the American Hotel had originally opened on June 15, 1871. Interestingly, Underwood told the LA Times that he thought the cause of the fire could be paranormal. He said, “The caretaker here told me that he and another person saw a shadowy apparition moving in the hotel kitchen at 4 p.m. the previous day.” The Crapo House had belonged to William Crapo, who had gunned down a postmaster as he walked along the dirt road near the American Hotel. 

Fun Fact: Jeff Goldblum has been by the ghost town. He was there to film an episode of his TV show "The World According to Jeff Goldblum" that featured the history of denim. Many California silver miners wore them since they were specifically invented for them by Levi Strauss in 1871.

Caretakers for years have told stories of having strange experiences in the ghost town. Many believe the place is haunted. Lights switch on and off in unoccupied buildings on the regular. Underwood has experienced this himself. He said, "I went in, turned them off, re-locked the building, and they were turned on again that night." The strange happenings seemed magnified when Underwood was snowed in and around to notice them more. Books would spontaneously fall off of shelves. When its once or twice, it probably is nothing, but having it happen on the regular seems weird. Underwood's wallet moves around. He'll find it in places he knows he didn't put it.

In 2019, Zak Bagans and the crew of Ghost Adventures paid Cerro Gordo a visit and concluded paranormal activity here could be the result of two child spirits trapped in Belshaw House, an 1800s structure Underwood was living in. Roger Vargo and his wife Cecile talked with Bagans about their experiences staying in the Belshaw House. They were sleeping in the bedroom and something pounced on his wife that she couldn't see. Other people had similar experiences there. Robert Desmarais was a caretaker and he felt something jump on his chest and it knocked the wind out of him. So he knew it wasn't a dream. Another investigator captured an EVP of a child's voice and there were no kids in the town. Could these be children jumping on the people?

Alphonse Benoit was shot and killed in the poker room in the house. Zak thought he heard something coming from that room. There is a bullet hole with blood stains on the floor in there. Right near that area, Billy and Zak felt a definable cold spot. The EMF meter spiked there, a really big spike. Billy felt as though his fingers were really cold all of a sudden. Zak got out the thermal camera and it was clear that Billy's fingers were blue while the rest of his hand was the normal human red, orange and yellow and Zak's hand right next to his was completely red. And then they caught something bluish-green in the form of a human torso manifesting on the other side of the table.

Aaron and Zak heard footsteps in the house when they were lying on beds and their cameras did catch very faint footsteps. The ghost of Mr. Belshaw had been seen in the house. He appeared as a portly man, as described by eyewitnesses. Billy had set up a rig with a deep sea fishing pole where he sent an audio recorder and GoPro down into a very deep mine shaft. Billy felt a sharp tug at one point that he described as feeling like a fish on his line and the camera showed the line bobbing as if tugged. Billy was really shaken by the experience and it seemed legit. They also caught two long and interesting EVP on the recorder while in the shaft. One said, "Can anybody hear me?" and the other "I'm going to work." Aaron and Zak were investigating in the poker room and caught an EVP that they said sounded like, "You both just walked to me," but Kelly thought it sounded more like, "Do you want to fuck with me?" That sounds more accurate based on what happened here. They put an Ovulus near the bullet hole and the word "Slain" came up. A game camera seemed to pick up a figure that is not solid because the guys showed what they looked like crossing in front of a game camera.

Ghost towns are notoriously haunted because they were usually notorious places. That would be the case for Cerro Gordo. There are many reasons for this town to be haunted. Is the Cerro Gordo Ghost Town haunted? That is for you to decide!

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