The ‘rich’ history of Cerro Gordo mine

The ‘rich’ history of Cerro Gordo mineBy ELIZABETH BABCOCK

News Review Correspondent

Of all the tales of riches to be found in the mining history of Inyo County, one of the most fabulous may be told (in many chapters) about Cerro Gordo, which was recently lost to a fire (see related story: news-ridgecrest.com/news/story.pl?id=0000011513). Also known as “Fat Hill,” the site, high in the Inyo Mountains, was reachable only by a steep winding road from Owens Lake far below.

The tale begins in 1865 when Pablo Flores and several companions from Mexico discovered deposits of silver ore near Buena Vista Peak in the Inyos. In 1866 Jose Ochoa extracted about a ton and a half of silver ore every 12 hours from the San Lucas Mine at Cerro Gordo and sent the ore by pack animal to the Silver Sprout Mill, a few miles west of Fort Independence.

Word spread like wildfire, and by 1870 the number of claims in the vicinity of remote Cerro Gordo had increased to 999.

In the meantime, Victor Beaudry, formerly of Independence, had established a mercantile store in Cerro Gordo, had built two ore furnaces and had acquired some of the richest claims on the hill.

By 1868 famed muleteer Remi Nadeau had a three-year freighting contract with Cerro Gordo’s miners and began hauling the riches of Cerro Gordo to Los Angeles.

Another sharp businessman, Mortimer Belshaw, arrived that April and soon earned the nickname of “silver king” of Cerro Gordo. By that June he entered the pueblo of Los Angeles with his first ingots of Cerro Gordo silver bullion. Investors were eager, and he quickly formed the Union Mining Co. with partners Egbert Judson and A.B. Elder.

Operating at an amazing pace, that July he completed the Yellow Grade road out of Cerro Gordo and began collecting tolls from those using the precipitous grade to carry ore to Owens Lake far below. He completed a smelter at Cerro Gordo the same year, and despite a lot of competition from others avid to exploit the area’s mineral riches, he continued to prosper at Cerro Gordo until 1877.

During the 1870s, the rip-roaring night life of Fat Hill was at its height. The American Hotel opened its doors in 1871. On June 27, 1872, a small, boxy steamboat, Bessie Brady, made her maiden voyage across Owens Lake, laden with silver ingots from Cerro Gordo.

In 1873 Belshaw, Beaudry and Nadeau joined forces to form Cerro Gordo Freighting Co. The entrepreneurial team made a fortune from that partnership. In 1874 alone miners removed $2 million in silver-lead bullion. Nadeau’s teams of 16 and 20 mules were transporting 18 tons of bullion across the desert from Cerro Gordo every day.

The Los Angeles News called Cerro Gordo “the silver cord that binds our present existence,” and undoubtedly the shipping requirements of Cerro Gordo played a central role in transforming the sleepy pueblo of Los Angeles into the Southland’s major metropolis.

That same year, 1873, Cerro Gordo and the Indian Wells Valley figuratively rubbed shoulders as the infamous bandit Tiburcio Vasquez and his gang swooped down from their hideout near Coyote Holes to attack Freeman Raymond’s stage station and the incoming stage, which included Mortimer Belshaw among its passengers. The robbery was unsuccessful, but because of that episode, today the rocks in which the bandits hid are known as Robbers’ Roost.

In 1874 alone Cerro Gordo turned out more than $2 million worth of silver-lead bullion. But the town was destined to suffer the fate of all such rich strikes — the silver-lead lode eventually ran out. The last stagecoach came down the Yellow Grade Road in 1878,with the former boomtown ceasing operations in 1879.

But that was far from the end of Cerro Gordo’s story. In 1905 the Great Western Ore and Reduction Co. acquired the mines at Fat Hill and began smelting low-grade ore from the slag heaps. That endeavor lasted only until summer 1907. But ore-seekers remained optimistic. That November the Four Metals Co. opened a 20-ton smelter at Keeler and constructed an aerial tramway to Cerro Gordo.

Fortunately, more than silver was to be found along the Yellow Grade. In July 1914 Cerro Gordo Mines Co. was incorporated with capital stock amounting to a million dollars. Under the leadership of L. D. Gordon, Cerro Gordo became one of the major sources for the highest-grade zinc ore produced in the United States.

The tramway, which had gone basically nowhere in the silver era, was completed in 1916 and used to convey 20 tons of zinc ore a day down the mountain to Keeler. In 1916 the American Hotel was renovated and an ice plant was erected. The little town even gained electrical power that year. But by 1922, Cerro Gordo’s second era of mining prosperity was again played out, and the mines were operating at a deficit.

Then in 1925 new deposits of silver-lead ore were discovered at the La Despreciada claim, the last important ore discovery made at Cerro Gordo. Between 1929 and 1933, more than 10,000 tons of ore were shipped out for further processing.

The boom-bust cycle continued. After Cerro Gordo dwindled to a virtual ghost town, W. C. Riggs and Associates bought the Cerro Gordo Mining Co. and added 1,170 feet of core drilling to the estimated 37 miles of underground workings that already existed. These new efforts were unsuccessful.

In 1957 came a new twist to the Cerro Gordo story. That year Caretaker Wally Wilson filed a lawsuit for back wages, by this means acquiring title to the property.

Years of silence and decay followed. In 1973 Jody Stewart, a successful realtor and TV actress, visited her uncle at Cerro Gordo and fell in love with the place. She became a silent partner, contributing funds to keep her uncle solvent. She rapidly grew to love the place, and in in 1984 she bought the rest of the property and moved there, meeting Mike Patterson and eventually marrying him.

The couple began restoring the old townsite, and the welcome they extended to a widening circle of friends, many of them Ridgecrest residents, soon attracted a small army of diligent volunteers. Among the structures restored through those efforts were the American Hotel, the Belshaw house, a neighboring structure formerly used as a barracks, even the former company store, renovated as a museum.

The town’s fame as the world’s only ghost-town bed and breakfast spread, with guests arriving to enjoy the ambience and the splendid views of the Sierra Nevada across the valley. Youth camps, mineral symposia, photo workshops — even a wedding — were held there.

After Jody’s death in December 2002, Mike and others struggled to keep the place going as she would have wished. Finally in 2018 the entire ghost town was purchased for $1.4 million by its current owners, Brent Underwood and a group of other investors. And so a new chapter began in a town that has refused to die.

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Pictured: Some of the remnants of mining activities from the heyday of Cerro Gordo, as seen during a field trip to the remote site. — Photo by Elizabeth Babcock

Story First Published: 2020-06-19