Sitting at the base of the Panamint Mountain Range, Ballarat began in 1897
as a supply point for the mines in the canyons of the Panamint Mountain
Range. The main
mine supporting the town was the Radcliffe in Pleasant Canyon just east of
town. Between the years of 1898 and 1903, the Radcliff would produce
15,000 tons of gold ore.
Ballarat was named after an Australian gold camp by one of its first
residents, an Australian immigrant named George Riggins. It was in
the original Australian town of Ballarat that the first gold was
discovered in that country in 1851.
It was also there
that the largest gold nugget in the world was found, weighing in at
almost 143 pounds. Perhaps the first settlers of the "new” Ballarat
thought the name would bring them luck.
National Park, from Panamint Valley.
Photo by Robert Webb, courtesy
United States Geological Survey
Just a year after the
town was established, it boasted some 500 residents, even though they
were forced to face extreme weather and the barren land offered little
more than sage brush. Summer highs often reached 120 degrees and
during the winter, it was bitter cold. Though virtually everything
needed for survival, including water, timber and food, had to be
brought in, sometimes from great distances, these hardy pioneers
The settlement, built
of adobe bricks, soon sported seven saloons, three hotels, a
Wells Fargo Station, post office, school, a jail and a morgue, but not a
single church. This wasn’t that kind of town. Wild and
wooly, the settlement was where the miners went to blow off some steam
and relax after a hard day in the mines. With a large population of
men, the settlement catered to them, providing a number of "painted
ladies” for their enjoyment.
The town was also
home to several legendary desert figures including Frank ”Shorty”
Harris, "Seldom Seen Slim,” and Wyoming gambler and gunman Michael J.
The town began its
demise when the Radcliff Mine suspended operations in 1903. Soon
afterwards, other mines began to fold as the gold played out. In
1917, the post office closed and the only remaining residents were a
few die hard prospectors, including
Shorty Harris, who lived there off
and on, until his death in 1934.
In the 1960’s, a man
named Neil Cummins bought the private land east of Ballarat, hoping to
create another Palm Springs. He built a cinder-block store and
set up a trailer park with electrical hookups. However; his
attempt to turn Ballarat into a tourist spot failed and he finally
gave up in 1988.
"Seldom Seen Slim" was the last old time
prospector to live in Ballarat. Seldom called by his real name
of Charles Ferge, he was often asked if the was lonely in the remote
ghost town, to which he would reply: "Me lonely? Hell no! I'm half
coyote and half wild burro." Slim died in 1968, and those words
he spoke so often were inscribed on his tombstone, which stands in Ballarat’s cemetery.
Today, this lonely ghost town still sports a couple of full-time residents
and the little store is open most afternoons and weekends. Though the land
is privately owned, visitors are welcome. Four-wheeling is the most
popular activity, but for those who like to sightsee, the scenery is
stunning and virtually unmarred by human signs.