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David Fisk (Lens of
Panamint City - A
Once called the toughest, rawest, most
hard-boiled little hellhole that ever passed for a civilized town, Panamint City got its start after several bandits, who were using the
area as a hide-out, discovered silver in Surprise Canyon in 1872.
While hiding from authorities, stagecoach
robbers, William L. Kennedy, Robert L. Stewart, and Richard C. Jacobs were
searching for the
Lost Gunsight Mine and doing a little prospecting, when the
lucky outlaws discovered promising deposits of silver ore in Surprise Canyon.
Obviously, the men wanted to profit from their find, but, there was the
‘little” complication of them being “wanted” for stealing $12,000 from a
Wells Fargo stage.
Hatching a "plan," they soon went to
Senator, John P. Jones, who had long been involved in the mining industry,
with rich ore samples.
California about 1875.
If the senator could take care of their little
criminal “problem,” they would agree to sell him their claim. Jones along
with his colleague Senator William M. Stewart, also of
Nevada, soon made the
arrangements to grant amnesty for the bandit mine owners, but only after
making sure that the stolen $12,000 was repaid from their profits.
Senators Jones and Stewart, known as the
“Silver Senators” for their wide range of mining investments, soon
organized the Panamint Mining Company with a capital stock of two million
dollars. With word out about the silver found in the area, hundreds of
prospectors flooded the region and the Panamint Mining District was formed
in February, 1873. Arriving with wagonloads of tools and provisions,
prospectors soon found several lodes including the Wide West, Gold Hill,
Wonder, Wyoming, Pine Tree, and dozens of others.
With the influx of all the miners, the
settlement of Panamint City was soon founded and before long it sported a
number of saloons, stores, and a red light district, all built along the
uppermost end of Surprise Canyon. Optimism regarding the new community was
running high and in August, 1873, an area newspaper quoted a resident as
saying: "Panamint prospects are improving daily. I think we have in this
camp the most intelligent and liberally inclined miners that perhaps ever
While this resident’s positive outlook may
have been reflected by some in the camp, Panamint City was seen by most as
a rough and lawless place, with over fifty shootings occurring during its
By 1874, the town boasted a population of
about 2,000 people and its 1 ½ mile-long rutted and muddy main street was
lined with about 50 buildings, which included not only more than a dozen
saloons, but also the Bank of Panamint, a brewery, a hotel, the post
office, and the offices of the Panamint News, which printed its first
issue in November. The town also consisted of about 200 houses, many of
which were no more than log and rock huts. Others made their homes in
simple tents. The local butcher shop's wagon also served as the town
hearse which made frequent trips to a cemetery located a short distance up
Sour Dough Canyon.
By August, 1874 a road had been completed through Panamint Valley and up Surprise Canyon, providing contact with
for freighting and supply purposes.
Two stage lines also opened
service to Panamint in November, 1874. One of the town’s many
the Oriental – was billed as “the finest on the coast outside of San
Wells Fargo refused to open an Express office
in Panamint, probably because of the deal that the senators had made with
In the meantime, Senators Jones and Stewart
were buying up more properties in the area including mining claims, a
stamp mill, and the Surprise Canyon Toll Road. In June, 1875, their
Surprise Valley Mill and
Water Company opened a twenty-stamp mill, which soon shipped ore
averaging $80 to $100 per ton from the Panamint mines to the west coast
Surprise Valley Mill and
Water Company Mill about 1875.
The bandits who had
initially discovered the rich ore of Panamint were also still there, along
with numerous other
outlaws who hoped to make their living more easily
than working in the mines. According to legend, these original bandits had
planned from the start to let the senators do all the work and then steal
the bullion when it was being shipped to the coast. However, the
experienced investors, used to constant hijackings of ore wagons,
outsmarted them. Instead of casting the silver into manageable bars, they
were formed into large cannon-like balls that
weighed in excess of 400 pounds. These massive
balls were impossible to be carried by a single mounted horseman. One
story even tells that one of the original bandits confronted Senator
William Stewart, complaining that the huge ingots, “weren’t fair,” to
which Stewart replied, “You don’t expect me to feel sorry for you, do
Like Cerro Gordo, some 50 miles distant, the
Panamint silver veins were exhausted much sooner than anyone expected. In
August 1875, when William Ralston's Bank of
California failed, just days
after the Surprise
Valley Mill and Water Company had opened its 20-stamp mill, it shattered
the confidence of investors. T.
S. Harris published his last issue of the Panamint News on October 21,
1875 and left for Darwin,
That same year, hundreds of residents left the town as rumors circulated
that the ore was nearly exhausted.
By 1876, two of the major mines in the area
were depleted and the same year, a flash flood roared down the canyon,
washing away much of the town. The last to give up were the "Silver
Senators," themselves. However, after a serious stock market panic in May,
1877, the Panamint mill also closed, as well as the post office.
Mining in the area continued on a sporadic
basis for years. Panamint’s post office reopened from 1882 to 1883, and
again from 1887 to 1895. The Panamint mines continued to be worked off and
on until 1926. Another revival occurred briefly in 1946 when the American
Silver Corporation leased 12 patented claims, 4 patented mill sites and 42
unpatented claims. The company built a a camp at Panamint and improved the
Surprise Canyon road. Most of the work was concentrated on the Marvel and
Hemlock claims, but no ore was reported being shipped. The American Silver
Corporation filed for bankruptcy on March 22, 1948.
Today, all that’s left of the once flourishing
community are a few foundations and the
crumbling smokestack of Surprise Valley
Mill and Water Company that was
constructed in 1875.
Inyo County continued to maintain the road to
Panamint City until about 1983, when a series of cloudbursts completely
washed out the road. However, dedicated 4x4’s could still travel along the
travel along the path until it was permanently closed in 2001 by a lawsuit
brought by an environmental group.
Today, the ruins of Panamint City, which
became part of the Death Valley National Park in 1994, are only accessible
via a five mile strenuous hike from Chris Wicht’s Camp, which is located
six miles northeast of the ghost town of Ballarat.
of America, October, 2010.
The Surprise Valley Mill smokestack today,
courtesy our friends
Ghost Town Explorers