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 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.
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 sagebrush. 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 persevered.
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 several “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. “Jim” Sherlock.
The town began its demise when the Radcliff Mine suspended operations in 1903. Soon afterward, 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 he died in 1934.
In the 1960s, 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 he 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.
Most of the Ballarat’s adobe buildings have returned to the earth, but some crumbling walls and several foundations can still be seen, as well as several old miners’ cabins and other tumbling shacks.
The Pleasant Canyon Loop Trail is just outside of town, a rugged and fascinating path of about 27 miles that features many of the camps and mines that Ballarat once supported, including Clair Camp, the Radcliffe Mine Thorndike Mine, and more.
Ballarat is located 3.6 miles from the pavement of the north-south Trona-Wildrose Road (California 178), north of Trona. There is a historical marker at the turnoff.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2021.
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