It all began in 1875 when roving prospectors first found silver on the south slope of the Calico Mountains. However, it wasn’t until some five years later that additional ore discoveries worth $400 to $500 per ton brought about a small rush and the filing of many claims.
In the spring of 1881 came the discovery of the Silver King, Calico’s richest mine, and less than a year later the new settlement supported several businesses on a commercial street flanked by tents and adobe buildings on a narrow mesa between Wall Street Canyon and Odessa Canyon. It took its name from the myriad of colors in the mountains which are the backdrop for the town.
The weekly Calico Print appeared in October 1882 and a local stamp mill was built to begin working ores.
But in the spring of 1883, many of the local miners left Calico when borax was discovered three miles east at Borate. Later the same year, a fire destroyed much of the camp, but Calico again boomed in 1884 as additional silver discoveries were made. Gaining a population of some 2,500, the town supported two dozen saloons and gambling dives that never closed, as well as more legitimate establishments such as a church, a public school, a dance school, and a literary society, along with dozens of retail businesses.
After 1884 many of the mines consolidated and late in 1888, the Oro Grande Mining Company erected an even larger stamp mill at a cost of $250,000 on the north bank of the Mojave River. Soon it connected the stamp mill, near Daggett, to the Silver King mine by the ten-mile narrow-gauge Calico Railroad.
By the late 1800s, Calico was bustling with prospectors searching their fortunes and the Calico Mining District became one of the richest in the state.
During its heyday, the district would produce $86 million in silver and $45 million in borax. However, when the price of silver dropped from $1.31 an ounce to 63 cents during the mid-1890s, Calico became a ghost of its former self. The narrow-gauge Calico railroad was dismantled just after the turn of the century and the town officially died in 1907 with the end of borax mining in the district.
Around 1917 a cyanide plant was built in Calico, recovering values from the Silver King Mine dumps and the town was revived. However, by 1935, the town was entirely abandoned and left to Mother Nature’s elements in the Mojave Desert.
Revival and Restoration
In 1950 Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park bought the townsite and began restorations. Its owner, Walter Knott, spent a lot of time in Calico as a boy, as his uncle lived there. He even helped to build a silver mill in Calico at the time of World War I. Knott’s time spent there, no doubt, influenced his decision to buy the town and restore it.
One of the rebuilt attractions is the one-mile short line “Calico & Odessa” railroad which loops through steep canyons and hills past old mines and buildings north of Calico. Though the original townsite has been mostly rebuilt by new and restored buildings, one-third of the town is original and the remaining newer buildings were carefully reconstructed to recreate the spirit of Calico’s Old West past.
In November 1966, Knott donated Calico to San Bernardino County, and Calico now operates as one of the many San Bernardino County Regional Parks.
Though Calico is no longer a crumbling ghost town thanks to Walter Knott, it most definitely gives the visitor a feel of what life might have been like during those old mining days. The false front stores and saloons, towered by the craggy mountains above and overlooking the desert valley below, provide an otherwise, unobtainable, glimpse into Calico’s rich history.
Today, walking tours are available with Calico historians who examine the life of miners during its heyday. The narrow-gauge railroad operates within the town limits, the hard rock silver mine provides underground exploration, buildings such as the schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, and saloons can be explored, as well as a live gold panning operation.
The Calico Townsite is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to dusk, featuring numerous shops, restaurants, and other attractions. In the canyons below the town, a full-service campground, camping cabins, and bunkhouse provide the opportunity for extended stays.
It’s reasonable admission price and prices “inside” the town at its restaurants, shops, and additional attractions, make it one of California’s best tourism values.
If Calico’s rich history, meticulous restoration, and gunfights aren’t enough entertainment for you, there’s more!! Allegedly, this old town is haunted by a number of lingering spirits.