The Boomtown of Skidoo, California

Skidoo, California, 1907

Skidoo, California, 1907

“On the borderline between California and Nevada, just a few miles from Nevada’s big, bonanza gold camps of Goldfield, Rhyolite, and Tonopah, California promised to give birth to the most wonderful gold mines America has yet produced. Here the golden goddess is again singing her siren song of enchantment, and California is again beckoning to the world with a finger of gold: and the world is listening, and looking, and coming — TO SKIDOO!”

In 1909 when this enticingly optimistic editorial appeared, Skidoo was a thriving-year-old mining camp. Her cramped townsite, dizzyingly nestled on top of the Panamint Range, already proudly possessed over 30 tents, several frame buildings, and many of the amenities of civilization, including restaurants, hotels, and a newspaper.

It was a far cry from the desolate and lonely conditions in January 1906 as two wandering desert prospectors, John Ramsey, and John “One Eye” Thompson, winded their slow way up Emigrant Canyon toward the newly-discovered gold strike at Harrisburg.

Although the Panamint Range had been known for almost its entire length since the early 1850s to contain gold and silver-bearing veins, early mining efforts had centered chiefly on silver and lead, the gold veins being largely overlooked and unprospected. Only in the early 1900s was this precious metal becoming a highly-prized and sought-after commodity.

Skidoo and Harrisburg, discovered about six months earlier and located about 5 ½ miles further south, were the direct offshoots of the big Nevada bonanzas of Tonopah, Goldfield, and Rhyolite. Excited and encouraged by the seemingly quick riches exposed in these areas, the desert mining community became hungry for more. Prospectors began gravitating westward across Death Valley in search of rumored treasures in the Panamints.

The long trek of Ramsey and Thompson toward Harrisburg was suddenly interrupted by a rare freak of nature in the Death Valley region–a blinding fog. Quickly becoming disoriented in the murky light and afraid of getting lost in one of the many surrounding canyons, the two decided to camp near Emigrant Springs and proceed on their way in the morning. By the next day, the fog had lifted, enabling a view of some nearby ledges whose color appeared promising. Checking them out, what Ramsey and Thompson found completely dismissed all thought of a further journey, and precipitated their prompt location of several claims in the vicinity. Comprising the Gold Eagle Group, this series of rich ledges appeared to stretch north-south for a distance of about 1 ½ mile, varying from two to twelve feet wide and showing $82 in gold per ton.

Somehow managing to keep their discoveries secret until their claims had been properly documented and recorded, it was not until a couple of months later that news of the strike began to spread. Immediately realizing that these veins were probably located in the same mineral belt that had been the source of riches for Panamint City over 30 years earlier and that was now proving so productive in the Harrisburg vicinity, hordes of miners turned their burros toward Emigrant Springs, hoping to be early enough to cash in on the bonanza. Though located in California, the camp soon fell almost wholly into the hands of Nevada capital and enterprise. As soon as word of the strike reached the ears of the pioneers of the Bullfrog Mining District, the area’s future was assured, for it was their intervention and investment made Skidoo one of the longest-lived and most successful Death Valley mining camps.

The Nevada mogul most responsible for Skidoo’s success was Ernest A. “Bob” Montgomery, who immediately purchased the original Gold Eagle Group of claims from Ramsey and Thompson. Steel magnate and mining investor Charles M. Schwab also invested heavily in the area as well as Senator Nixon and George Wingfield of Tonopah, Nevada. In the meantime, the new find practically emptied  Harrisburg as hundreds of prospectors flooded the area.

Bob Montgomery intended to waste no time developing his Skidoo interests, which included plans for the site involving the installation by January 1907 of a quartz mill. Although sufficient water for domestic purposes could be acquired from Emigrant Springs, approximately five miles away by trail and seven by wagon, a more abundant water supply would be needed to provide the hydraulic force necessary to run the milling plant. Accordingly, water rights to the springs near Telescope Peak, at an elevation of about 7,400 feet, were acquired from a Fred Gray of Ballarat, to be conveyed by gravity pressure to the mill and townsite in a long pipeline.

A negotiable road from Emigrant Springs was also needed to facilitate the importation of construction supplies. Montgomery employed 20 men for this task, expecting to increase this force soon to 75 and later to 250 when the mill was in operation. The promoter and backer of all this initial development work was the Skidoo Mines Company.

Skidoo Mine in Death Valley, California by Gianfranco Archimede, 2000.

Skidoo Mine in Death Valley, California by Gianfranco Archimede, 2000.

By the Fourth of July, 1906, a real spirit of optimism pervaded the camp, its over-abundance of energy and enthusiasm finding an outlet in the discharge of guns and the explosion of gunpowder in front of buildings gaily decorated with bunting and flags. Such optimism seemed duly warranted, for arrangements were already being made for an auto line into the district from Beatty, a stage line seemed assured, a post office had been applied for, mine options were being taken up right and left, and several companies expected to start production soon.

On Montgomery’s property, at the rechristened Eagle Mine, a spate of construction activity was currently underway, resulting in the erection of several lumber buildings, including a bunkhouse, cookhouse, boarding house with kitchen, an office, and a blacksmith shop, in the company camp located on the hilltop above the mine workings.

Communications with Ballarat had been substantially improved by the initiation of a tri-weekly stage line. Still, for the new camp to reach its full potential, it was concluded that a communication and transportation line with Rhyolite was needed, necessitating much work on the road crossing Death Valley that at this point was so sandy it could not support loaded wagons. A telephone line to the Bullfrog Mining District was also considered essential to keep mining men in Skidoo apprised of the rise and fall of shares.

Skidoo News, 1907

Skidoo News, 1907

From its beginning, Skidoo displayed a definite tendency toward an organized and systematic development pattern that undoubtedly played a significant part in helping sustain it through the rough years ahead. The rapid influx of mining men to the vicinity, some with families, made establishing a townsite and the disbursement of residential and business lots the next natural step in the area’s growth.

By the end of August 1906, a townsite, variously designated as Montgomery and later Hoveck, was platted just east of the Skidoo Mine, functioning as the center of milling operations. A post office opened under the name of “Hoveck.” However, neither “Montgomery” nor “Hoveck” captured the imagination of the townspeople, and the townsite and post office were renamed named “Skidoo” in 1907. It was initially named “23 Skidoo,” an early 20th-century slang term meaning “take off.” However, the postal service refused to accept “23” as part of the name.

Lots on Skidoo Street went almost in a day. The coming of winter would delay new construction, but significant and substantial frame buildings were being built by spring. In the meantime, a new gold strike in the fall of 1906 on the north end of Sheep Mountain added to the mining excitement. This area later proved also to contain sizeable quantities of copper ore. The Skidoo pipeline was also progressing, and the first pipe consignment arrived in mid-September. Seventy-five men were at work on the water system, and at the mine, the main shaft, already down sixty feet, was exposing magnificent ore filled with free gold. Work was beginning on the road to Rhyolite, and hopes were high that Borax Smith’s railroad would be extended westward from his Lila C borax mine.

In November 1906, the Skidoo News arrived. Operated by  James G. Sterrett and Edwin S. Drury of Encampment, Wyoming. Soon more businesses were established, including an engineering and assay office, the Kimball Brothers stage line began canvassing the wagon road between Rhyolite and Skidoo, a water station was established at Stovepipe Wells, John Calloway began running a six-horse bi-weekly stage from Ballarat, and an eating house and feed stable were projected.

Mining conditions throughout Inyo County were healthy during the closing months of 1906, with 150 miners reportedly working in the Emigrant District. Harrisburg was taking on a new lease of life due to all the activity in the surrounding region, and Ballarat was thriving as the distribution point for supplies for an extensive mining section, including not only the Wild Rose District but also the revitalized camps in the Darwin, Modoc, and Coso districts. To the north, numerous valuable copper properties in the Ubehebe and Saline Valley regions were drawing much attention. To the east, Greenwater, the site of a bonanza copper strike, was attracting investors from all over the country.

Over the next few months, slow but steady progress occurred in improving conditions at the new camp. By early January, the first power hoisting plant was installed at the mine, and work continued on the road to Rhyolite. By the first of the year, Skidoo boasted 33 tents, several frame buildings, a prominent general mercantile store, a lodging house, a restaurant, a newspaper, and several saloons. Soon, the road to Rhyolite was negotiable by motorcycle, stage, or auto. The Kimball Bros. stage line lost no time initiating a five-day round-trip service from Rhyolite to Skidoo via Stovepipe and Emigrant Springs, with a one-night stopover at the former. A one-way fare cost $20; the express rate was 5¢ per pound. During this same time, a telephone line from Rhyolite was nearing completion to Stovepipe Wells. By March 1907, it was completed and was already extending nearly five miles up the Panamint slope toward Skidoo.

In the meantime, a new and highly profitable phase of activity began with the opening of leasing opportunities on the Skidoo Mines Company property to interested parties. According to Hoveck, the company would eventually lease everything except for the three big ledges on the Skidoo and the three on the Cocopah Mine that the company was working. It was anticipated that the first shipment of gold bullion from the Skidoo Mine would be made before the end of July, an 80-stamp mill would be operating by the summer, and the company offered to furnish water and electric power to any surrounding properties desiring it.

Skidoo Club, 1907

Skidoo Club, 1907

In March, the Skidoo Bank and Trust Company took up temporary quarters in the general store. Due to numerous delays, however, it was not until May that the renamed Bank of Southern California opened its doors for business. The future looked so rosy that stonemasons imported from Los Angeles were already quarrying the native white stone for use in a new two-story stone building that would house a large store and several business offices besides the bank. In February, the Panamint Artificial Ice Company was formed by Salt Lake parties who intended to divert water from the Telescope Peak pipeline to their $5,000 ice plant on four town lots. Two men already managing large businesses at Tonopah and Greenwater were planning the establishment of the Skidoo Lumber Company.

In March, a man named Captain W. R. Wharton, a Pennsylvania capitalist, and stockholder in the Skidoo Mines Company, bought the Skidoo townsite and proceeded to plat a new residential addition to the east of the original townsite, where he erected two portable houses, sold lots ranging in prices from $100 to $1,000 each, and oversaw the development work on those promising claims embraced within the townsite.

Skidoo’s population soon reached 400-500 citizens, who were being served by L. E. Thompson’s sizeable general merchandise store, four saloons, a meat market, laundry, bakery, newspaper, and lumber yard, lodging houses, three restaurants, assayers, surveyors, a physician, lawyers, brokers, and more. Social activities were held in the Skidoo Club and in the more elite Panamint Club, which demanded an initiation fee of $100. By April, the town contained about 130 residences and business houses of frame, wood, and iron.

Because the Telescope Peak pipeline was not yet finished, water continued to be hauled in wagons from Emigrant Springs by a ten-horse team and was sold for $4 a barrel or three to ten cents a gallon or higher to the townspeople. However, Skidoo and the surrounding Emigrant District were now accessible by stage both from Ballarat and Rhyolite, as well as by several private cars, including J. W. Calloway’s sixty-horsepower auto with a capacity for ten passengers. Another significant milestone in the town’s history was reached in the early spring of 1907 when Skidoo became connected to Rhyolite by phone.

Like Goldfield, Nevada, Skidoo was fast becoming famous for her leases. Next to the Skidoo and Granite Contact mines, these were most important in proving the richness of the district. Figures vary considerably regarding the number of men employed by the Skidoo Mines Company at any one time, ranging from 40-70 for April 1907 alone. By spring, several thousand dollars had been expended on the mining camp. The company headquarters were now housed in a fine building containing a large central office, a private office for the superintendent, a parlor, a bathroom, and several private bedrooms for employees. Other recent improvements at the campsite included a boarding house, bunkhouse, and another building, encompassing a reading room, officers’ dining room, and a lady cooks’ room.

Skidoo Mill, 1909

Skidoo Mill, 1909

By the middle of April, eight leases had been given out on the Skidoo Mines Company property, and mining investors from all over the country were visualizing the immense profits to be made at Skidoo.

Some of these included Captain W. R. Wharton, who closely associated with Charles M. Schwab and his enterprises; Patsy Clark, the copper king involved in Greenwater mining; Captain John L. Armit of Colorado Springs, who was actively engaged in mining throughout the West; various officials of the John S. Cook & Co. Bank of Rhyolite, Nevada, and countless others.

In May 1907, the town of Skidoo appointed peace officers, a new road was proposed to Keeler, and the Skidoo Board of Trade was established. However, the first of summer saw frustrating problems on the Skidoo pipeline, and it would not be until September that the line was completed to Harrisburg. By the end of November, the pipeline was still two miles and one hill away from Skidoo.

By the end of the year, the Panic of 1907 was sweeping the country, closing mines across the American West. Still, Skidoo experienced only a slight reduction in population to about 300 people.

The Skidoo Pipeline was finally completed at the end of the year, and 1908 saw the continuance of positive and improving conditions. The immediate need was seen for a school district, and work was progressing on the Keeler-Skidoo Road. Though Skidoo was not initially affected by the Panic of 1907 like so many other camps, most available cash had already been used, and gaining more capital was scarce.

During this time, the atmosphere was charged, and doubts about the future temporarily strained tempers; Joe “Hooch” Simpson was hanged. Simpson, a gambler from Reno who had been a resident of Skidoo for some time, had a reputation as a grumpy character that drank too much. After Simpson fancied that a man named James Arnold had done wrong to him, he entered Arnold’s store and shot him to death. Arnold was one of the town’s founding fathers and one of the best-liked men around. Simpson was immediately arrested, and upon Arnold’s death a few hours later, it was only by some of the greatest diplomacy that law officers were able to avert an immediate lynching. But, only a temporary stay of execution had been granted, for on April 22, Simpson was dragged from confinement and efficiently and unceremoniously attached by the neck to a telephone pole. Word of the deed spread quickly, and when newsmen arrived from other parts wanting pictures of the event, Simpson was re-hanged with pleasure.

The late spring of 1908  brought the commencement of teaming between Owens Valley and Skidoo along a vastly improved route, and by May, the first stamp mills were falling on the high-grade rock at the Skidoo mill. In early June, the first gold brick from the Skidoo Mine, estimated to be worth $4,000, was transported to Rhyolite and then shipped to the mint by Wells Fargo express. Ten stamps were now in operation, and the full process at the mill encompassed crushing, amalgamation, and concentration, with cyanide still to be added. The second brick from May production was valued at $7,000. By the end of June, the mill was treating around thirty-five tons daily, with an increase to twenty stamps planned when the demands of the mine justified the additional expenditure. In the meantime, ore bodies were increasing, and their average value remained steady.

By summer, the results of the Panic of 1907 were causing lean business — the bank failed, the Nevada stage line withdrew, and the Skidoo News closed. Still, the camp boasted 150 people, and the Skidoo Mines Company could still increase its output. Although Bob Montgomery had once hoped that the NevadaCalifornia Power Company would extend electrical service into Skidoo and other sections in the district south of Rhyolite, thereby furnishing power for his mill and enabling the present water line to be freed for use by other mills in the area, this never came to pass.

Skidoo Mine in Death Valley, California by Gianfranco Archimede, 2000.

Skidoo Mine in Death Valley, California by Gianfranco Archimede, 2000.

Due to the lack of mills in the vicinity, little mining activity was conducted in Skidoo in the fall of 1908. Though the Skidoo Mine continued operations and improvements, by early 1909, the town’s population was reduced. In July, the Los Angeles Mining Review reported that the Skidoo Mine was second only to the Keane Wonder in production in California in 1909. All indebtedness of the Skidoo Mines Company was cleared away by this time, and the first dividend, aggregating $50,000, was being paid in July at five cents a share.

Despite the ongoing and successful development at the Skidoo Mine, however, it was evident that the town itself was becoming increasingly depleted, and in September 1909, the school district was closed.

When Frank Montgomery, nephew of Bob Montgomery, took over management of the Skidoo Mine in the winter of 1909-10, a new era of productivity arrived. More aggressive than his uncle, he put half the workforce on development and the other half charged with supplying ore to the mill. It was not long before the most extensive and most prosperous ore body was located. Better returns were the result, despite the company having pipeline troubles. Although the mine could keep up production for several years, monthly net profits suddenly started a downhill slide, broken only temporarily by an occasional banner year.

At the start of 1911, there were three producing companies and five producing lessees operating on the Skidoo Mines Company property. July recorded the most extensive run in the life of the mine–$18,000. The company paid dividends in October 1911 and again in May 1912. By then, it was reported that the company was maintaining an approximate production of $14,400 a month and earning net profits of about $4,800.

A blow to production fell in January 1913 when the pipeline froze and burst in several places, necessitating the shutdown of the mill and the consequent discharge of 40 miners. Because future operations appeared doubtful, most men left camp, leaving only a few leasees on the property. Undaunted, the company began the slow process of repairing the pipeline. Still, when half the repairs had been accomplished, a more serious calamity befell the operation when most of the mill structure was destroyed by a fire of unknown origin on June 2, 1913. The loss was a staggering $50,000, with only one battery of five stamps being saved. Although parts of the old structure could be reused, a large amount of new material was necessary to modernize the mill. By October 1913, a new ten-stamp mill was in commission, and a heavy winter yield was expected.

Production progressed well enough that by July 1914, another dividend was paid, proving the resiliency of the company and the resources of its mine. By October, 35 men were again on the company payroll involved in exploration and development work. In 1915, the mine continued to make improvements, and the town of Skidoo still supported a small population, although several lots were being sold.

Skidoo’s days were numbered, however. In September 1917, it was reported that the Skidoo’s rich vein had pinched out, and the mine had closed down permanently, coincident with the demise of Rhyolite and Greenwater about this time. The post office closed the same year, and the iron and steel remnants of the mill and pipeline were dismantled and sold.

However, in January 1926, the Skidoo mines were reopened under different ownership, and work continued under various companies throughout the early 1940s. In the early 1950s, the tungsten boom hit the Skidoo area, and though several hundred claims were located, the ore was low-grade. Sporadic mining would continue for several decades, leaving shafts, cuts, and tailings throughout the area.

Though there are no townsite remains, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The area is dotted with mining ruins, equipment, shafts, and adits, and the old mill continues to stand, as well as a cemetery. It is located off Wildrose Road on an unpaved road that requires a high-clearance vehicle.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander, Legends of America, updated March 2023.

Primary Source:  Greene, Linda W. and Latschar, John A; Death Valley Historic Resource Study; National Park Service, 1979.

Skidoo Cyanide Tanks

Skidoo Cyanide Tanks

Also See:

Death Valley National Park

Rhyolite, Nevada

Bullfrog Mining District

Our Journey To Death Valley (from the Photo Blog)

Death Valley Photo Print Gallery