The Boomtown of Skidoo, California


Skidoo, California, 1907

Skidoo, California, 1907

“On the border line 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 existing here 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 for almost its entire length had been known since the early 1850’s to contain gold and silver-bearing veins, early mining efforts had centered mostly 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.

Both 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, and 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 miles, varying from two to twelve feet wide, and showing $82 in gold per ton.

Somehow managing to keep their new 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 completely 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 that 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 in the development of his Skidoo interests, which included plans for the site involving 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, and for this task, Montgomery employed 20 men, 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 and Mill

Skidoo Mine and Mill

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 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, but in order 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 very beginning, Skidoo displayed a definite tendency toward an organized and systematic development pattern that no doubt played a great part in helping sustain it through the rough years ahead. The rapid influx of mining men to the vicinity, some with families, made the establishment of 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, which was 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 by spring large and substantial frame buildings were being built. 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 to also contain sizeable quantities of copper ore. The Skidoo pipeline was also progressing and the first consignment of pipe arrived in the middle of 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 a road to Rhyolite and hopes were high that Borax Smith’s railroad would be extended westward from his Lila C borax mine.

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