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Panamint: Suburb Of Hell

July 2024
14min read

Senator William Morris Stewart, Yale ’53, the Father of American Mining Law, a quick man with a Colt’s dragoon revolver and admittedly the possessor of the most magnificent whiskers in the entire West, stepped from the swinging portals of Dave Naegle’s Oriental Saloon and reached for the grab iron on the side of Jack Lloyd’s Panamint & Lone Pine Stage. Hard on his heels, breathing richly of Naegle’s Old Noble Treble Crown Straight and struggling with the bafflements of an Inverness cloak of interesting pattern, strode the possessor of the second finest beard anywhere west of Council Bluffs. Senator John Percival Jones, capitalist of noble properties everywhere, which included a great hotel in New York, a Turkish bath in San Francisco and reclamation rights to what seventy odd years later was to be Hoover Dam, hated to leave Panamint City, but numerous board meetings in San Francisco called and he too had an outside place on Lloyd’s stage.

There was a sudden commotion inside Fred Yager’s Dexter Saloon across the street. Its swinging doors erupted gunfire and profane language as two fellows, patently at odds, emerged shooting at each other. Nevada’s peerless Senator John Percival Jones and his co-wearer of the toga, William Morris Stewart, dived for the ditch. The firing ceased and cautious citizens carried the dead in one direction and the wounded, leaking Old Noble Treble Crown at every seam, in the other.

Senator Stewart assisted Senator Jones from the ditch. They brushed each other off with dignity.

“Lively camp!” remarked Senator Stewart jovially.

“Millions in it,” acquiesced Jones with equal good humor, and together they boarded the waiting stage and rolled away down Surprise Canyon.

The ghost towns of the American West had each of them its claim to the superlative. Virginia City was at once the richest, the most urbane, the most sophisticated of them all. Bodie’s wicked ways and unabated tumults raised it to a bad eminence which occasioned remark in pulpits of far-off Park Street and Madison Avenue. Montana’s Virginia City was the scene of such violent retribution for crime that its corral entrances were reported to be of uncommonly stout construction because there were not trees enough in the region to serve as gallows.

Panamint City’s superlatives were in loneliness and inaccessibility, qualifications which obtain into the present generation. Probably it is today the least known of all the important stamp-mill-and-derringer communities of the great Nevada-California silver lode, yet the name of Panamint once and briefly loomed on the mining exchanges of the world in type as big as that reserved for the magic name of the Comstock itself. For three years the name of Panamint laid a fearful and urgent compulsion on the imaginations of prospectors, capitalists and all the world of silver.

It drew men from Pioche and Austin in a sort of reversal of Gilbert & Sullivan’s silver churn song. It was as a fatal magnet to the mining population of Bodie, Aurora, the Cerro Gordo and even the ineffable Comstock. Panamint depopulated Eureka. It decimated Independence. In the precincts of The Bank Exchange in San Francisco frock-coated senators raised their glasses: to Panamint. In Los Angeles, Darwin and San Bernardino stage drivers packed in the fares with the routing of their Concords: to Panamint. Panamint shares were the subject of heated speculation on the Paris Bourse. In London Panamint was viewed with enthusiasm tempered by dark suspicion. In Berlin the possibility that Panamint might become a second Comstock strengthened Bismarck’s resolve that Germany must stay off the silver standard.

Today, even among the more determined amateurs of ghost towns, the aficionado who can boast of having himself seen Panamint City plain is a member of a very select club indeed. Where visitors to Deadwood, Tombstone and Central City are numbered in the thousands annually, it is probable that not more than a score or two ascend Surprise Canyon to explore the site of Louis Munsinger’s brewery or muse upon the ruins of the great store of the Surprise Valley Mill & Water Company.

As such bonanzas, rumored or proven, as those of Rhyolite in the breathless Amargosa, or Leadville high in the continental cordillera, will demonstrate, no place is wholly improbable for the discovery of precious metals.

But Panamint City indisputably leads the field by an impressive margin in the matter of inaccessibility and discomfort of its surroundings. The Panamint Range is located between Panamint Valley and Death Valley in the Death Valley National Monument of California. To the west the Argus Range and the Cosos are grim barriers to the lush beauty of Owens Valley. To the east there is Death Valley and the Funeral Mountains. The only practicable approach—and its practicability is only comparative—to Panamint City is by way of Panamint Valley, a plutonian waste far more deadly in the record than Death Valley but lacking its lethal name. Its fantastic temperatures and almost total absence of water holes are such as to discourage all but the most resolute.

Surprise Canyon rises abruptly from the desert floor. It is five miles long and in that five miles it rises a total of 5,000 feet, which a slight business with a slide rule will indicate is a grade of twenty per cent. At times Surprise Canyon is less than ten feet in width, with cliffs on either side towering an absolute and vertical 500 feet or more. Down this slot in the side of the world’s gloomiest and most forbidding mountains there sometimes rush flash floods in a wall of water forty feet high that carry along fifty ton boulders like corks. In the Twentieth Century only a powerful truck or vehicle with four-wheel drive can successfully essay the grade in Surprise Canyon. It is understandable that the pilgrims who have penetrated to the ruins of Panamint City should comprise one of the most exclusive groups in the world, comparable in its way to the explorers who have visited Tibet’s Forbidden City.

The year was 1873. The presence of silver in potentially recoverable form and substantial quantities in the Panamints had been fairly established for a full decade. But the region’s inaccessibility, the absence of any roads or communications whatsoever, and its population of eminently hostile Indians, augmented by a scattering of recluses who had experienced “Wells Fargo trouble” in the outer world, were not conducive to optimism in mining circles. San Francisco had heard vaguely about Panamint, but San Francisco had its own private bonanza just below C Street in Virginia City where, according to the conservative estimate of Dan De Quille, $360,000,000 in easily recoverable ore was visible to the naked eye in the stopes of Con-Virginia alone. Panamint was a fortnight away, across deserts compared to which a stove lid was comfortably cool. Virginia City was just overnight aboard the Palace cars of clever George Mortimer Pullman. The hell with Panamint.

But in 1873 several events synthesized to change all that. A group of shady characters foregathered in the hills and organized in proper legal style the Panamint Mining District. Their claims in Surprise Valley were all properly monumented and recorded, and an assay of Panamint ore conducted by a reliable and conscientious chemist ran from $1,000 to $2,500 a ton. Los Angeles, a sprawling Spanish mission of fewer than 10,000 inhabitants, was interested if San Francisco was not. The banking firm of Temple & Workman, the Southland’s equivalent of San Francisco’s puissant Bank of California, was interested.

And most important of all, shortly thereafter there became interested in Panamint’s possibilities Nevada’s two senators of great wealth and even greater influence, William Morris Stewart and John Percival Jones. These potent solons, patriarchal in beards and Prince Alberts, possessed of prestige in Washington and almost fanatical devotion at home, were the archetype of what became known as the “Silver Senators.”

Senator Stewart was already a legendary figure both on the Comstock and in the halls of state. A Yale man who had taken part in the initial commotions of the Mother Lode across the Sierras in California, he had himself practically single-handed written the body of mining law which obtained throughout the West at the time and, through his own assiduous practice of law during the $10,000,000 worth of litigation which characterized the Comstock’s first decade, had become Nevada’s first millionaire senator and millionaire legal light.

Senator Jones had arrived in Weaverville, California, in 1850. Robust, full-blooded and with an eye to the main chance, he had already had minor skirmishes with the informal politics of the Mother Lode and had been sheriff and justice of the peace when he arrived in Washoe in the middle Sixties with a friend, Alvinza Heyward. They were to take charge of the affairs of Crown Point, a mine of fiery destinies which was eventually to elevate him to the status of the Comstock’s first millionaire mine superintendent and eventually to the toga itself. In 1869 catastrophe had struck Crown Point in the form of fire in the lower levels. In the ensuing holocaust Jones had proved himself a man of heroic stature and, amidst the general carnage, had salvaged, at incredible personal risk, the lives of scores of his workmen. Already rich, he was now almost godlike and obviously one of the favored sons of Fortune herself.

A third potentate of the age who associated himself with the gaudy destinies of Surprise Valley was Trenor W. Park, one of the first archmillionaires of the gold rush boom in San Francisco, a banker of respected abilities, director of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and president of the Panama Railroad, probably the richest short line in the world until the Comstock’s Virginia & Truckee came along to give it pointers.

Whether these powerful men, to whose ambitions no term had yet been set, believed in Panamint as a serious rival to the Comstock’s as yet unchallenged supremacy, or whether they viewed its existence, remote and inaccessible as was its setting, as a fertile field for the exploitation of a great stock issue, has never been ascertained. Very considerable sums of their own money were invested in Panamint and Senator Jones was noted for making irreproachably respectable investments. On the other hand, Bill Stewart and Trenor Park had, a few years previously, been closely associated with the promotion of an altogether lamentable stock issue in a mine known as the Little Emma, over Utah way. About the time its initial owners discovered that Little Emma was running out, the mine had been sold to English investors. It had been accomplished with the guilty connivance of the financial editor of the supposedly incorruptible London Times and promises of dividends running to 75 per cent. Britishers, confronted with American mining stocks in the Seventies, were known to lose their every financial inhibition and, at the time Panamint began to unfold its flowers of promise, Stewart and Park were being sued for a substantial $5,000,000 by outraged investors in Lombard and Threadneedle Streets.

The implacable optimism of the West where anything of a silver speculative nature offered itself combined with the weight of its backers’ names, was sufficient to overcome any latent skepticism about Panamint.

The desert roads from Independence and even Carson City 400 miles distant, from Barstow and Bakersfield and San Bernardino, showed trailing dust clouds that rolled prophetically skyward as another silver boom got under way. Private enterprise provided a toll road up Surprise Canyon which was almost immediately washed away in a flash flood and replaced by a more durable highway where the boulders were no more than eight inches in diameter and the sink holes could be overcome if everyone got out of a Concord and pushed from behind. A few hardy souls, smitten of Allah in the estimation of their contemporaries, crossed from Furnace Creek in Death Valley, paused briefly at Emigrant Springs and again at Wildrose Station in Wildrose Canyon and joined the thronging pilgrims from the west and north.

What first assails the perceptions of the student of Panamint’s epic years is the fact that, in its altogether improbable locale, a community could be brought into being at all. Other mining camps were remote; Panamint was positively fourth-dimensional in its inaccessibility. Yet, in an ever crescent torrent throughout the summer of 1874, a stream of dusty humanity swirled upgrade through the strait gate that is five miles deep in Surprise Canyon. Powerful automotive devices with four-wheel drives perish today on this ascending journada . They can achieve, with confident crashing of gears, as far as Christ Whickt’s cabin and swimming pool, which is about a mile in from the sands of Panamint’s desert floor; after that their combustive progress is a series of lunatic lunges, titanic complaints against gravity and grade. Yet the jerk line drivers with their mule teams made it; the great lumbering freight vans, powered by oxen that had been in service in the Comstock’s pre-railroad days, made it; the thorough-braced Concord coaches, with their assortment of senators and seamstresses, gunmen and bushy-whiskered Ganymedes in search of saloon sites, made it. The anabasis of Greek Xenophon against the satrapy of Cyrus the Persian was neither so clamorous nor so optimistic.

Ned Reddy, a Cerro Gordo gambler and reformed gunman, whose versatility extended to the guitar and the bar swab, supplied the most pressing necessity of Panamint’s beginnings with his Independent Saloon, an establishment of planks across barrels which opened close enough to the Fourth of July, 1874, to make the attending carnival indistinguishable from patriotism. A close rival for the town’s carriage trade, which arrived for the moment in stoutly soled brogans, was Dave Naegle of Pioche, whose Oriental Saloon, a spell down the street from Reddy’s parlors, also flourished on a 24-hour-a-day basis, and whose temporary absence of roof or walls reduced to a minimum the damage sustained from gunfire prompted either by petulance or mere gun-goofiness. The assay office, at variance with the best precedent, was momentarily overlooked in the civic satisfaction which attended the opening of Panamint’s first actually erected structure—a vast Army tent known as the Hotel de Bum. Here board and sleeping space were free; all were welcome and, although no proprietor’s name appeared on the shingle that hung over its entrance, it was generally understood that Senator Jones had been seen arranging the purchase of just such a tent a few weeks before in Meyerstein’s general store in San Bernardino.

The confidence in Panamint’s future, which these ventures instilled in the public mind as far away as the Reese River and even the White Pine regions, was shortly attested by the arrival of other equally substantial pioneers. Miss Delia Donoghue’s Wyoming Restaurant blossomed with long tables and case-hardened crockery in a residential faubourg of the new community. Fred Yager opened his elaborate Dexter Saloon, which boasted milled lumber construction, a papered interior, twin crystal chandeliers pendent from an actually plastered ceiling and glass paneled doors whose frosted panes were tastefully engrossed with a design of overflowing baskets of fruit and flowers. There was a cobbler’s shop. Miss Martha Camp arrived by stagecoach from Lone Pine with a unique collection of ten damsels, a bit worn at the edges but still serviceable. Ten beds had preceded them by a few days in the wagon train operated by Remi Nadeau of Cerro Gordo teaming fame. Nadeau’s grandson of identical name was destined, three-quarters of a century later, to appear as an historian of Southern California’s nascent years, but in their more urban aspect. Harris & Rhine’s general store furnished forth a variety of gear for miners and old Mrs. Zobelein supplied fluttery necessities for maiden and madame. T. S. Harris, a journeyman printer late of Independence, arrived with the proverbial shirt tail full of type and a Washington hand press and started The Panamint News in a tent.

The community’s equivalent of John Wanamaker’s, a contemporary in far-off New York, was the great, stone-buttressed bazaar of the Surprise Valley Mill & Water Company, a company store of mammoth proportions whose ledgered inventory for August, 1875, now in the possession of George Pipkins, itemizes as contemporary merchandise “thunder mugs,” “bed pans,” “Qts. Jellie,” “Tins Asparagoes,” “Ague Cure,” “Bales of Roap,” and “Mexican Mustang Linement”; not to mention such comparative commonplaces as fascinators, Fairbanks scales, anvils, opera glasses and French bonnets.

Man’s triumph over nature, his defiance of the elements and conquest of adversity, is variously evidenced in various civilizations. In Panamint, over and above all mining communities of the West, it was indicated by the mere presence of crystal chandeliers, billiard tables, plate glass mirrors and the champagne to whose presence illimitable kitchen middens of empty bottles testify to this day. Granted that, along the frontier, these commodities were more essential to life than other fakements of civilization are now esteemed, their presence alone at the top of Surprise Canyon is testimony to the ingenuity of man and his illimitable cunning. Conceive the lordly billiard table on its lurching progress behind a score of mules, across the wastelands between Los Angeles and San Bernardino where now the oranges flourish and the Super-Chief snores past in a torrent of chromium and steel. Consider the improbability of the sensitive product of French vineyards surviving in potable condition the blast furnace of the Slate Range where oxen foundered and men shriveled in the heat and died. Ponder the hazards of spun glass chandeliers grinding their way up the twenty per cent grade of Surprise Canyon.

That mankind, be he never so cunning, is still fallible at the end was illustrated by the colossal plate glass mirror ordered in New York for the back bar of Fred Yager’s Dexter Saloon.

Down the wintry Atlantic the mirror made its perilous way, across the Isthmus aboard Trenor Park’s combination mint and railroad, up to Los Angeles harbor aboard a packet of the Pacific Mail and hence inland by oxcart reinforced and cushioned against all contingency. The progress of the wonderment was reported by all comers aboard more speedy vehicles. Its passage through Ballarat was historic. Its arrival at the foot of Surprise Canyon, reported by Jack Lloyd the stage driver, was the signal for all commercial and industrial activity in Panamint to cease in anticipation. Its detachment from its cradle and commencement of the last ten feet of its 5,000 miles toward the Dexter portal were breathless to contemplate.

Alas, however, for human contriving when the gods are adverse. The palsied grasp of an acolyte failed; the Great Mirror tottered for a last intact moment on the brink of a shattered eternity and then crashed in ruin before the stunned beholders. Perhaps the mighty cataclysm was prophetic of Panamint’s own fate.

Production at the big mill began late in August, 1875. Ore from the Wyoming assayed $95 a ton to begin with, that of the Hemlock running a bit better, but these prosperous omens were not for long. Black Friday, August 27, when the mighty Bank of California closed and its cashier, William Ralston, was found dead in San Francisco Bay, precipitated a panic which carried more durable economies than those of Panamint to irretrievable ruin. Panamint shares reeled but recovered some semblance of vitality in 1876 when a new and promising vein was uncovered in Hemlock, but the Indian Sign was on Panamint and one by one its inhabitants packed their properties and departed.

Late in July of that final year the elements, never either entirely clement or moderate in their whims along the Nevada-California border, contrived the final ruin of Surprise Valley. A meteorological variety of waterspouts, tornados, cloudbursts and hurricanes played ghoulish tag from the White Pines to the escarpment of the Sierra. To the east the mountainside township of Eureka was washed out with a great drowning of Chinese and Italian woodcutters. The usually placid surface of Owens Lake went skyward in a monstrous and sustained waterspout and great winds beat upon the Panamints. Carried on the great winds were heavy clouds pregnant with moisture and on the crest of the mountains they dissolved in an Olympic cloudburst.

The whistle of the big mill gave Panaminters scant warning. The waters descended from the towering walls about Panamint in a thundering deluge; a wave variously estimated at from five to seven feet high swept down Main Street headed for the canyon below. Most-of Panamint went with it: Munsinger’s Brewery, Miss Delia Donoghue’s Wyoming Restaurant, the emporium of Harris & Rhine, the Maiden Lane plaisance of Martha Camp’s girls. Next morning the noisiest and most remote of all the mining camps of the Old West was found spread over several square miles of wash in Panamint Valley.

A mining camp, like any other organism of society, must achieve maturity before it can achieve urbanity, luxury and the graceful flourishes that pass for civilization. Panamint City never had a railroad, silk hats or, in all probability, any great abundance of table napkins. Three years of boom and hurrah were not enough to evolve paved streets or French menus and Panamint remained, to the end of its florid days, a camp and not a metropolis.

Panamint did have many of the qualifications of all the major mining camps of the Old West. It had a respectable, or perhaps it were better to say, a ponderable population. It had a reasonable production of bullion to justify sonic of its poetry. It had a niche on the mining exchanges of the world, substantial names among its backers and, above all, it had fantastic ambitions.

The prospect of Panamint 75 years after its tumults subsided, all save one last reminiscent echo, is not spectacular, although Surprise Valley, opening incredibly as the very roof garden of Hell itself, is still as breathless a discovery as when the first white man toiled up its precipitous canyon. No single structure survives intact from its first frenetic hour. The brewery of Louis Munsinger is memorialized by its as yet undaunted chimney pointing a beery way to the skies, a symbol of the enduring qualities of hope and joy. From its site the town sprawls upward toward the valley’s apex in a drunken geometry of cellars, some of them dressed stone, others formed of unhewn boulders. Its extent is impressive, although the 5,000 inhabitants credited to its flowering seems optimistic. The vast store of the Surprise Valley Mill & Water Company exists in the form of a complete skeleton of walls rising in perfect preservation to a height of ten or twelve feet, each neatly dressed fieldstone in as nice alignment as when it was first finished and set in place.

The ruling ruin of Panamint is the fantastic reducing mill of the Panamint Mining & Concentration Works where ore from the Wyoming and Hemlock Mines, high in the cliffs above it, was once pounded into a tolerably profitable pulp running somewhat better than $90 a ton. Its 250 foot high square chimney, built of Panamint brick fashioned by Chinese labor in the kiln up the road, towers unbelievably against the surrounding mountainsides, its top fluted and ornamented with crenclations and the masonic adornments so necessary for a proper draft in the Hues below. Its feet are firmly and seemingly forever planted in a rubble of stonework of impressive dimensions, collapsed ovens, wrecked railroads and neglected tailings. Not even the façade of Cook’s Bank at Rhyolite, staring through sightless windows over the Amargosa Wash is more melancholy in the philosophy of its implications.

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