The Business of Ghost Towns
A month ago, on my way back from a weekend in Las Vegas, I got off the freeway in San Bernardino and followed the signs pointing towards a ghost town.
It was an unsettling, windy day. The sun was yawning, low in the sky as I drove for several miles down the desolate Ghost Town Road. Then, in the distance, the word Calico appeared on a hill. I knew immediately that Calico was the kind of place I should know about.
There are several reasons why Calico sounds so familiar. As I would discover later- Calico was an old mining community that had been completely abandoned in the early 1900’s, after the borax mines were closed in 1907.
For decades, Calico sat, abandoned in the desert, until one industrious man named Walter Knott bought up the entire town.
Calico had never been anything special. It was a boomtown in the early 1880’s and peaked shortly after being built. Around that time, “Calico had a population of 1,200 people and over 500 silver mines,” according to Wikipedia. It featured “the usual assortment of bars, brothels, gambling halls and a few churches.” Of course, by the time Mr. Knott got to it, the town was empty and run down.
So why would anyone want to own a ghost town? Other than the fact that it’s probably the coolest thing a person can own, Knott was fascinated with America’s early pioneer history. Even more importantly: he wanted to make a buck. He was going to turn this decrepit, defunct town into a tourist attraction.
But he wasn’t just buying a ghost town, he was buying an idea. The idea of a place frozen in time.
Knott would incorporate Calico into his theme park, Knott’s Berry Farm, while also rebuilding the town, making it an attraction of its own.
It’s still a tourist attraction today. You can ride a mining train around, buy souveniers, and watch cowboy-gunfight stuntshows. So advertises their website. On my brief visit to Calico, I encountered something quite a bit different.
The entrance was innocuous enough, with a nine-foot tall miner smiling down at you blandly. But on this particular, windy day, there wasn’t anybody there. There was no one to take your six dollars, there were no cars in the lot.
I drove through to the back. I got out of my car and walked around a little bit, snapped a couple pictures of the confederate flags and wooden structures. One of the buildings had a light on in it but there were no other discernable sign of life. None of the shows or attractions, stores or restaurants. It was a business day. But there wasn’t a soul in Calico. I stayed for less than ten minutes.
Even though it was–well–creepy, it was perfect, actually, seeing Calico that way. Empty and sad. Disconcerting. The mood was probably similar the day Knott first saw the place- a dead scab in the desert. But Knott made sure it didn’t stay that way for long.
Shortly after buying up the town, Knott began restoring the buildings and structures of Calico, using old photographs for reference. Some of the buildings weren’t salvageable and were replaced with replicas.
This sort of behavior wasn’t terribly out of place for him. Originally, Walter Knott was a farmer, and a rather bad one at that. If it weren’t for his friend Rudolph Boysen, we may have never heard from Walter Knott again. Boysen gave Knott some of his own plants to grow, including a hybrid berry he had cultivated, which Knott would come to call “boysenberries.” Miraculously, Knott was able to keep the plant alive. He sold the berries from a stand by the side of the road.
The stand became a chicken shack where he and his wife would serve up fried chicken on their wedding china, feeding the hungry travelers off of Highway 39. The place was popular, and Knott took the popularity seriously, that is to say– he didn’t take people’s affection, or attention, for granted. He began adding to the restaurant, spicing up the area outside where customers waited for a table with little visual stimulation. A rock garden here. An old-west style structure there (Knott was very fond of early American pioneer history, which helps explain his purchase of Calico) The displays at Knott’s restaurant turned into attractions, including a steam-emitting volcano attraction Knott paid 600 dollars for.
It kept growing and growing. Soon, people weren’t just coming for the fried chicken and boysenberry juice. Knott had several buildings from Calico disassembled and brought out to his “Berry Farm,” where they acted as the centerpieces of “Calico Square,” an area of the park that included the Calico Saloon, and a Calico mining ride.
Today, Knott’s Berry Farm is a full-blown theme park, with roller coasters, stage shows, and more. But Calico Square is still there. It’s one of the oldest areas in the park. As for the deserted town of Calico, a good hundred miles to the northeast, Knott donated the town to San Bernardino County in 1966. He’d gotten what he needed from it. And there was plenty of work to be done at Knott’s Berry Farm to keep up with the competition. After all, the same year Walter Knott was buying Calico, another Walt was buying up land just a few miles down the road from Knott’s Berry Farm. Construction on Walt Disney’s “Disneyland” theme park began the following year.