California Desert trips,interesting places to visit: ghost towns, old mines, lost treasure, personalities and bits of the old west


The desert is sort of my second home. The places described below are special and worth visiting provided you know the story. That's what this blog is all about. Now I have tried as best I can to be factual but sometimes you hate to let facts get in the way of a good yarn.

Saturday, March 12, 2016


When the Southwest Pacific Railroad Company came up for sale by the Missouri State Assembly, John C. Fremont, hero of Western Lore, representing a group of investors acquired the company.  This adventure would cap Fremont’s career that included pathfinder, mapmaker, politician, and soldier.

Interestingly, a few months into the year of 1866, the U.S. Congress passed a national railroad bill that had in it authorization of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad (A&P) which assigned to Fremont and his associates a right-of-way from Springfield, Missouri to the Pacific Coast.

 The assigned right-of-way would generally follow the 1852 route surveyed by Lt. Amiel Whipple from Arkansas to California.  A survey that crossed Indian Territory through New Mexico and what later became Arizona.  The Colorado River would be bridged at its narrowest point near The Needles.

 The bill also authorized government bonds to help cover the cost of construction and to encourage the settlement of long barren Indian infested stretches.

A year later, even with benefits bestowed by the government, Fremont was unable to meet interest on the bonds and was forced to find a receiver for both railroads.

By 1880, through stock manipulations and mergers, the Atlantic& Pacific Railroad reemerged as a subsidiary of the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe. -- a company that boasted sound financial backing.

Meanwhile on the West Coast, the insightful and often ruthless Collis P. Huntington conducted the affairs of a few wealthy and powerful men referred to as the Big Four -- Huntington, Stanford, Crocker and Hopkins.  These four gentlemen dominated railroading in California during the 1870s.  In that regard, Huntington claimed boastfully that he had not yet met a politician he couldn’t bribe.

The approaching Atlantic and Pacific line posed a major problem.  The population of California wasn’t large enough to support a third transcontinental railroad.   Huntington, a man who enjoyed a good fight, decided to extend the Southern Pacific Railroad from Mojave Station across the Mojave Desert to confront the A&P before it reached the Colorado River.  His action supported a policy of the Big Four to thwart any other railroad attempting to enter California    

The Southern Pacific (SP), secretly owned by the Big Four, had completed construction of  a road down California’s Central Valley and across the Tehachapi Mountains to the town of Mojave.  From the Mojave Station, service extended south through Cajon Pass  to Los Angles and to San Diego.  

The idea of building a 242 mile railroad through barren waterless desert presented a frightening prospect to those who invest to make money.  Only those men who laid and secured the rails could see the possibility of gold locked in the unmapped mountain ranges that seemed to string endlessly on both sided of line.  Ranges that prospector’s pick and shovel had not yet touched.

By fall of 1882, seventy miles of track from the Mojave Station had been laid to Waterman Camp.  Another 131 miles of track reached Amboy Station five months later.  From Amboy watering stations spaced 10 to 15 miles apart were named alphabetically: Bristol, Cadiz, Danby, Edison, Fenner, Goffs, Homer, Ibex and Java.

Huntington won the race to the Colorado River arriving well ahead of the A&P still 40 miles to the east and faced with bridging the unpredictable Colorado River with its seasonal ups and downs.

With the Southern Pacific Railroad in its path, Atlantic & Pacific management faced two possibilities: continue to build a parallel line across the Mojave and on to San Francisco or workout an agreement for joint use  of  the completed SP system.
Huntington initially rejected joint use.  But, when A&P surveyors began setting surveyor’s stakes west of the river he realized that the competition would make his Mojave line worthless.

Negotiations took time as they always do with such matters.  The agreement that was hammered out stipulated that the A&P would purchase the SP railroad division from The Needles to Mojave for $30,000 a mile (242 miles) and rent use of SP’ trackage from Mojave to Oakland and San Francisco.

Through the 1890s, prospectors arrived at A&P watering stations.  Water was made available for a small fee by the company.  A few popular stations attracted settlers who served the surroundings and typically included a hotel, café, and several saloons.

Waterman Station became Barstow – a major rail center for the west end of the line. It included repair yards and a Harvey House that provided accommodations for travelers.  

Daggett –became the shipping point for mines in the Calico Hills, and the point from where mountain ranges to the south could be prospected.   

Newberry Springs – provided water for all of the stations at the west end of the line.  Tanker cars attached to scheduled trains did the transporting.

Lavic – a service center for railroad employees provided barracks and kitchen facilities.  Wagon roads extended from here north and south to small mines and prospects. 

Ludlow -- transfer junction for the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad that served the borax mines in Death Valley [see my Race For The Gold 3/1/13].  Also terminal for the Ludlow & Southern Railroad that provided service to the  Rochester and the Bagdad Chase silver mine located to the south.

Bagdad Station – became a popular passenger stopover and a supply point for prospectors.   In the 1920s and 30s it served travelers arriving by automobile on the Old Trails Highway.

Amboy Station – served distant mines in the Dale Mining District by wagon road.  Accommodations took form here in the 30s to serve highway travelers on Highway 66. 

Essex – a center of commercial activity for mines in the Providence Mountains to the north and mines in the Old Woman Mountains to the south.

Goffs – transfer junction for the Nevada Southern Railroad servicing Barnwell and Vanderbilt mines.  This line connected with another short-line to Searchlight, Nevada.

The name Atlantic & Pacific Railroad was removed from company signs and letterhead in 1902
.   In 1911, the company became a full blown division of the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe.

During the 1880s, thanks to competition between the two railroads, thousands of visitors and investors rushed to Los Angeles to enjoy the warm climate and buy land.  In the ten year period between 1880 and 1890, the population of Los Angeles increased by 360 percent.

By now, Huntington had outlived his partners and most of his enemies.  He controlled a vast fortune including oil, shipping and timber.  He continued to make big deals and increase his wealth until his death in 1900.

With a few exceptions, the rails are located where they were in the 1890s. Unfortunately, the depots and stations are gone.  Frequent watering places were no longer needed by modern locomotives.   

Friday, October 16, 2015


George Lee looked the part of a burro-prodding prospector --tall and weathered.  A middle aged man who’d spent his prime poking around mountains and hills that ranged from Barstow to Old Woman Springs -- a man who became the subject of stories about a lost mine.

The pick and shovel period on the Great Mojave lasted from the late 1870s to the early 1880s.  Not much to show except prospect holes and mining claim markers scattered across the landscape.  Completion of Atlantic & Pacific Railroad, connecting east to west, had by mid-decade opened barren stretches of desert to prospecting and hard rock mining.

Lee considered himself a locator of silver mines.  He told stories about casting silver into door handles and the like.  It was believed that he discovered the silver lode that later became the mining camp of Calico -- perhaps the richest mining district in the Mojave.  He discovered the Led Pencil Mine located in the Waterman Hills north of Barstow.

His prospect holes rimmed the Waterman Hills.   For some reason, Lee failed to follow up on his discovery or register his claims thus leaving their development to others including Robert W. Waterman, a future governor of California.

Lee often took refuge at Old Woman Spring, a campsite well known to early desert travelers. It’s likely that somewhere out in this unexplored, sand strewn wilderness he discovered another silver deposit and named it the White Metal Mine.

This claim he duly recorded with the San Bernardino County Recorder’s office as:  White Metal Mine, located by G. Lee 5 miles N. of the Lone Star Mine.  Located N.E. of Bear Valley (Big Bear) April 5, 1879. San Bernardino County, California.

Lee brought some ore samples to the city of San Bernardino for inspection by a few men who recognized good ore.  They agreed that Lee had indeed stumbled on a valuable property.  Customarily, a discoverer at this point, would either look for a buyer of the claim or find a partner with money to invest in its development.    

 A man who lived in Los Angeles [so the story goes] agreed to partner with Lee provided that an associate of his be allowed to personally inspect the mine.  Lee agreed and a few days later the two, Lee and the associate, rode by buckboard to Old Woman Springs where they rested for a few hours. 

At mid-afternoon, they started again and traveled for three hours before stopping to camp for the night.  Lee left the camp site on foot returning three hours later with a sack of ore samples.  Apparently, Lee didn’t trust his companion and refused to show him the samples.   The deal with that investor fell through and nothing more is known about his search for a partner. 

Lee made his headquarters at Brown’s Ranch located near the Mojave River in the Spring Valley Lake area of Victorville.  The owner of the ranch claimed that the last time he saw him, Lee was headed east on the road to Old Woman Springs.

It’s believed that a man named Hans Hoffman met Lee at the campsite and after sharing a few drinks questioned Lee about the mine’s location.  When Lee refused to tell him anything about the mine, Hoffman became threatening and in a rage struck Lee in the head with a rock. Hoffman then quickly buried Lee’s body in a shallow grave as riders on horseback approached.  

In another version of the story, Lee was secretly followed to his mine by a few depraved individuals bent on finding the claim and eliminating its owner.  They tracked Lee to an outcrop near Emerson Lake in the Dry Lake Mining District.  Unfortunately, Lee had not taken his usually meandering trail to elude those who might try to follow.  

 Not long after this incident a number of suspicious prospects were recorded near Emerson Lake by some upstanding citizens of San Bernardino.

The San Bernardino Daily Times (April 6, 1880) reported that Lee was killed by Chemehuevi Indians when exploring country east of Old Woman Springs.  This unlikely story possibly came from those individuals involved in his death.

In yet another version, Howard D Clark, in his book Lost Mines of the Old West claims that Lee had a hired man who helped him with reducing the ore by some primitive grinding process.  And that Lee’s body was found not far from San Bernardino shot through the heart at close range.  Clark believed that Lee’s hired man was the one who shot him – a man never seen or heard from again. 

 Clark gives possible credence to rumors that the mine was located in the Bullion Mountains near Deadman Lake which is now within the Twenty-nine Palms Marine Corps Base.  That would support a location east of the Dry Lake Mining District and Emerson Lake.

Years later, in a letter to the Editor of Desert Magazine, Howard Clark stated that he had met a man who claimed to have found Lee’s Lost Lode.  But, of course, the man refused to divulge the location.

There you have three different stories about George Lee and his mine.   The fact that a silver mining claim was recorded by George Lee (located northeast of Bear Valley and five miles north of The Lone Star mine) lends some credence to the story.     

If we accept as significant Old Woman Springs camp site as the place from where Lee prospected and discovered the mine, then we have a starting point for a trip to the desert to find a lost mine. 

If the mine’s location lies to the north of the Old Woman Springs (Highway 247), it will most likely be found somewhere in the Johnson Valley -- possibly near Emerson Lake.   The Campbell party recorded discoveries in this area.  However, those discoveries were of gold not silver.   I could find no silver discoveries listed in Johnson Valley before 1902.  Better look elsewhere.

If the mine’s  location lies to the east of the Old Woman Springs in the Bullion Mountains, chances are it is within the 29 Palms Marine Base and not open to the public.

If the mine’s location is to the south of the Old Woman Springs, it most likely will be found somewhere in the uplands between Black Hawk Mountain on the west and the Bighorn Mountains on the east.  One silver mine in this area deserves consideration.  

The Akron-Silver Reef Mine is located a reasonable distance from the Old Woman Springs.  It lies northeast of Bear Valley and north of the “Lester-Dale Mine” (a property perhaps named Lone Star at an earlier time).   

 Places to visit:

The Waterman Hills are located north of Barstow at Google Earth 34  55.294; 117  2.725. 

The Old Woman Springs (aka Willow Springs) are located on the south side of Highway 247 at Google Earth 34  24.526; 116  43.463.   The site is fenced.

The Akron-Silver Reef Mine is located south of Highway 247 at Google Earth 34  22.720;  116  45.070.

The Lester-Dale Mine is located south of Highway 247 at Google Earth 34  20.311; 116  46.497.


Sunday, June 14, 2015


As the Pacific Plate moved to the northwest, it slowly unhinged the mountain chain that separated the coastal plain of Southern California from the Mojave Desert. As it happened, it created Cajon Pass, a gap between the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountain ranges.  Little was known about this unusual event until the 1920s when a young geologist took an interest in the San Andreas Fault -- a rift that extends almost the length of California.

Levi Noble carried credentials of a qualified geologist with PhD and extensive field experience with the U.S. Geological Survey.  His study of rock formations in Cajon Pass led him to conclude that a “disconnect” existed across the fault zone. Terrain features and rock composition on the south side of the fault differed significantly from terrain features and rock composition on north side as if there had been lateral movement between the two sides.

In a landmark article published in 1927, Noble stated, “Scarcely anywhere in the fault zone are the rocks on the opposite sides of the master fault similar”.  He goes on, “The distribution of certain Tertiary rock masses along the master fault affords a suggestion that a horizontal shift of many miles has taken place along the rift”   

Anticipating strong disagreement from the establishment, he closed the article with, “The evidence just cited, however, is not convincing, and is certainly not definite enough to amount to proof”.

Noble makes reference to two examples of the horizontal shift in Cajon Pass:

Blue Cut -- An exposed slab of  Pelona Schist (a greenish blue crumbly mineral), located on one side of the rift faces a  very different tan colored sandstone on the other or opposite side of  the San Andreas Fault which runs through the canyon in a northwesterly direction..  (See Google Earth at: 34, 16.078; 117, 27.257.  In the 1920s, a café, gas station and campground existed at Blue Cut.  It was called Camp Cajon.)   

Hidden Lake – The second example, lies within the main strand of the fault a short distance from Blue Cut.  The shore on one side of the elongated lake is paved with pebbly Pelona Schist and the shore on the other side of the lake is a brownish, eroded sandstone. (See Google Earth at: (34, 16.399; 117, 27.952)

Dr. Robert Wallace Professor of Geology at U.C. Berkeley led a chorus denouncing Noble’s suggestion calling it “poppycock”.  The time-honored and sanctioned view held that earthquakes along fault lines cause the earth’s crust to move vertically creating mountains and valleys.  He further stressed that until science finds a physical mechanism to support sideway movement this view will stand.


Discovery of that mechanism arrived almost 40 years after the publication of Levi Noble’s landmark article.

James T. Wilson, a Canadian geologist, came up with the strange notion that continents and sea floors are not permanently fixed in place but move about the planet laterally spreading apart and bumping and scraping into one another possibly creating fault-lines where they meet. This hard-to-imagine phenomenon Wilson called “plate tectonics”.   According to this belief, the San Andreas Fault formed when a sliver of the Pacific plate began moving against the North American plate starting about four million years ago.

Plate tectonics, once accepted by those who decide such matters, opened new opportunities for PhD candidates majoring in geology and related fields. Some began analyzing organic material embedded in the fault zone; looking for evidence of past seismic events and the amount of lateral movement caused by each.

One study centered in Cajon Pass in a swampy area located at the southeast end of Lost Lake and appropriately called Lost Swamp.   A trench across the fault-trace exposed a tapestry of embedded mud, peat, pink colored sand and bits of plant and animal forms caught in crevices created by past earthquakes. 

The exposed wall of the trench is layered -- each layer representing a period of the past. Bits of charcoal and peat within or at the edge of a layer can be carbon-dated giving an approximate age which can be translated into an estimate of the event-year.

Before an earthquake or seismic event occurs, the surface of the fault-trace or zone is sandy or pebbly and relatively smooth.  During a seismic event cracks appear on this smooth surface.  In time, the cracks fill with mud and debris fed by intersecting streams and storm runoff.  Organics that can be carbon-dated also flow into the cracks and become embedded.   Size and extent of these incisions (cracks) indicate severity of the seismic event.

So what can be learned from this excavation?  The last major seismic event within the Cajon segment of the fault occurred around 1805, two-hundred and ten years ago. Prior major events occurred in 1290, 1450 AD; 5900 and 6350 BC. The earliest deposit in Cajon Pass was found in river gravel at the junction of Cleghorn Canyon and Cajon Creek dated at 23,000 BC.

The San Francisco earthquake (1906) was the last major event along the San Andreas Fault.  Estimated at between 9 and 10 on the Richter Scale, it centered on the northern segment of the fault and cause no significant seismic effect on the southern Cajon Pass sector.

Levi Noble came from a wealthy eastern family. That fact allowed him to work for the U.S. Geological Survey without compensation.  It also permitted him to pick and choose which projects he wanted to pursue.  Noble’s major contributions included the mapping and interpretation of geology in the Grand Canyon and parts of Death Valley in addition to the southern sector of the San Andreas Fault.    

The Noble’s lived on a fruit orchard near the edge of the San Andreas Fault in the San Gabriel Mountains. Levi wanted to experience an earthquake first hand.  But that never happened.  The Great Fault remained fiendishly quiet during all of the years that they lived there.

After retirement he and his wife moved back to his family’s estate in Auburn, New York.  Levi Noble died in 1965.  Hopefully, Levi became aware of Wilson’s discovery that supported his own 1927 conclusions about seismic movement along the San Andreas Fault.   

POST SCRIPT    I checked Google Earth for the location of the Pink River that flowed into Lost Lake eons ago and noted that the stream currently shows an offset of 222.09 meters (lateral movement caused by earthquakes).  According to information from the Lost Swamp excavation, the initial disconnect occurred about 9,000 years ago.  That gives an average slip rate of about 2.4 centimeters per year.

 Now, the evidence just cited, however, is not convincing, and is certainly not definite enough to amount to proof.  It may well be poppycock. 


Monday, April 20, 2015

Ambush At Wingate Pass

Ambush at Wingate Pass became headline news throughout the southland in 1906.   From the top of the Wingate Pass, two men huddled behind a pile of rocks prepared to fire on a caravan that slowly made it way up an old road.    A road that extended from the Harmony Mine in Death Valley to a railroad station located in the town of Mojave.  Twenty mule-team wagons, pictured on cans of borax soap, moved through this pass during the 1880s

Walter Scott, popularly known as “Death Valley Scotty”, his brother Warner Scott, A.Y. Pearl, Daniel Owens, Albert Johnson and a number of lesser beings were on their way to inspect Scotty’s storied gold mine in Death Valley -- a mine that many believed did not exist.

Mining engineer Daniel Owens made it clear to Walter Scott that the mine needed to be inspected before he could approve a sizable investment in its development.  Wealthy Eastern investors had hired Owens to make that determination. 

Suddenly, gun shots erupted as the party approach the canyon wash. At almost the same instant, Scotty started yelling and waving his hat, “stop the shooting, stop the shooting, Warner’s been hit”  When the dust settled, Warner Scott was found laying on the ground with a bullet in his thigh -- a condition that called for serious medical attention.  To save Warner, the party prepared to leave at first light for the two day ride back to the railroad station at Daggett.  From the station, Warner was transported to a hospital in Los Angeles where he made a successful recovery.

Bill Keys, one of the men perched behind the rocks, had shot his rifle in the air as his part in the staged ambush intended to scare Owens into retreating from his mission.  Jack Brody, the other man behind the rock pile, was believed to be the one who shot Warner.  Keys said that Jack had been drinking at the time of the shooting.  Both men would be charged with “assault with a deadly weapon”.

The early years of the 20th Century found Bill Keys working at a number of mines as a laborer and at a number of cattle ranches as a cowboy.  He served a year as a deputy sheriff in Kingman, Arizona before moving on to Nevada and California to begin his career as a prospector.

 Keys prospected around the mining camps of Goldfield and Rhyolite where he met Walter Scott.   Both men moved on to Death Valley where Keys located a number of prospects in the Virgin Springs area located above the famous Ashford Mill.   He gained a sizable interest in the well-known Desert Hound Mine and served as its manager until 1910.  It was here that Scotty talked him into taking part in his Wingate escapade. 

After the ambush, Keys returned to his mine and prepared to go into hiding.  

Sheriff Ralphs, a few deputies and a newspaper reporter headed north on a two week trip with a warrant for the arrest of Keys and Brody.  The posse camped near Wingate Pass before moving on to the canyon where Keys maintained his belongings.  Men working there claimed that the two fugitives  had left the canyon on foot and headed west.  Before returning to San Bernardino, Sheriff Ralphs deputized Jack Hartigan to continue the hunt. 

Following Bill Keys distinctive boot tracks, Hartigan travelled across Death Valley, through Warm Springs Canyon, around Butte Valley, up and over Mengel Pass and down Goler Wash to the old Panamint City wagon road.

The pursuit ended at a table in Chris Wicht’s saloon in Ballarat; a small mining community located near the center of the Panamint Valley.  Hartigan arrested Keys and arranged for his passage by stage to San Bernardino.  Brody was never found.

Meanwhile, Death Valley Scotty, a man also being sought by the sheriff, had other plans and took flight to Portland, Oregon where he played the lead role in a production titled, ”Scott  King of the Desert Mine”-- a role in which he played himself.

The legal entanglement that followed the incident at Wingate Pass made more headlines and added to the fame of Death Valley Scotty.  As the wheels of justice slowly turned, Bill Keys would remain in the San Bernardino County Jail with plenty of time to considering his future.

At the preliminary hearing before Judge Benjamin Bledsoe, Scotty played his ace informing the court that the shooting had taken place in Inyo County and, therefore, outside of the jurisdiction of the San Bernardino courts.  On that note, the judge ordered that a survey be conducted to determine the county boundary-line with respect to Wingate Pass.  (Old timers claimed that Scotty had one of his men move boundary corner markers one mile to the south.)

 Shelton Stoddard (of Stoddard Wells fame) performed the survey and found that indeed the county line fell one mile south of the Pass.  All charges against Scotty and Keys were dropped and Inyo County, having no interest in the affair, decided not to pursue the matter. 

The second half of Bill Keys eventful life took place on a 160 acre homestead located near a mine that he acquired for unpaid back-taxes.  The ranch would eventually be surrounded by Joshua Tree National Monument much to Keys’ displeasure.  As the years passed, the Desert Queen Ranch would support a wife and five children.  

The neighboring Barker & Shay ranch ran a sizable herd of cattle over the open range and had maintained a cow camp on what later became Keys’ property.  Problems arose between the two outfits after Keys put in a fence that closed out the neighbor’s cows

Homer Urton, an uneducated, holstered-up young man, worked for the Barker & Shay.  He hoped to advance his reputation as a gunfighter by baiting Keys into a fight by driving a herd of cattle across the Keys’ ranch near the cabin.

Fortunately for Keys, the incident that followed was witnessed by a man who would testify that the shooting was self-defense. The fight went down quickly. After choice words were exchanged, Urton started to draw his gun.  It hadn’t cleared the holster when he realized that Keys had shot him in the arm.  Keys, never one to hesitate in a gunfight, claimed that he could have killed the man but decided not to.  Wow.

Bill was arrested, tried by a jury, and found “not guilty” based on the witness’ statement.   Shay’s brother was the Sheriff of San Bernardino County, a fact that would complicate things for Keys the next time that he was forced to draw his gun.

Worth Bagley had retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office because of a mental problem for which he had received treatment.  Some speculate that the county sheriff and others encouraged Bagley to take up residence near the Keys’ ranch.  Bagley tested expert with both pistol and rifle -- the stage was set for trouble.

The day started out like most days on a desert ranch with Bill Keys driving his 1925 Victory Dodge truck on the road that crossed Bagley’s property.  Keys had it on good authority that the road was open to public travel by usage.  In other words the road had been in use for a long time. Bagley didn’t see it that way and warned Keys not to use it.

When Bill arrived at the well he found that the pump engine needed a replacement part which meant a return to the ranch. On his way back he stopped to read a sign that had popped up in the road.  The sign red, “Keys This is My Last Warning Stay Off My Property”.  Bagley had written it out on a piece of cardboard and placed it in the road while Keys was at the pump.  Keys decided to see what was ahead and stepped out of his truck.

Keys walked up a short rise. As he reached the top of the rise he spotted Bagley with pistol in hand crouched behind a dead Yucca.  Bagley turned, saw Keys and started after him.

Keys ran back to his truck and grabbed his repeater rifle.  Bagley took a shot that came within inches of Key’s head and grazed the door of the truck.   Keys wasted no time opening fire.  The first shot caught Bagley in the arm as he ran down towards the truck in a zigzag pattern holding his pistol out in front.  Keys next shot spun Bagley as it entered his chest.  Bagley went down.   Keys got back in his truck and headed on to the ranch.  

Keys viewed this incident as simply a gun fight between two men..  He didn’t need to go over and view the body because he new Bagley was dead.  And besides, he needed to get the pump fixed so that the cattle would have water.  He would turn himself in to the local constable later.

The investigation revealed that Bagley’s body ironically had fallen just across the San Bernardino –Riverside county-line.  The Riverside County District Attorney would prosecute the case.  Bill’s attorney would claim self-defense.  After all, Bagley shot first and came down off of the rise with intent to kill

The District Attorney charged that Keys had shot Bagley in the back as he, Bagley,  retreated from Keys.  The County Medical Examiner testified that the location of the wounds and other matters gave evidence that Bagley was shot in the back. 

On July 23, 1943, the jury found Bill Keys guilty of manslaughter based on the Medical Examiner’s testimony.  He was given a sentence one to ten years to be served at San Quentin State Penitentiary.  The jury ignored the fact that footprints showed that Bagley was moving forward not retreating. 

Earl Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason mysteries and founder of  “The Court of Last Resort”, an organization dedicated to solving case involving wrongful convictions, agreed to review the evidence in the Bagley shooting case.

Through analysis of crime scene photographs by a distinguished forensic pathologist, Gardner was able to convince the California Adult Authority that Bagley was shot in the chest that the bullet had entered his left side consist with the defenses argument  that Bagley was facing Keys.  Bill Keys was given parole followed by a full pardon issued by Governor Goodwin J. Knight.

Back on the ranch Bill kept busy rebuilding his irrigation system, visiting with friends and looking to the future.  His relationship with Park employees had improved as he took pleasure talking with park visitors that dropped by.

Bill Keys died on June 28, 1969, and is buried next to his wife at the family cemetery located on the ranch..

Postscript   I met Bill Keys in the spring of 1958.  I was with my boss Garnet Jones, who had known the Keys for many years.  On our way home from the ranch, Jones filled me in on some of Bill’s adventures including the legend of the Ambush at Wingate Pass.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Gold Bar Incident at Rhyolite

In the summer of ’04, Shorty Harris’ discovery gave rise to a true gold stampede.    He named it Bullfrog because the hunk of ore that he held in his hand was dark green in color and he thought it looked a little bit like a bullfrog.

  Gold strikes soon took place to the east of Bullfrog which caused the center of commercial activity to shift in that direction to a new camp known as Rhyolite. Over the next year mining claims sold and resold as was usually the case with new discoveries.

The gold fever frenzy doubled and then increased some more as the Rhyolite Herald reported, Men on foot, burros, mule teams, freighters, light rigs, saddle outfits, automobiles, houses on wheels – all coming down the line from Tonopah and Goldfield raising a srting of dust a hundred miles long.

Locals believed that a great future lay ahead for the district as stone and brick buildings quickly replaced tent houses and wooden stores.  Prices for building lots and mining claims soared even before extent of the ore bodies had been determined by government geologists.

By 1906, Rhyolite had become a modern western city with new construction moving  in all directions.  Survey stakes marked the rights-of-way for two railroads that would connect the town with Las Vegas to the south and Tonapah to the north.  

J.P. Loftus, a graduate of Amherst, arrived in Rhyolite  to do some investing for a friend who wanted to own a gold mine.  His astounding over-night success as a mine speculator and stock manipulator might have raised a few eye brows if it hadn’t been that everyone else enjoyed the same success.

A gold mine a few miles north of Rhyolite showed good test results and became the Bullfrog Gold Bar Mining Company owned by Loftus and his new partner James R. Davis.  The enterprise received wide acclaim causing share prices in the company to climb.

Equipment soon arrived at the site and within a few months ore was being lifted out of three shafts.   A few pockets within the mineral belt produced ore as high as $1,500 to the ton, but the average ran below one-hundred dollars. In order to be profitable, a mill had to be constructed on site.

Orders were placed for ten milling stamps and the necessary attachments for collecting gold.  By early months of 1908, the mill was up but only marginally operational.  The partners gave the press glowing reports and share prices in the company hit new highs.  Loftus stated that there was enough ore blocked-out below ground to keep the mill running full time for years.   

The industrialist Charles M. Schwab took an option to acquire the property for a reported one million dollars. Schwab extended the option a number of time before deciding to drop the deal. He claimed that the San Francisco earthquake put a damper on his enthusiasm.

Less than six months from the beginning of operations the mine and mill were sitting idle awaiting construction of a new pipeline.  At the same time, a local newspaper reported that 200,000 shares of the companies stock had been sold by a bank in the mid-west.  The dumping of that many shares caused share-price to sharply decline. 

Undisturbed by unfolding events, the two partners left the district for a two month tour of Europe.    Loftus stated that they would look into matters when they returned. A current of suspicion ran through the camp that the shares dumped on the market belonged to Loftus and Davis.   

While the partners toured Europe, their attorney representing, the Nevada Exploration Company, placed the Bullfrog Gold Bar Mining Company into bankruptcy proceedings over a loan that was made to help finance the mill.  Interestingly, the sole owners of  Nevada Exploration Co were non-other than Loftus and Davis.  In effect the partners brought suit against themselves which under Nevada law was perfectly legal.

 “Fraud of the Worst Kind”, cried the   Rhyolite Herald as the bankruptcy court passed ownership of the Gold Bar Mine to Loftus and Davis.  The court awarded nothing to those still holding shares in the Bullfrog Gold Bar Mining Company.

The partners returned from their European trip sole owners of the mine and the mill.   
As full owners, a new company was formed that offered stock at a discount to those who had lost their money in the Bullfrog Gold Bar Mining Company.  

The full story unspooled in local newspapers giving details that were uncovered from company records and findings in court documents. Threatening Letters soon appeared in the papers from the dispossessed a few recommended a hanging. 

Facing public outrage, the partners quietly discontinued attempts to sell stock in the new company and each took early retirement.  Loftus, in later years, from his home in Santa Barbara, claimed that it was the responsibility of those who invest in mining stock to look to their own interest. He had no regrets.

In 1907, the federal government issued its report on mines within the Bullfrog district.  In summery, the report stated:   “It is evident that the prosperity of the camp must depend on the successful working of ore much inferior in grade [to that found in Goldfield]”.  Wow.

The report supported what many mine owners already knew.  Decline in production and the high cost of recovery spelled the end.

 By 1910 the population of the Bullfrog District had dropped from a high of 10,000 to less than 500. 


The ghost town of Rhyolite has received preservation support from BLM, Friends of Rhyolite,  Beatty Historical Society, Nye County and others.  The effort of government agencies and private organizations has made it possible for the public to enjoy visiting the site     

The scenic ghost town of Rhyolite is locate about 4 miles west of Beatty, Nevada on Highway 374.  Well worth a visit.

Friday, June 20, 2014


 The Esmeralda Mining District attracted prospectors, shopkeepers and tradesmen, many of whom arrived with great optimism.  Tents and makeshift buildings scattered between Last Chance Hill and Esmeralda Gulch became the town of Aurora.

Sam Clemens headed west to avoid the Civil War and to try his luck in the mining camps of the Nevada Territory.  He arrived at the Esmeralda mines in 1862 and began searching for silver along a ledge that showed promise.  Clemens and a partner eventually discovered an outcrop that assayed a high percentage silver.  They marked their claim but for some reason failed to register it with the mining district secretary within the ten days required. 

During that period, the partners left their prospect to explore Mono Lake located 15 miles to the southwest.  When they returned to Aurora they found that others had legally taken possession of their claim.  In his book about his travels in the west, Clemens states that, “a great fortune was lost by this misdeed”.   Years later, fame and fortune caught up with Clemens with publication of Huckleberry Flynn.

 Aurora also attracted the unsavory.  One-hundred miles and at least two mountain ranges separated the town from any recognizable center having a civilized population -- well beyond the reach of justice.  

 The Daly Gang, a loose collection of characters, rode into Aurora and found employment with the Pond Mining Company.  They were to use what ever means necessary to intimidate those who might testify against the Pond in court.   

The Pond became locked in a legal battle with the Del Monte mines over the extent of  their respective claims.   The two represented the largest and best financed mining companies in the district: both willing to spend great sums to win their case. 

John Daly cemented his place in Western Lore by killing ten men before his 25th birthday.  Other members of the gang included Three-Fingers Mc Dowell, Mike Fagen, John Gillman, Wash Parker, Irish Tom Carberry, William Buckley, Pliney Gardiner and a few others whose names have slipped from history. 

When H.T. Parlin, a witness for Del Monte, got word that he was to be executed by a gang member, he quickly sold his mining interests and left by early stage for the east coast.  Both the president and counsel of the Del Monte Company became targets.  Rather than leave town they hired armed bodyguards and avoided standing near windows or in doorways.  

At Daly’s urging, one of the gang members entered the race for city marshal in the 1863 city election.  He won on a split vote among a number of candidates.  Daly became Assistant Marshal and the rest of the gang became city policemen.  Shakedowns of prostitutes, gamblers and other less prominent citizens provided gang members with extra gambling money.  Crime went up.  Punishment went down.

On a cool October evening, activity at the P.J. McMahan’s Del Monte Exchange Saloon was interrupted when John Daly confronted George Lloyd at the bar.  They had had a longstanding argument about something that wasn’t going to be settled without a call to the local coroner.  Customers quickly sized the seriousness of this encounter taking their leave in true western style by tripping over broken chairs and overturned tables as they headed for the door.

The two men drew their guns at the same time.  Standing perhaps only six feet apart, both fired.   Lloyd went to the floor with wounds serious enough that he would soon die.  For those keeping score, this would be Daly’s eleventh killing.

After two hung juries, the Pond and Del Monte companies settled their differences out of court.  The Daly Gang no longer on the payroll received a second jolt when the city elected a new marshal and all members of the gang were replaced on the police force.    

William Johnson, a potato farmer and proprietor of a way station located south of Aurora, rode into town to do some drinking and gambling. When Daly found out that Johnson was in town, he declared that he could now take revenge. He believed that Johnson was responsible for the death of his friend James Sears. 

Johnson partied away the evening: drinking, playing billiards and doing some gambling.  Two gang members stayed close to him and brought him drinks while   Daly, Three-Fingered Jack, William Buckley and James Masterson waited crouched behind a woodpile across from the saloon.

When the bar closed at four in the morning, Johnson staggered up the street.  As he approached the woodpile, Daly stepped out and shot him pointblank in the head.  Buckley then slashed Johnson’s throat with a bowie knife.  

That morning citizens of Aurora learned that Johnson had been murdered.  Cold blooded killing of a respected member of the community by this gang of miscreants would not be tolerated.  Because the capital of the territory was two days ride from the district, it was agreed that the locals should take the law into their own hand.

At noon, the coroner, JT Moore, convened an inquest over the body of Johnson.  SB Vance was about to be sworn in as a witness when an angry miner pulled a gun and shot Vince in the groin.  The inquest ended when Daly arrived, gun in hand, demanding to know who shot his friend Vance.

The next day 400 citizens met to form a Citizens’ Safety Committee. Some were issued rifles from the Aurora City Guard armory.  A few of the members had taken part in a vigilante uprising in the Mother Lode and gave guidance to the proceedings. 

A few witnesses agreed to testify against the gang when the coroner reopened the inquest.  Following the hearing Daly, Buckley, McDowell and Masterson were charged with the murder of William Johnson and held for trial by the Citizens Safety Committee. 

Moving rapidly -- vigilantes blocked all roads leading into town, placed the City Marshal under house arrest and took possession of the prisoners.   

A jury selected by the Committee was convened a few days later.  Based on findings by the coroner, the four men were sentenced to death by hanging.  In anticipation of the outcome, workmen with hammer and saw began raising a wooden gallows large enough to accommodate four men

At noon on February 9, 1864, the condemned men were brought to the gallows and directed to take their final steps up a ladder to a platform ten feet above the ground. 

They were then allowed to step forward on the platform and address the enthusiastic
crowd, numbering, by some estimates, close to 5,000.

Daly stated that, “I killed Johnson, do you understand that, Johnson was a damn Mormon thief…”  He then pointed his finger and spoke to a man brandishing a gun, “If I had a revolver I’d make you get”, he said.  

Buckley stated: “I deserve to be punished and I die a brave man … All of you boys must come up to my wake in John Daly’s cabin to night.  Be sure of this.”

McDowell declared “Gentlemen, I am as innocent as the man in the moon…  I don’t want my body to be buried with the balance of them.”

Masterson simply declared, “Gentlemen, I am innocent.”

After a local preacher led the spectators in prayer, the order was given to begin the execution.  With their hands tied, a blindfold over their eyes and a noose placed around their necks, the four men then took their place over a trap door. 

The firing of a cannon located next to the gallows signaled a dramatic end to the spectacle as the four men dropped below the platform then abruptly reached the end of their rope.         

When Governor Nye and US Marshal Wasson arrived in Aurora things had quieted down.  A meeting with the Safety Committee convinced the governor that the men had been given a fair trial.  The Governor warned that any more vigilante activity will bring martial law to the camp.

The remaining gang members took leave of Aurora soon after the hanging.  Irish Tom Carberry went on to gain more fame as a gunfighter in the town of Austin where he eliminated two lesser known trouble makers S.B.Vince and Charles Ridgely.   

Prospectors and town folk began leaving Aurora when it became clear that paying ore did not run deep in the district and new opportunities awaited them a few miles to the south in Bodie.

The two mines continued production off and on well into the Twentieth Century.  During the 1960s most of the buildings which were constructed of red brick were destroyed by scavengers who sold the bricks to home developers in Southern California.  Nothing now exists except foundations. 

The town site can be reached from Highway 395.  Aurora is located at: 38 16.450; 118 54.083 on Google Earth.