Post Office Springs Serving Those Avoiding The Law
According to some who have written about this period, the canyons along the Panamint Mountain Range secreted a number of unsavory characters who were wanted by the law. This fact has not been well documented and there are those who believe that these canyons were populated by your typical bunch of prospectors both good and bad.
Regardless of which story you believe, the residents came up with an interesting way to correspond with the world outside. A wagon and stagecoach road was constructed connecting this area with the city of San Bernardino to take advantage of the growing number of mines and prospects occurring along the Panamint Range. The stage driver would swing by and drop off mail into a box wired to mesquite tree located near this spring on his way up and pick up mail on his return trip. The spring never received official “post office” designation. Nevertheless, it served as such for many years.
Prospecting in the Panamint Mountains began sometime in the 1860. But it wasn’t until 1873 that a major strike at the head of Surprise Canyon got the attention of investors willing to underwrite development of the silver discoveries.
Overnight Panamint City was born. Typical mining camp activities sprang to life: saloons along the main street, a blacksmith shop, a general store, a restaurant, a couple of boarding houses, a hotel and, of course, Martha’s girls located on Maiden Lane. At its peak, upwards of 2,000 people resided this canyon, but by the middle of 1876, hard financial times in California caused operations at the mines to cease. This was followed a few months later by a cloudburst that washed a good part of Panamint City down the canyon signaling the end.
There was competition between Los Angeles and the city of San Bernardino to capture trade with the mines in the Panamints and surrounding area. The Los Angeles’ interests built a section through the Slate Range to connect with the road to Cerro Gordo and Owens Valley. A San Bernardino businessman financed a road from the Mojave River north past Granite Springs through Black Canyon and on to Post Office Spring - the last stop before climbing Surprise Canyon to Panamint City. Wagons from San Bernardino hauled supplies to the mining camps along this route and, as mentioned, stagecoaches also used the road to carry passengers both ways.
Prospecting occurred throughout the Panamint Range. Pleasant Canyon, located directly above Post Office Spring, witnessed some serious activity starting in 1896 with work beginning at the Ratcliff Gold Mine. Other claims soon followed which were later included in the Ratcliff Consolidated Gold Mines.
By this time, Post Office Spring had gained a general store, a blacksmith shop and stocked feed for horse and mule teams.
Folks at the Ratcliff decided to build a town to better serve the miners and their families. They considered expanding the area around Post Office Spring but rejected it because much of it was too confined and marshy. So, in 1897, a site was selected near the mouth of Surprise Canyon comprising a total of 80 acres. A town site plan was prepared and approved by Inyo County Board of Supervisors.
They named it Ballarat after the prosperous mining town in Australia. The hay-days of Ballarat coincided with mining activity at the Ratcliff and other operations. By 1907, things slowed and the population dwindled. A post office was authorized here in1897 and serve the area until its deactivation in 1917.
During this period, Post Office Spring became the butcher shop for the community. Lack of refrigeration meant that animals had to be slaughtered on order. This activity took place under a tree near the spring.
When I visited the spring back in the ‘60s, I was greeted by a fellow that had taken up residence in a dilapidated shack. I couldn’t get much information from him about the history of the spring or its use as a mail drop. I later heard that he had filed a water claim on the spring which he figured allowed him to live there.
Except for the 80-acre Ballarat town site, which is privately held, the rest of the surrounding land, including Post Office Spring, is federally owned and managed by the U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management.
Might be worth a side-trip next time you visit Ballarat or attempt the road to Panamint City.