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.

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.