One town was abandoned while one lives on. Both Calico and Daggett were founded in the early 1880s, part of a silver boom in this part of California’s Mojave Desert. And yet, only a few decades later, one – Calico – had been abandoned, while Daggett lives on to this day. Why? What can we learn from the story of these two tiny towns? And how can we experience both towns to truly understand the story of natural resources in this part of California?
Without question, Calico Ghost Town is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the greater Barstow area. Founded in 1881 as a silver mining town, by 1885 Calico had a population of around 1200 and more than 500 recorded silver mines. Borax mining kept the town prospering after the silver market collapsed, making it not financially sensible to continue pursuing the metal. By 1890, the population was around 3500, but only a few years later, Calico was abandoned.
Just a few miles south of Calico, Daggett had a similar arc. The town was founded in 1883 as a mining center, and in 1891 benefited when Francis Marion Smith, the “Borax King,” moved his operations there. However, by 1911 fortunes had reversed, with borax no longer being financially feasible and the industry moving to Death Valley. Daggett, however, was not abandoned, as a predecessor of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad had built tracks through. And while plans for Daggett to be a junction were scrapped in favor of Barstow, the rail provided a bit of life.
Both Calico and Daggett had a revitalization in the second half of the 20th century, but in very different ways. In 1951, Walter Knott (of Knott’s Berry Farm fame) purchased Calico. He figured that if he could build a fake ghost town at his Southern California theme park, he could certainly rebuild one that already existed. Construction was done around several buildings that survived from the town’s heyday, with efforts taken to rebuild as close to the originals as Knott could get. Almost immediately, the prospect of seeing a real ghost town attracted tourists, and in 1966 the property was transferred to San Bernardino County, where it continues to be run as a county park.
Daggett’s revitalization came not as a drive for tourism, but as a completely logical next chapter in the town’s life as a center of resource exploitation. But this time, rather than focusing industry on silver or borax, it was the power of the sun that made Daggett relevant. In 1984, the world’s first commercial solar power plant, SEGS 1, opened right here. It was followed in 1985 by SEGS 2. At the same time, an experimental project called Solar One also became operational in the desert sun outside Daggett. The technology from this ultimately successful project would lead to some of the world’s most influential solar projects, copying Solar One’s central tower that harnessed solar energy reflected by mirror-like panels. Those projects were ultimately decommissioned and demolished by the early 2000s.
Despite similar starts, and even some similarities to their redevelopment, visiting Calico and Daggett today would seem to be opposite experiences. One – Calico – is loaded with tourists. It offers a train ride for children, gun fight re-enactments, old time photographs, and a cafe with surprisingly good burgers. The other – Daggett – is barely a blip on a map, with a couple hundred determined residents and some abandoned, formerly important buildings. And yet, underneath the “ghost-town-modern” designs of Calico and the faded marquis signage of Daggett, these two towns are part of the same story, sharing more than the exteriors would seem to suggest.
While Calico caters to tourists, charges an entrance fee, and offers some experiences (like gold panning) that are absolutely not a part of what this town would have ever seen, there is a layer of truth underneath the facade. Visitors can tour an actual silver mine, one of the many that made this area boom. Walking through the dusty main drag of Calico, one can’t help but look around at the desert mountains, feel the hot, arid air, and admire those who actually lived right here. This was a real town, with real stories, and its second life as a near theme park cannot take away from that. Some of the buildings here have stood for well over a century, defying the desert sands that would seek to take them over. There is power in that.
Likewise, Daggett is much more than what it seems on a superficial level, and visitors who check in at the local Daggett Museum, or contact the Daggett Historical Society, will be treated to some true wonders if they dig below the surface. A blacksmith shop stands just as if it were abandoned yesterday, projects seemingly half done, and the historical society offers demonstrations. A nearby home is being converted to a mining museum, the collection of helmets (some of which were no more than cloth caps with a place to hold a candle) is itself reason enough to visit once it opens, or to arrange a pre-opening tour with the Daggett Historical Society. And a nearby solar farm churns out energy for the community, soon to be replaced by one of the largest installations in the southwest, a fitting circle in the importance of this tiny town to what has become a huge industry.
Calico and Daggett. Two sides of one coin representing the story of resource exploitation in California’s Mojave Desert. More importantly, two experiences that, together, show us what was, what is, and what can be. Whether you love silver or borax, solar power or tourism, a visit to these two small desert outposts is an important part of the historical fabric of this beautiful and fascinating portion of the country.
There are more thank yous than I have space to write here. Thank you to the Daggett Historical Society and to Calico Ghost Town for hosting me. Thank you to all those from Daggett and the surrounding communities who spoke to me about their home. And thank you especially to the Barstow Chamber of Commerce for arranging my trip, for welcoming me, and for giving me the opportunity to learn with and from you.
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