All’s quiet...in three historic desert mining towns

By David Ferrell, Los Angeles Times
Wednesday November 21, 2001

RANDSBURG — Three old gold mining towns still stand in the dry hills south of Ridgecrest, but you can’t buy a restaurant dinner in any of them. The only gas station shut down years ago. The bank closed after World War I. There are no supermarkets or clothing stores, no movie theaters, no traffic lights. 

The population of Randsburg, Johannesburg and Red Mountain — adjoining dots along U.S. 395 near Ridgecrest — has dwindled to 400 people, a flinty group of retirees, miners and shopkeepers. They answer to names such as “Cactus Pete,” “Wolf” and “Indian Vic” and live in disjointed rows of old mining shacks, weatherworn plank houses with corrugated tin roofs and dirt sidewalks. 

One of California’s few surviving gold mines yielded 100,000 ounces here last year, leached from the ore of the fabled Yellow Aster deposit, but otherwise not much happened. 

During the week, when many of the shops are locked, regulars wander into the general store for coffee, tri-tip beef tacos, barbecue sandwiches and sundries such as pancake mix, cans of tuna or stew, and toilet paper. 

“That’s the main thing in town,” says 59-year-old Gene Curry, who is opening his own store a few doors down. “I’ve been going there since 1961 — since I first came up here.” 

Curry, a cigar-smoking former truck driver and movie production grip, rented a vacant shop and is about to open the Hole in the Wall Mercantile, a Western boutique with a cow skull hanging over the door. He belongs to a number of Wild West groups, including the Lone Pine Gang, Red Rock Canyon Gang and Mojave Mule Skinners, and hopes to spur more tourism by staging re-enacted shootouts. 

J. Bart Parker, the local historian, is likewise no fan of crowds and noise. He dealt with that for three years, living in Salinas. “That was enough for me,” he says. Parker prefers the mining district’s wide-open spaces. “I don’t have to listen to the sirens and stuff all the time,” he says. “And the people are friendly. I know my neighbors here.” 

The quiet is immense — enough to hear distant bird chirps on the wind. When a vending machine clicks on, the hum becomes intrusive. At the empty edges of town, the silence is so deep it becomes hard to imagine the activity that once filled the hilly streets. 

Several thousand people convened on the region after the discovery of gold in 1895. Two of the boomtowns, Randsburg and Johannesburg, were christened after the great mother-lode region of South Africa: the Rand mining district and the city of Johannesburg. Red Mountain took its name from a dusky, muscular peak that rises alongside U.S. 395. The Yellow Aster vein was mined until World War II, then abandoned for 40 years. The Glamis Rand Mining Co. reopened the site in 1986 and now employs about 80 people to extract and process low-grade ore. It is not — and will never be — enough to support the depressed economy. 

Many of the historic homes sit empty. Garage-size fixer-uppers have sold for $5,000; larger places go for $20,000 to $40,000. “You could probably buy a mansion for $50,000,” says Dana Lyons of Coldwell Banker in Ridgecrest, 22 miles away, “if there was one out there.” 

It could get worse. At current gold prices, the mine is due to close in a year or so. Ore processing will end several years after that. 

The fate of the area will rest almost wholly on tourism. Brenda Ingram, owner of the five-unit Cottage Hotel, Randsburg’s only inn, isn’t overly worried. The district has survived before without the mine. There is a visitors center at Jawbone Canyon. Photographers show up to film movies, commercials and music videos. 

Tommy Keep, a location scout, found the area 13 years ago for a jeans commercial. He met his future wife, Jennifer, on the shoot. They kept coming back. Jennifer eventually took a job at the mine. Their daughter, Holly, attends the one-room Rand School along with seven other students in kindergarten through third grade. 

Sipping coffee at the general store, Keep idly thumbs through the paper. He likes it fine here — loves it, actually. But he’d rather give you the standard one-liner, how he got stuck out here in the middle of nowhere. “We came up to shoot a Levis commercial,” he says, “and I haven’t saved up the bus fare out.”