Photo courtesy of San Bernardino County Regional Parks.

By John R. Beyer, Daily Press

In 1881, one of the largest silver strikes in California occurred in a place named Calico. This rough-and-ready mining town grew, almost overnight, as miners dug into the multi-colored mountains which inspired the name for the town and pulled out tons of silver.

With over 500 mines, and a combined output of over $20 million in a little over a decade, Calico became the place to go.

Even though the silver dried up in the mid-1890s and the miners left, Calico is still the place to go for tourists looking for a bit of authentic old west history. Nearly 130 years later, this tiny piece of western lore, is one of the most visited living ghost towns in California.

We love Calico, truth be told. Laureen and I have performed western skits there, walked the main street garbed in our best period attire, posed for hundreds of photographs and had conversations with visitors from around the world.

History is important, and keeping it alive thrills us.

But this isn’t about us. It’s about the location of a place where people made dangerous journeys, sometimes against all odds, to seek a better life for themselves and their families. The dreams of easy riches drove miners to embark on a trip which didn’t guarantee anything, except hardship.

Most dreams were never fulfilled, but those men did make the journey with those dreams in tow. Perhaps it was enough for them, those dreams. A handful of silver in your pocket would be nice, but the dream is probably just as important. It was the catalyst to go beyond what they believed they were capable of, and if they didn’t achieve a fortune, well, they proved they were tough enough to try.

That’s what visitors discover in Calico, just a short drive northeast from Barstow. Tourists, no matter if they are locals or from around the nation or world, all believe the ruggedness of these pioneers is something worth reliving.

If Calico isn’t a piece of the unique American story, then nothing is.

Barry Clark, a consummate wild west performer described it well: “It’s an up-close and personal visit into history, while interacting with a few galoots acting-up along the way. It’s also just fun.”

According to Pico Pistolero, Calico’s resident gambler, “A visit to Calico is a rare opportunity to experience how early miners eked out a living that formed the fabric of the American West.”

In 2005, California’s governor at the time, Arnold Schwarzenegger, proclaimed that Calico was to be California’s Silver Rush Ghost Town. A great honor for a small, almost forgotten piece of desert real estate purchased in the 1950s by Walter Knott — yes, the founder of Knott’s Berry Farm.

Before Schwarzenegger, the broken and deserted former silver town was bought and brought back to life by Knott. He knew the history of the place and believed others should know it, too. His belief was so strong that instead of making it part of his entertainment industry, he donated it to the San Bernardino County Regional Parks system in 1966.

Knott wanted everyone to enjoy and understand the importance of this small community crammed against the hills, pockmarked with mining tunnels dug by many seeking unending fortunes.

Walking along the steep main street makes one wonder how people coped in these conditions. It must have been a tough life. Hard and cruel. But they kept going, like many during that time period.

With the spirit of hard work, the town grew to over 1,200 residents. Three hotels, five general stores, a market, saloons, three restaurants, boarding houses and, of course, (please don’t read this to the children) brothels were soon spreading out along the main street of Calico.

A few years after silver was discovered, more fortune came to Calico with the discovery of the borate mineral colemanite. Huh?

OK, it’s a mineral used for heat resistant glass and other things like cosmetics, medicines and industrial usages. Well, I just learned something. That’s all I got. I’m not a mineralogist but it’s a pretty rock, too. Maybe collectors would like it on a shelf in their house.

After that discovery, the population grew to over 3,000 in Calico. That was a decent size town during the 1890s. Then, just like the silver, the colemanite dried up, and the town’s population left for brighter futures. Dreams were dashed and perhaps new dreams were formed. Soon, the town turned ghostly quiet.

In fact, like all good stories, there are rumors that otherworldly spirits may inhabit the nearby Boot Hill. This is the section of town easily visited just southwest of the entrance, where locals and badmen were buried during Calico’s heyday.

Take a walk around the graves — perhaps something in the wind may whisper of an undiscovered vein of silver, or the pretty colemanite. Of course, perhaps it’s just the wind?

Calico is a must see, and it’s so close. Walk the streets, watch the western reenactors, visit the shops, have a meal at one of the restaurants, quaff a beer, visit the historic buildings and enjoy the atmosphere.

Odessa Red, co-owner of Odessa Red’s Parlour Crafts and Curiosities, said, “I’ve met countless tourists over the past 20 years who love visiting. They come back year after year because of the history and the town seems almost magical to them. It is worth a visit.”

California’s Silver Rush Ghost Town is worth a trip anytime of the year. Perhaps you’ll see townsfolk sashaying along the boardwalks, all dressed up going about their business.

Or maybe they’re the ghosts of the folks from back when Calico was alive with those hard-working people who are still hoping to make their dreams come true.

Contact John R. Beyer at