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Panamint City

Stories about Panamint City

The following stories about Panamint City are found in Belden (1966, p.19-20).

Early in 1873 a group of four or five bandits hauled some bullion they had taken from a Wells Fargo express box into Surprise Canyon in the Panamint Range. They were certain they were being pursued, but reasoned rightly that neither a sense of duty nor the posted rewards would bring venturesome law officers to the steep, winding canyon where an ambush was possible at every turn. The highwaymen had a supply of provisions. They were sure that the hot breath of pursuit would cool after a bit or be diverted to some fresher crime.

Needless to say there was not much in the way of diversion in Surprise Canyon. The `first settlers' amused themselves by more or less aimlessly pecking at the rock walls. Imagine their feelings when these aimless peckings revealed a ledge of almost pure silver "wide enough to drive a wagon through. They had found a second Virginia City, they thought. But what good did it do to own a million if they were unable to go outs and spend it? The only answer was to pay off Wells Fargo. That would require a go-between, and a good one.

Neighboring Nevada had a spectacular senator, one William M. Stewart, who was known throughout the West both as fighter and a great silver backer. (Stewart has a magnificent gravestone at the gold camp of Aurora, Nevada)

By chance one of the robbers knew Stewart and, fortunately, he seemed to have been unknown to the express company. At least his name had not appeared on the reward posters. Taking several samples of the ore in his saddlebags this robber-turned-mine-owner, rode north to the Comstock Lode where he contacted the senator. The senator agreed, and would find out what the express company wanted as a settlement of the whole affair. The senator’s price would be an interest in the mines, plus a part share for his colleague, Senator John P. Jones. Jones, incidentally had been attracted by the Panamint ore when some of it been displayed a few weeks earlier by a promoter known as Colonel Rains. This promoter had tried, without success, to negotiate a resolution with Wells Fargo. The shares of the senators meant quite a bite in the prospective fortune, but from the bandits' viewpoint it was still a bargain.

Senator Stewart arranged to pay off Wells Fargo. By April, Panamint claims were being filed. Original locators were W.L. Kennedy, R.B. Stewart, and R.C. Jacobs. The publisher at Bishop, W.A. Chalfant, found out about the location notices because they were on file at the Inyo county courthouse in Independence. He had no idea whether or not the trio were members of the hiding banditti. In fact, he surmised that assumed names might have been used on the location notices. Senator Stewart himself is silent on the point in his autobiography published more than 30 years later.

Road-making and milling machinery followed the filing the claims. Additional prospecting brought other strikes with several more claims recorded in June. Indians were hired as woodcutters and charcoal kilns were erected (not the famous kilns in Wildrose Canyon). Not even two senators could induce Wells Fargo to run a stage line into Panamint. The express company wanted to keep the boom camp's first citizens safe from temptation.

A stage and mail service was a necessity, however. Senator Stewart went to San Bernardino, where with a down payment bullion as heavy as he could lift to the counter, he obtained the promise of Caesar Myerstein to run the line. The Myerstein Brothers were general merchants and did considerable desert freighting, running wagons as far as Salt Lake City. It was agreed that the stage would make weekly trips. When it was found that the sandy route took two weeks to traverse, it meant extra rigs. The stage left San Bernardino, crossed Cajon Pass over Brown's Toll Road, followed the Mojave River from Verde Ranch down to the present Helendale, then cut north to Harper Lake, where Black's Ranch served as a supply point and depot. With fresh horses, the route went north up Black Canyon, past Granite Wells, through lower Panamint Valley and on to a spring near the site of Ballarat. From the spring the line turned east for the last leg up Surprise Canyon. Not all of Panamint's residents appear to have made peace with the law, or there may well have been some new arrivals. At any rate, the spring in north Panamint Valley, the one near the site of Ballarat, received the name “Post Office Spring”, and for good reason. When the stage driver received a letter, addressed to John Doe at Post Office Spring, he simply dropped it off and hung a rag on a nearby creosote bush. The spring was out on the flat with no screened approaches. A hiding bandit could thus get his mail in safety.

Panamint boomed. The mine owners envisioned a bonanza that held values with depth. Senator Stewart, himself, became so optimistic he promoted the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad (LA&I), by way of Panamint, of course. The road was actually built and operated between Santa Monica and Los Angeles. It was surveyed to San Bernardino and on up over Cajon Pass. Atop the West Cajon, competition was encountered the form of surveyors for the Southern Pacific which was then planning to lay its line east to run from the Tehachapi to the Cajon, effectively relegating Los Angeles to the sidelines. The rival survey crews exchanged shots; but the Southern Pacific men didn't know that the LA&I had a big grading crew at work only a mile or so away. The firing brought the LA&I reinforcements on the run. Then came a roaring blast answered the few scattered Southern Pacific shots. The Southern Pacific surveyors wisely retreated.

After the Cajon Pass repulse, the Southern Pacific accepted a subsidy offered by Los Angeles County and built over their present route. The LA&I never did build east beyond Los Angeles. Years later the line was bought by the Southern Pacific. The assets, of course, included the right-of-way over West Cajon. Then, 90 years later, the Southern Pacific built a line between Colton and Palmdale. But this rail line is to parallel the Santa Fe through East Cajon rather than along the old right-of-way. There is a good reason for this. The East Cajon summit is more than 1000 feet lower. Stores, saloons, boarding houses, the Bank of Panama and a newspaper all blossomed in Surprise Canyon - a canyon; so narrow that there could be no back streets. The main street was over a mile long. Twice the town was destroyed by flash floods that also wiped out the road. T. S. Harris moved the Panamint News to Darwin shortly after the great July 4, 1875 celebration. U.S. Senator George Hearst was developing Modoc across Panamint Valley in the Argus Range. Nearby Lookout and Darwin itself were booming. Panamint values held, but rock became harder with depth - and blunted the miners tools. Gradually the camp creaked to a close. High silver prices in the late 1980’s brought brief subsequent revivals - one of the latest being foiled when the newly rebuilt road washed out once again.

Panamint mill owners just didn't trust bandits. When the mill boss was tipped off that a bunch was waiting to hijack the monthly mill cleanup he had the silver cast in cannonballs weigh some 700 pounds apiece. The holdup came off on schedule. The bandits tried in vain to heft a cannon ball. They rode off cussing the "dirty mine owners who wouldn't let an honest highwayman make a living."



Desert Fever - Panamint City


Brown's Toll Road

Harper Lake

Mojave River narrows, Victorville
Mojave River Narrows

Mormon Rocks, Cajon Pass

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