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Mojave Desert History

Cerro Gordo

Cerro Gordo, Inyo County

Cerro Gordo is an abandoned mining town in central Inyo County. It consists of a number of wooden buildings, the most imposing of which is the two-story American Hotel, once the center of town. Numerous stone foundations indicate the extensive size of the mining operation. Diagonally across the road from the American Hotel, rock retaining walls and a stone chimney mark the ruins of Victor Beaudry's smelter. Relics of Beaudry's store, the house where the mine owners lived, a well-preserved stone reverberatory furnace near the caved-in portal of the Omega Tunnel, and the shafthouse of the Newtown Mine can all be clearly identified. Metal sheds and other ruins date from the zinc mining era of the early twentieth century. Inside the buildings, machinery and equipment remain in good condition. Tunnels and shafts extend for miles beneath the town.

Ore cars once transported silver, lead, and zinc by rail to the tramhouse. Although the tramhouse was removed in 1959, the rails and some of the wooden towers that defined the course of the tramway can still be seen down the mountain, as well as steel cables and ore buckets. Mexican vasos (furnaces) made from adobe and stone can be found a half mile south of Cerro Gordo.

Considering that Mexico has led the world in silver production since the sixteenth century, it is hardly surprising that Mexican miners played a pivotal role in development of silver mining in the American West.

Cerro Gordo was discovered by Pablo Flores and other Mexican prospectors in 1865. The names of the principal mines attest to the early importance of these Mexican miners: San Felipe, San Ignacio, San Francisco, San Lucas, and Santa Maria. During the area's first few years of mining activity, the mines were worked on a small scale by individual miners. Large amounts of silver were extracted, though the Mexican prospectors lacked sufficient capital to mine the deeper deposits. For example, Jose Ochoa took out about one and one-half tons of ore every 12 hours from the San Lucas mine in 1866. The ores mined at Cerro Gordo were successfully smelted in "vasos," crude ovens built from stone and adobe.

By 1868, news of the rich silver deposits had circulated throughout California. Mortimer Belshaw and other San Francisco capitalists formed the Union Mining Company and quickly bought out most of the Mexican claim holders. Joaquin Almada, for example, exchanged his title for one-fifth ownership in the new smelter built by Belshaw. Not long after, Belshaw bought Almada's interest and became one of the two "kings of the mountain." The other mogul was Victor Beaudry, another San Francisco merchant who had established a store at Cerro Gordo in 1866. Through attachments for overdue accounts, Beaudry also acquired extensive mining property from Mexican prospectors. Jose Ochoa was one of many who lost their valuable claims to Beaudry. Another victim was Jesus Lozano whose general store was absorbed by Beaudry. Mexicans continued to be important at Cerro Gordo after 1870, but only as the principal source of wage labor. They continued as workers until the demise of Cerro Gordo in th e 1950s.

With a vast amount of capital on hand, Belshaw and Beaudry were able to construct two large smelters by 1870. The following year, the mining town of Cerro Gordo was officially established. It thrived for a decade while the level of silver production reached $4,000 a day. The American Hotel emerged as the most luxurious structure in town, as well as the focal point of the prosperous community.

Several saloons and two houses of prostitution flourished during this opulent era.

The silver bullion from Cerro Gordo had a great impact on development of California. Indeed, if the Comstock Lode was largely responsible for the financial triumph of San Francisco, Cerro Gordo's ore secured the emergence of Los Angeles. The latter city supplied miners at Cerro Gordo in the same way Sacramento catered to Gold Rush argonauts in 1849. More than 100 twenty-mule team wagons carried goods from Los Angeles to Cerro Gordo in the 1870s. In return, Los Angeles received 200 tons of silver and lead every month during the same decade.

From 1880 to 1911, Cerro Gordo suffered a decline in mineral production. Between 1911 and 1915, however, the discovery of zinc ores resulted in a new boom. Cerro Gordo became the leading producer of zinc in the state. After World War I, the district continued to account for a large portion of California's silver, lead, and zinc output. The mines at Cerro Gordo finally ceased operation in the 1950s. In all, the district is credited with more than $15,000,000 in ore production since 1865, more than any other silver- or lead-producing area in California.

Mexican Americans in California
Jose Pitti, Ph.D., Professor of History and Ethnic Studies
California State University, Sacramento
Antonia Castaneda, Ph.D. Candidate
Stanford University
Carlos Cortes, Professor of History
University of California, Riverside

Cerro Gordo Mining History

The rise and fall of Cerro Gordo

Cerro Gordo

Ghost town photos

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