A “Hardboiled Hellhole:” Panamint City, California

Panamint City in 1875

For the past 20 months, this blog has been following the journeys of the Drew and Bettis families and their descendants across the continent, paying less attention to the characters themselves than to the unexplored corners of American history through which they traveled.  We’re now getting to California, the farthest point of their journeys.  From there there was nowhere else to go but back towards the east.  But there are still a few places to explore.

For instance, Panamint City, described by the National Park Service as “the toughest, rawest, most hardboiled little hellhole that ever passed for a civilized town.”

In 1872 bandits hiding out in Surprise Canyon, in what is now Death Valley National Park, accidentally discovered a lode of silver ore. In short order two Nevada senators were informed of the discovery, the charges against the bandits were dropped, and the Panamint Mining district was formed, with the two senators as principal investors.   Miners began  to swarm into the Panamint Valley and up Surprise Canyon, and discover dozens of silver loads.  Within two years, the original mining camps had coalesced into a brawling town of about 2000 people, with a main street lined with saloons and brothels, a brewery, a hotel, a post office and a newspaper office.  A road had been cut through the mountains, and the town was served by two stagecoach lines.

The two senators opened a stamp mill to ship ore from the mines to the west coast and to Europe.  The original bandits and some of their friends, however, were still camping out in the mountains, looking for the opportunity to steal the ore shipments.  The two senators outfoxed them by having the silver cast into giant balls weighing over 400 pounds, too heavy to grab from a wagon and carry away on horseback.

Thomas Drew’s son James Drew was running a wagon yard and boarding house ten miles south of the mines. Where the road to Surprise Canyon met the wagon road from San Bernardino to Los Angeles, the enterprising Billy Rubottom, a first cousin of Cinderella Bettis Drew, had established a stagecoach stop and inn.  The tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad were just being laid into the area from the west, and Rubottom hoped to persuade the railroad to locate its eastern terminus at his hotel, so that silver could be loaded onto the trains from there.

By 1875, the mines were already played out – just as Thomas arrived from Arkansas, hoping, once again, to repair his vanished fortune.  In the previous three years there had been fifty shootings.  The town was already emptying out in 1876, when a flash flood washed most of it away.  The railroad terminus went elsewhere. Billy Rubottom’s inn survived, to become a local legend.  More on Billy in the next post…


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