Ballarat’s story began in 1896. The dusty little desert town was founded as a supply point for the booming mines in the canyons of the Panamint Mountains. Its name was given by George Riggins, a young miner from Australia, that proposed the town be named after the Australian gold mining town.
From 1897 to 1905, Ballarat was the place to be in the Panamints. The population is estimated to have been between 400-500 people. It boasted seven saloons, three hotels, a Wells Fargo Station, a school, a jail, a post office, and a morgue. The only thing lacking was a church, but I don’t think that anyone minded.
By 1917, many of the mines in the Panamints played out, causing the population to dwindle, and eventually lose its post office.
Some of the town’s most well-known residents include legendary Death Valley miner, Shorty Harris, who lived here off and on until his death in 1934. Seldom Seen Slim, “the last of the old-timers”, came to Ballarat in 1917 and stayed until his death in 1968.
In the 1960s, the infamous Charles Manson and family spent time roaming around Ballarat. Their Barker Ranch hideout was tucked away in a canyon just a few miles from the townsite. A truck that is parked across from the General Store in town is rumored to have been owned by a member of “the family.”
Today Ballarat still refuses to die. Its sole full-time resident is Rocky Novak. Rocky lives on site in his generator powered home and runs the general store (IE: Beer and Soda). He grew up in nearby Surprise Canyon at the Chris Wicht Camp, which has since been burnt down.
During the cooler months, Ballarat is the gateway to the Panamints for many off-road enthusiasts. A large camping area is provided and most of the main trails leading into the canyons are easily accessible from the town.
Less than a handful of original structures remain, they include the jail that also doubled as a morgue, and the skeleton of some miners cabins including that of Shorty Harris. Be sure to keep an eye out when visiting for the “Free nude dancing burros!”