Near the city of Ridgecrest lies numerous old mining camps, one of the most well know by folks that traverse the El Paso Mountains, is Bickel Camp. Walt Bickel came to the El Paso Mountains in the 1930’s, and just like the thousands of people before him, he was in search of gold.
Bickel set up camp in Last Chance Canyon, he built a cabin, he used it on the weekends that he managed to escape the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles; where he called home. It was during this period that Bickel was more a recreational miner, than a full-time miner.
In 1942, Bickel joined the U.S. Army. He served until 1944, he was honorably discharged, due to a severe back injury.
In 1946, Bickel returned to his camp in Last Chance Canyon. This time, on a full-time basis.
A biography on Bickel’s life, written by Elva Younkin, past Curator of the Maturango Museum, reads as follows on his full-time return:
After his return to the canyon in 1946, Walt’s daily routine for the next forty years started with his preparing his breakfast of mush, bacon, and strong coffee before heading out to dig until sundown. After eating a dinner of stew seasoned with edible herbs and plants found in the canyon, Walt played the harmonica beside a campfire or studied the stars with an old telescope. “There wasn’t no loneliness at the camp” Walt recalled. “There’s always something to do.”
Bickel found gold in Last Chance, but not enough to be considered monetarily rich. Most of his riches came in the form of friends and acquaintances that would happen by, and stop for visits. It was apparent that these friends, are what meant the most to Bickel.
Much like the Native Americans that found home in the El Paso Mountains years before, Bickel lived off the land. He utilized the vegetation, and animals that naturally existed in the area, as a source of food.
Bickel enjoyed tinkering, and inventing. He was always working on something that would make his life a little easier in the form of machinery. Just to name a couple of his inventions:
In 1986 the BLM adopted a new ‘zero tolerance to occupancy’ policy for small-scale miners. Many of the small-scale miners had lived on the land that they had mined for thirty – fifty years. In Bickel’s case, he had built his cabin home in 1934, and had lived there exclusively since 1946 (36 years). This was a way of life for these old timers, and they had nowhere else to go.
In September of 1987, BLM came knocking for an inspection, to decide whether Bickel’s mining activity was extensive enough to warrant occupancy. Two hours prior to his appointment, Bickel suffered a stroke. BLM performed their inspection despite Bickel’s condition, and they concluded that the scale of the mine was not large enough to warrant occupancy.
With Bickel being down and out health-wise, his friends worried about the historical and cultural aspects of his camp. If the BLM had it their way, all would have ended up demolished. In March of 1989, thanks to their hard work, and pressure from the public, the BLM agreed to leave the camp as it was, and allow for a caretaker to live on site. Bickel was able to live long enough to see his camp safe from demolition before his passing later that same year.
Today the camp is cared for by the Friends of Last Chance Canyon. The cabin and the ground have been left much the same way Bickel left them twenty-six years ago, and is considered to be a true representation of a depression era mining camp. A caretaker is on site from time to time (mostly weekends), the grounds are considered closed when a caretaker is not present.
This is the last intact mining camp in the El Pasos, enjoy it, learn from it, and respect it.
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