Panamint City (Death Valley National Park)

Panamint City - The ruins of the Surprise Valley Mill and Water Company Mill.

Panamint City – The ruins of the Surprise Valley Mill and Water Company Mill.

 

Panamint City was a thriving mining town in the 1870s, at it’s peak some 2,000-3,000 people called it home. The main street stretched out over a mile long, and was lined with up to 50 stone and wood buildings. This should have been the new Comstock, but it never happened. In late 1872 / early 1873 silver was discovered here by William L. Kennedy, Robert L. Stewart, and Richard C. Jacobs. These three men, were not your typical prospectors; but rather stagecoach bandits. They had been using Surprise Canyon as their hideaway from the law, it is speculated that they began prospecting the canyon after hearing rumors that the Lost Gunsight Mine may be located in the vicinity.

Due to the trio’s wanted status for knocking off Wells Fargo stagecoaches, they had to devise a plan that would allow them to both sell their newly placed claims, and also avoid prosecution for their crimes. They contacted  Nevada State Senators, John P. Jones, and William M. Stewart. Stewart made arrangements for the bandits to receive amnesty, and agreed to purchase the claims with $12,000 of the sales figure going directly to Wells Fargo to cover what the three men had stolen.

The two Nevada State Senators, known as the “Silver Senators,” spent roughly $350,000 buying the best mines in the Panamint City vicinity. They then organized the Surprise Valley Mill and Water Company, and secured one million dollars in capital stock.

In March, 1874 , there was 125 people living in Panamint City. The mines now being worked, there was bullion to be shipped, but no Wells Fargo to make the pick up and deliveries. It is widely believed that Wells Fargo refused to service Panamint City because of the “Silver Senators” willingness to associate and do business with known criminals. This left the Senators in a pinch, they solved it quickly by created their own shipping line.

 

Panamint City - One of the more intact stone building ruins from the 1870's.

Panamint City – One of the more intact stone building ruins from the 1870’s.

 

Panamint City - This is a very common scene for a mile along Panamint City's main street.

Panamint City – This is a very common scene for a mile along Panamint City’s main street.

 

Meanwhile, William L. Kennedy, Robert L. Stewart, and Richard C. Jacobs had devised their own plan of robbing the stage of the bullion from the mines that they had sold to the Senators. It didn’t work out so well for them, the Senators one step ahead of them, casted the bullion into large cannon balls, a single ball weighed in excess of 400 pounds.

Remi Nadaeu, in his book, “City-Makers,” makes mention of the would be bandits confronting Senator Stewart, about the 400 pound casted bullion, stating that they, “weren’t fair.” Which the Senator simply responded, “You don’t expect me to feel sorry for you, do you?”

Between November and December of 1874, nine new Panamint City Mining corporation sprang into business.  November also saw the first issue of the Panamint News, published by T. S. Harris.

As the number of mines and companies grew, so did the population and the violence. Panamint City was quickly making a name for itself as one of the most vicious and deadly towns in the west. The lead flew, and there was no law to stop it. In all over 50 men found themselves staring down the barrel of a gun as they took their last breath in Panamint City.

 

Panamint City - The Surprise Valley Mill and Water Company in the late 1870s. Photo courtesy of The National Park Service

Panamint City – The Surprise Valley Mill and Water Company in the late 1870s. Photo courtesy of The National Park Service

 

The book, “Desert Fever: An Overview of Mining History of the California Desert Conservation Area” by Larry M. Vredenburgh, Gary L. Shumway, Russell D. Hartill gives the following overview of the mine workings:

“Panamint had all the indications of being a second Comstock. The mineral belt was 2 1/2 miles wide and 5 miles long. “There is scarcely a mining district where more Continuous and bolder croppings are found than in Panamint,” reported C. A. Stetefeldt in 1874. It was indeed true that veins were appearing all over Panamint wide enough to drive a wagon through. The veins could be traced for great lengths, running parallel to Surprise Canyon. Some of the veins were quite fractured, others appeared to be unbroken. The silver ore came in two forms. A rich, purer mineral near the surface, changing with depth to antimoniates of copper, lead, iron, and zinc, with sulphu ret of silver and water. The rich ore assayed over $900 per ton from Stewart’s Wonder, $350 dollars per ton from Jacob’s Wonder, and $600 per ton from the Wyoming. The more common ore ranged in value from $12 to $85 a ton. Stewart’s Wonder, $350 dollars per ton from Jacob’s Wonder, and $600 per ton from the Wyoming.”

“A year and a half after the original discovery, the mines were still not developed in depth. Companies that were heavily financed bought and opened up mines with no regard as to which were better situated on the veins. There was the Jacob’s Wonder, Stewart’s Wonder, the Challenge, Wyoming, Little Chief, Hemlock, Harrison, Hudson River (which was bought by the Surprise Valley company for $25,000), Wonder, Marvel, War Eagle, and the Esperanza. Everyone was hoping that wealth to one would be wealth for all.”

 

Panamint City - The view above Panamint City reveals the extensive ruins of stone buildings.

Panamint City – The view above Panamint City reveals the extensive ruins of stone buildings.

 

Panamint City - The famed "Panamint Hilton" cabin. This cabin was built in the 1970s.

Panamint City – The famed “Panamint Hilton” cabin. This cabin was built in the 1970s.

 

Panamint City - One of few remaining wooden buildings from the 1920s - 1930s.

Panamint City – One of few remaining wooden buildings from the 1920s – 1930s.

 

The winter of 1874 brought good riches to the The Surprise Valley Mill and Mining Company, they made a profit despite shipping their bullion the whole way to Europe for smeltering. This was a big deal considering so many of the remote desert mines couldn’t turn a profit just trying to get their product out of the valley that their mine was located in.

The winter of 1874 saw the two stage lines now servicing the remote city, and the Bank of Panamint opened their doors. The only vehicle in the city was a meat market wagon, which doubled as a hearse. Talk about sanitary conditions!

January of 1875 saw the population swell to 2,000.

June 29, 1875, the Surprise Valley Mill and Water Company’s twenty-stamp mill began operation.  Ore from both the Wyoming and Hemlock mines were processed at the mill, averaging $80 to $100 per ton.

In August, William Ralston‘s Bank of California collapsed,  as a result of the combination of the expense of building the Palace Hotel (San Francisco), the failure of his attempt to buy and then resell the Spring Valley Water Company, the after-effects of the Panic of 1873, and a crash in the stock value of the Bank of California. This shattered the Comstock’s Wealth, and shook people’s trust.

The Panamint News ceased publication on October 21st, 1875. By November, rumor was that the Panamint City mines had been played out, and the mass exodus of residents had already began.

 

Panamint City - A look down main street in 1875. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Panamint City – A look down main street in 1875. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

 

Panamint City - Same view of Main Street above, but 2014.

Panamint City – Same view of Main Street above, but 2014.

 

On July 24, 1876, a flash flood was reported to have washed away much of the town. There are additional reports that state that it was flash flood in 1901.

The mines of Panamint City have undergone several resurgences over the course of the last 100+ years. The most recent in the 1980s, before the National Park Service took over the land in 1994.

Today one can not just simply drive to Panamint City, the BLM closed the road in Surprise Canyon 2001; to many this was a slap in the face.  Reaching Panamint City new requires a grueling 7.5 mile hike (one way) through some rather difficult terrain. More on Surprise Canyon specifically at another time.

The smoke stack from the The Surprise Valley Mill and Mining Company’s mill, is the largest and most intact structure remaining from the early years of Panamint City. There are also dozens of original stone building ruins, some in better shape than others that line both sides of Surprise Canyon for nearly a mile. These shells of houses and businesses that has been occupied 139 years ago are haunting.

A few wooden structures on the ledge above the original town site date back to the 1920s and 1930s, while the cabin which has been dubbed the “Panamint Hilton,” only dates to the 1970’s. Most other equipment and structures are from the 1970s and even the 1980s.

 

Panamint City - An original stone structure that was later converted into a complex of sort.

Panamint City – An original stone structure that was later converted into a complex of sort.

 

Panamint City - Inside the above structure there are several divided rooms.

Panamint City – Inside the above structure there are several divided rooms.

 

The numerous mines in the surrounding hills have not been bat caged by the National Park Service (likely due to their remote location). I did not have the opportunity to visit any of the mines, as I had planned this as a day hike, to document a different site within the Panamint City limits.  I’ve heard that many of the mines still contain an impressive amount of equipment.  I will caution you that entering any mine shafts on National Park land is against the law.

Panamint City is not only known for it’s mining and violent history, but also as the site of the largest known Coso Style Pictograph Panel. The panel is located in a granite boulder shelter within the “city limits.” For more information read my article, Panamint City Pictograph Shelter.

 

 

 

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.

  • David Taylor

    Graph ten, last line repeated.

  • Thanks Russell! In some ways I agree with you on the 4WD access, in other ways I don’t. The canyon is beautiful as it is now, the vegetation is immaculate, and the hiking is brutal, yet fun. But I fully understand the opposite side of that as well. I will be covering a lot of that once I put something together on Surprise Canyon itself.

    I could image a personal tour with Emmet Harder would be amazing. Lucky you!

  • DavidP

    Drove up there in late 1960s in our low slung Chevy car, even across the flowing stream… Tried to get up there years later 1980-90s in my 4×4 truck and the road was blocked by someone claiming no trespassing over their land…

    • I have a pretty good idea who blocked you. During that time period there was a father and son team that was known to shoot at people coming up Surprise Canyon. They would also set up spikes on the road to flatten tires. The son still lives in the area, and is much friendlier these days.

  • Tanngrisnir

    These are the kind of reports that make for great reading!

    Thanks, Jim. Never knew about this spot until now.

  • Lorie Bartee

    Hiked to the city 20 years ago. Probably, one of the best hikes I’ve ever completed! Hid out in a cave during a major thunderstorm downpour was the highlight of the trek!