Panamint: Suburb Of Hell

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Senator William Morris Stewart, Yale ’53, the Father of American Mining Law, a quick man with a Colt’s dragoon revolver and admittedly the possessor of the most magnificent whiskers in the entire West, stepped from the swinging portals of Dave Naegle’s Oriental Saloon and reached for the grab iron on the side of Jack Lloyd’s Panamint & Lone Pine Stage. Hard on his heels, breathing richly of Naegle’s Old Noble Treble Crown Straight and struggling with the bafflements of an Inverness cloak of interesting pattern, strode the possessor of the second finest beard anywhere west of Council Bluffs. Senator John Percival Jones, capitalist of noble properties everywhere, which included a great hotel in New York, a Turkish bath in San Francisco and reclamation rights to what seventy odd years later was to be Hoover Dam, hated to leave Panamint City, but numerous board meetings in San Francisco called and he too had an outside place on Lloyd’s stage.

There was a sudden commotion inside Fred Yager’s Dexter Saloon across the street. Its swinging doors erupted gunfire and profane language as two fellows, patently at odds, emerged shooting at each other. Nevada’s peerless Senator John Percival Jones and his co-wearer of the toga, William Morris Stewart, dived for the ditch. The firing ceased and cautious citizens carried the dead in one direction and the wounded, leaking Old Noble Treble Crown at every seam, in the other.

Senator Stewart assisted Senator Jones from the ditch. They brushed each other off with dignity.

“Lively camp!” remarked Senator Stewart jovially.

“Millions in it,” acquiesced Jones with equal good humor, and together they boarded the waiting stage and rolled away down Surprise Canyon.

The ghost towns of the American West had each of them its claim to the superlative. Virginia City was at once the richest, the most urbane, the most sophisticated of them all. Bodie’s wicked ways and unabated tumults raised it to a bad eminence which occasioned remark in pulpits of far-off Park Street and Madison Avenue. Montana’s Virginia City was the scene of such violent retribution for crime that its corral entrances were reported to be of uncommonly stout construction because there were not trees enough in the region to serve as gallows.

Panamint City’s superlatives were in loneliness and inaccessibility, qualifications which obtain into the present generation. Probably it is today the least known of all the important stamp-mill-and-derringer communities of the great Nevada-California silver lode, yet the name of Panamint once and briefly loomed on the mining exchanges of the world in type as big as that reserved for the magic name of the Comstock itself. For three years the name of Panamint laid a fearful and urgent compulsion on the imaginations of prospectors, capitalists and all the world of silver.

It drew men from Pioche and Austin in a sort of reversal of Gilbert & Sullivan’s silver churn song. It was as a fatal magnet to the mining population of Bodie, Aurora, the Cerro Gordo and even the ineffable Comstock. Panamint depopulated Eureka. It decimated Independence. In the precincts of The Bank Exchange in San Francisco frock-coated senators raised their glasses: to Panamint. In Los Angeles, Darwin and San Bernardino stage drivers packed in the fares with the routing of their Concords: to Panamint. Panamint shares were the subject of heated speculation on the Paris Bourse. In London Panamint was viewed with enthusiasm tempered by dark suspicion. In Berlin the possibility that Panamint might become a second Comstock strengthened Bismarck’s resolve that Germany must stay off the silver standard.

Today, even among the more determined amateurs of ghost towns, the aficionado who can boast of having himself seen Panamint City plain is a member of a very select club indeed. Where visitors to Deadwood, Tombstone and Central City are numbered in the thousands annually, it is probable that not more than a score or two ascend Surprise Canyon to explore the site of Louis Munsinger’s brewery or muse upon the ruins of the great store of the Surprise Valley Mill & Water Company.

As such bonanzas, rumored or proven, as those of Rhyolite in the breathless Amargosa, or Leadville high in the continental cordillera, will demonstrate, no place is wholly improbable for the discovery of precious metals.

But Panamint City indisputably leads the field by an impressive margin in the matter of inaccessibility and discomfort of its surroundings. The Panamint Range is located between Panamint Valley and Death Valley in the Death Valley National Monument of California. To the west the Argus Range and the Cosos are grim barriers to the lush beauty of Owens Valley. To the east there is Death Valley and the Funeral Mountains. The only practicable approach—and its practicability is only comparative—to Panamint City is by way of Panamint Valley, a plutonian waste far more deadly in the record than Death Valley but lacking its lethal name. Its fantastic temperatures and almost total absence of water holes are such as to discourage all but the most resolute.