Panamint: Suburb Of Hell


The confidence in Panamint’s future, which these ventures instilled in the public mind as far away as the Reese River and even the White Pine regions, was shortly attested by the arrival of other equally substantial pioneers. Miss Delia Donoghue’s Wyoming Restaurant blossomed with long tables and case-hardened crockery in a residential faubourg of the new community. Fred Yager opened his elaborate Dexter Saloon, which boasted milled lumber construction, a papered interior, twin crystal chandeliers pendent from an actually plastered ceiling and glass paneled doors whose frosted panes were tastefully engrossed with a design of overflowing baskets of fruit and flowers. There was a cobbler’s shop. Miss Martha Camp arrived by stagecoach from Lone Pine with a unique collection of ten damsels, a bit worn at the edges but still serviceable. Ten beds had preceded them by a few days in the wagon train operated by Remi Nadeau of Cerro Gordo teaming fame. Nadeau’s grandson of identical name was destined, three-quarters of a century later, to appear as an historian of Southern California’s nascent years, but in their more urban aspect. Harris & Rhine’s general store furnished forth a variety of gear for miners and old Mrs. Zobelein supplied fluttery necessities for maiden and madame. T. S. Harris, a journeyman printer late of Independence, arrived with the proverbial shirt tail full of type and a Washington hand press and started The Panamint News in a tent.

The community’s equivalent of John Wanamaker’s, a contemporary in far-off New York, was the great, stone-buttressed bazaar of the Surprise Valley Mill & Water Company, a company store of mammoth proportions whose ledgered inventory for August, 1875, now in the possession of George Pipkins, itemizes as contemporary merchandise “thunder mugs,” “bed pans,” “Qts. Jellie,” “Tins Asparagoes,” “Ague Cure,” “Bales of Roap,” and “Mexican Mustang Linement”; not to mention such comparative commonplaces as fascinators, Fairbanks scales, anvils, opera glasses and French bonnets.

Man’s triumph over nature, his defiance of the elements and conquest of adversity, is variously evidenced in various civilizations. In Panamint, over and above all mining communities of the West, it was indicated by the mere presence of crystal chandeliers, billiard tables, plate glass mirrors and the champagne to whose presence illimitable kitchen middens of empty bottles testify to this day. Granted that, along the frontier, these commodities were more essential to life than other fakements of civilization are now esteemed, their presence alone at the top of Surprise Canyon is testimony to the ingenuity of man and his illimitable cunning. Conceive the lordly billiard table on its lurching progress behind a score of mules, across the wastelands between Los Angeles and San Bernardino where now the oranges flourish and the Super-Chief snores past in a torrent of chromium and steel. Consider the improbability of the sensitive product of French vineyards surviving in potable condition the blast furnace of the Slate Range where oxen foundered and men shriveled in the heat and died. Ponder the hazards of spun glass chandeliers grinding their way up the twenty per cent grade of Surprise Canyon.

That mankind, be he never so cunning, is still fallible at the end was illustrated by the colossal plate glass mirror ordered in New York for the back bar of Fred Yager’s Dexter Saloon.

Down the wintry Atlantic the mirror made its perilous way, across the Isthmus aboard Trenor Park’s combination mint and railroad, up to Los Angeles harbor aboard a packet of the Pacific Mail and hence inland by oxcart reinforced and cushioned against all contingency. The progress of the wonderment was reported by all comers aboard more speedy vehicles. Its passage through Ballarat was historic. Its arrival at the foot of Surprise Canyon, reported by Jack Lloyd the stage driver, was the signal for all commercial and industrial activity in Panamint to cease in anticipation. Its detachment from its cradle and commencement of the last ten feet of its 5,000 miles toward the Dexter portal were breathless to contemplate.

Alas, however, for human contriving when the gods are adverse. The palsied grasp of an acolyte failed; the Great Mirror tottered for a last intact moment on the brink of a shattered eternity and then crashed in ruin before the stunned beholders. Perhaps the mighty cataclysm was prophetic of Panamint’s own fate.

Production at the big mill began late in August, 1875. Ore from the Wyoming assayed $95 a ton to begin with, that of the Hemlock running a bit better, but these prosperous omens were not for long. Black Friday, August 27, when the mighty Bank of California closed and its cashier, William Ralston, was found dead in San Francisco Bay, precipitated a panic which carried more durable economies than those of Panamint to irretrievable ruin. Panamint shares reeled but recovered some semblance of vitality in 1876 when a new and promising vein was uncovered in Hemlock, but the Indian Sign was on Panamint and one by one its inhabitants packed their properties and departed.