Panamint: Suburb Of Hell


Late in July of that final year the elements, never either entirely clement or moderate in their whims along the Nevada-California border, contrived the final ruin of Surprise Valley. A meteorological variety of waterspouts, tornados, cloudbursts and hurricanes played ghoulish tag from the White Pines to the escarpment of the Sierra. To the east the mountainside township of Eureka was washed out with a great drowning of Chinese and Italian woodcutters. The usually placid surface of Owens Lake went skyward in a monstrous and sustained waterspout and great winds beat upon the Panamints. Carried on the great winds were heavy clouds pregnant with moisture and on the crest of the mountains they dissolved in an Olympic cloudburst.

The whistle of the big mill gave Panaminters scant warning. The waters descended from the towering walls about Panamint in a thundering deluge; a wave variously estimated at from five to seven feet high swept down Main Street headed for the canyon below. Most-of Panamint went with it: Munsinger’s Brewery, Miss Delia Donoghue’s Wyoming Restaurant, the emporium of Harris & Rhine, the Maiden Lane plaisance of Martha Camp’s girls. Next morning the noisiest and most remote of all the mining camps of the Old West was found spread over several square miles of wash in Panamint Valley.

A mining camp, like any other organism of society, must achieve maturity before it can achieve urbanity, luxury and the graceful flourishes that pass for civilization. Panamint City never had a railroad, silk hats or, in all probability, any great abundance of table napkins. Three years of boom and hurrah were not enough to evolve paved streets or French menus and Panamint remained, to the end of its florid days, a camp and not a metropolis.

Panamint did have many of the qualifications of all the major mining camps of the Old West. It had a respectable, or perhaps it were better to say, a ponderable population. It had a reasonable production of bullion to justify sonic of its poetry. It had a niche on the mining exchanges of the world, substantial names among its backers and, above all, it had fantastic ambitions.

The prospect of Panamint 75 years after its tumults subsided, all save one last reminiscent echo, is not spectacular, although Surprise Valley, opening incredibly as the very roof garden of Hell itself, is still as breathless a discovery as when the first white man toiled up its precipitous canyon. No single structure survives intact from its first frenetic hour. The brewery of Louis Munsinger is memorialized by its as yet undaunted chimney pointing a beery way to the skies, a symbol of the enduring qualities of hope and joy. From its site the town sprawls upward toward the valley’s apex in a drunken geometry of cellars, some of them dressed stone, others formed of unhewn boulders. Its extent is impressive, although the 5,000 inhabitants credited to its flowering seems optimistic. The vast store of the Surprise Valley Mill & Water Company exists in the form of a complete skeleton of walls rising in perfect preservation to a height of ten or twelve feet, each neatly dressed fieldstone in as nice alignment as when it was first finished and set in place.

The ruling ruin of Panamint is the fantastic reducing mill of the Panamint Mining & Concentration Works where ore from the Wyoming and Hemlock Mines, high in the cliffs above it, was once pounded into a tolerably profitable pulp running somewhat better than $90 a ton. Its 250 foot high square chimney, built of Panamint brick fashioned by Chinese labor in the kiln up the road, towers unbelievably against the surrounding mountainsides, its top fluted and ornamented with crenclations and the masonic adornments so necessary for a proper draft in the Hues below. Its feet are firmly and seemingly forever planted in a rubble of stonework of impressive dimensions, collapsed ovens, wrecked railroads and neglected tailings. Not even the façade of Cook’s Bank at Rhyolite, staring through sightless windows over the Amargosa Wash is more melancholy in the philosophy of its implications.