The Tale of Cerro Gordo
Like water, Los Angeles has a long history of mineral extraction from Owens Valley: from borax and salt from Death Valley and the famous 20 Mule Team, to gold in the Eastern Sierra. In 1862, a Mexican prospector named Pablo Flores struck silver in what is now known as Cerro Gordo, a mine on the western slope of the Inyo Mountains, roughly 30 miles, or 50 kilometers southeast of Independence, California. It was the first major silver strike in Owens Valley and it was the beginning of a massive operation that would last until 1877.
First thing’s first, however; mining crews needed to get through the canyon to begin digging. Previous attempts to erect the mine had been thwarted with natives kidnapping five Mexican prospectors, killing three of them, and releasing two only because they promised to never return. Promises didn’t hold weight back then, not when compared to the value of silver. The natives had won the battle, but the war for Cerro Gordo was far from over. When Fort Independence opened in 1862, the US Army sent troops into Cerro Gordo to eradicate the native population, allowing the mine to open. Much like Mulholland and his cronies taking the Los Angeles Aqueduct by force, the US Army had just secured the area, forcing the natives further back into the mountains and into what we now call Death Valley National Park. The cost of this displacement on subsequent generations is undoubtedly immeasurable.
Like many mines in the area, Cerro Gordo was boom or bust, with the value of silver dropping drastically, forcing it to close for good in 1877. However, for the years it was open, there was a steady stream of mule teams transporting silver ore from Keeler, the town that was established at the base of Cerro Gordo to run the smelters, to Los Angeles, 275 miles away, with many of the loads yielding $300 per ton.
In early 1872 the Los Angeles News stated, “To this city, Cerro Gordo trade is invaluable. What Los Angeles now is, is mainly due to it. It is the silver cord that binds our present existence. Should it be unfortunately severed, we would inevitably collapse.” Much like the water from Owens River, Los Angeles owes its very existence to the silver pulled from the Inyo Mountains and the mining town known as Cerro Gordo.
In the early 1900s, high-grade zinc was found in Cerro Gordo, rejuvenating a mine that had all but exhausted the silver supply. The facilities were run until 1938. In the years since, Cerro Gordo has been a ghost town, with very few inhabitants other than caretakers who were present only to ward off vandals. The site includes a number of buildings, which are still present today, including remnants of the original Union Mine. Up until recently, a few of its buildings could be rented by overnight guests including the 1870 Belshaw House, the Bunkhouse, built in 1904, and the old American Hotel, built in 1871. Recently, new owners purchased Cerro Gordo, where they hope to preserve the history and offer getaways for people looking for solitude.