Did Cowboys Sell Tin Stars?

The tourist-trap charm of Calico Ghost Town


It’s easy to question the authenticity of the remnants of this 1880s boomtown, but after you discover there’s enough real history here to make it worth visiting, you realize that it’s also cool enough that you don’t care. 

 The town of Calico was born after a silver strike in 1881, and had 500 mines and a population of 1,200 at its peak before becoming abandoned by 1907. Walter Knott, of Knott’s Berry Farm fame, bought the town in 1951, converting it into a tourist attraction before deeding it to the San Bernardino County Regional Parks Department in 1966. Only five of the original structures remain, but the newer buildings match the architectural integrity of Calico’s heyday, and there are also adobe structures remaining from the 1880s, some built right into the hillside.

Walking up the town’s main street toward the edge of the Calico Mountains, most of the replica buildings now house gift shops, but there are also a couple of restaurants as well as Lil’s Saloon in what was the town’s drug store in the 1880s. The mock gunfights that used to break out regularly in the street are less frequent these days, as budget cuts have resulted in the dependence of volunteers to continue the shootouts.

Attractions include a self-guided tour of Maggie Mine, one of Calico’s original silver mines; the Mystery Shack, in which water seemingly runs uphill; a gold-panning experience; a train ride that allows passengers to see the remains of some of the old mines near Calico; and a house built primarily of glass bottles that also houses a dog-treat shop. One of the most interesting historical elements, however, is the collection of adobe structures that constituted Calico’s Chinatown, representing an often-overlooked contribution to the Old West’s development. 

Busloads of European and Asian tourists make up a large portion of the more than 250,000 visitors each year to Calico, which is open every day except Christmas. Fall is a popular season: Late September brings the annual Calico Days celebration (see calendar at left), and October means ghost tours on Saturday evenings. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m., $8 adults, $5 ages 6-15, free for kids 5 and under; CalicoTown.com.

Back to On the Road.

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