ROBERT STEBBINS’S MEMORIES
Written when he was 95 years old.
There is no logical nor chronological order to the memories.
A True Ghost Town in California:
Memories of Balarat as it was in the 1950s
It was 10 years after the first Atom bomb had been detonated in 1945. Uranium, its primary ingredient, had become a high priority item and the California deserts had emerged as an important source. People of all sorts had been drawn to the desert in hopes to make it rich by finding workable and rich deposits of uranium.
As a long-term desert rat with a strong commitment to desert protection, my “alarm bells” began ringing. What kinds of impacts might emerge from the unleashing of so many people into an environment widely recognized as fragile to human activities and little policed? This story is about what I believe may have been one of those impacts. It occurred at the Balarat Ghost Town, a place I had long hoped to visit.
Balarat (the “original” Ghost town) was located near the western base of the Providence Mountains in Panamint Valley. I had been told it was abandoned and unoccupied and to reach it meant crossing a shallow playa, over a mile wide, but a big-wheeled vehicle (which we had) should be able to make it. All roads were dirt.
I had with me our daughter Melinda, age 10, and one of my students, Bob Cogan. We arrived at the site around mid-afternoon. The Ghost Town had a main road aimed toward the base of the mountain and a number of side roads at right angles to the main one. The buildings were in various stages of deterioration – some completely flattened, others erect but falling apart. Many had sheets of metal still attached but some were loose, and there were crumbling walls of mixed mud and straw.
We selected a side-road and parked our vehicle, facing toward the main road. Since we had several hours available before dark, we scouted the area. I had an eerie feeling of ghosts of the past as we walked in silence except for the sounds of our footsteps and occasional creaking of loosely attached metal. I don’t recall whether I carried my .22 rifle. However, Bob Cogan had his. We had heard rumors of “Claim Jumpers” and some people being killed over the search for uranium (triggered by the development of the bomb).
As our walk approached the end of the “town”, and toward the base of the mountain, to our surprise we saw, at some distance, a recently constructed small building and decided to investigate. It contained new-looking 2x4s and see-through fresh chicken wire sides, and occupied an area about 15 ft. square by around 10ft. high. The entrance contained a new looking lock. All features suggested recent construction. Inside were various boxes and shelves. Bob immediately wanted to find a way to enter. I advised against it, and we left the area, mystified and a bit shaken, by what we had seen in such a remote and abandoned place. It was getting time for supper, so we headed back to camp, but when we arrived there, where was Bob Cogan? Suddenly he appeared, very excited, to tell me that he had remained behind and entered the mysterious building. Inside he found various kinds of drugs. It was a drug cache!! I was not happy that he failed to follow my directions, but was glad that now we knew what the building was about.
As I was preparing supper I became aware of a small light well up on the side of Providence Mountain’s massive base. Soon after the strange building episode, the light began to move and it was evident a vehicle was on its way down the mountain, as it followed a somewhat zig-zag course and was becoming brighter. I had no knowledge of any human habitation in the mountain area, so felt some anxiety. Soon the source disappeared momentarily as it reached the bottom of the grade but then reappeared as it headed down the main road of Balarat. The car stopped directly opposite our side-road and about 30 feet from our camp. Two stern-looking, robust men, perhaps in their 30’s, and seated together watched us closely – without getting our of their car – for 10 minutes or so, then abruptly turned around and went back up the mountain. No words were spoken.
Bob became concerned that there was a connection between their behavior and the disturbance we had created at the drug cache. Perhaps they were guards hired to protect the drug supply.
The Mystery Thickens
Soon after the silent visitors left, I saw a dust plume headed in our direction. A car was on the road we had followed in getting to Balarat. It crossed the playa and headed up the main ghost town road. Seeing us, the driver turned in to join us. The occupants were two young men with headquarters at Trona (about 30 mi. to the south) whose job it was to protect mine holdings. They were armed to do the job. They showed us their weapons, which included a machine gun! We invited them to join us for supper and to stay the night, which they accepted. It was getting late.
As night came on the sky filled with stars, so clear was the desert’s night air away from town lights. I revelled in the desert’s solitude and its familiar nocturnal sounds. Melinda was tired and crawled into her sleeping bag. I soon followed, but Bob and the Trona pair were discussing events of the day. Bob had been speculating that our mountain visitors might be guards of the drug cache and that, if so, we might be targeted for attack because of our discovery, and it could happen tonight.
Unknown to me, he and the Trona visitors, as a precaution, had armed themselves for such an eventuality.
Sometime near midnight I was awakened by Bob who was in a state of considerable anxiety. He wanted me to see what he believed was a man with a gun who had reached a point where he could fire on us.
He said he kept peeking around the side of one of the old buildings and moonlight occasionally glinted on his gun barrel.
I decided to get up and have a look. My vision was excellent, yet I could not see what he was describing. There was moonlight, passing clouds, and light reflection changes from loose metal on buildings. I went back to bed but could not sleep. Then, a little later, I heard cocking of several guns, sounds clearly coming from our camp! Now I was fully alert. I immediately got up, feeling things were getting out of hand! No “enemy” was to be seen, yet we had manned men cocking their guns. Why? They asked me to listen. Soon there was rattling sound coming from the old building. “That’s it”, they said. I explained it was sound made by wood rats that used rapid thumping of their tails to communicate.
It was now clear that our greatest danger might be us. What if Lindy had gotten up and moved into the expected line of fire? I picked her up, without awakening her, and placed her in a safer location. I then spoke to the armed young men: “I understand your anxiety. I have felt on edge too, but for the rest of the night we will have a “rotation of the guard”, ensuring we will always have a man on look out. I intend to stay awake, and no one is to use a weapon without my approval”.
The rotation watch went well and no attack occurred.
The next day the Trona pair returned to their base and a group of top officials came to investigate. Bob’s assessment of the drug situation was confirmed. The building contained drugs. I believe that the stern-looking men from the mountain were probably federal agent stake-outs seeking to intercept the drug dealers. They must have seen our California State License Plate and the make up of our party, including a child, and felt no need to involve us.
Balarat Revisited (after well over 50 years)
On September 5, 2009, I revisited Balarat with Steve Abbors, long a family friend. It may be my last visit to my beloved California desert because of age. It was a wonderful gift from the Abbors family. Balarat is now a site for public enjoyment. At the visitor center, a modest building, I met a 92 year old man, with whom I shared parts of the above story and found, to my delight, we had some common memories of Balarat as it was so long ago.
For example, we both knew “Seldom Seen Slim” – “Seldom” for short – a hungry-looking young prospector with a sense of humor that roamed the area. One of his favorite remarks was: “I’ve been working my claim for a week or two, now I’m looking for a sucker to sell it to” – a sensitive man, he was quick to say it was only a joke he had made up, and not really how he felt.
Seldom’s forthrightness and down-to-earth attitude reminded me of the many good people I have interacted with over many years of roaming deserts and other little developed wild lands. I like to believe it speaks well for being close to nature.
Editor’s Note: With the exception of minor typographical and editorial corrections, all efforts have been taken to preserve Dr. Stebbins’ text as originally recorded.
For more information on this serial column featuring the life and times of Dr. Robert C. Stebbins, please visit this post.