I Went To This California Ghost Town So You Don't Have To

Calico, California is a land of uranium and cyanide, but few ghosts.
I Went To This California Ghost Town So You Don't Have To

I’ve written before about being locked in a haunted house and going to America’s Most Haunted Museum and Spookatorium, and this Halloween I’ll be doing even more. Over the next few days, I’ll be writing about a spooky, eerie, frightening, or otherwise off-putting location right here in my adopted city of Los Angeles. Let's call this series TINSELTOWN TERRORS?!? or whatever.

If you’re tired of normal scary things here in LA, such as rent prices or the people in the Valley who’ve had so much plastic surgery they now look like the puppets in Genesis's “Land of Confusion” music video, come on down!

To begin, I drove a bit outside of LA, into the land of deserts and billboards that say things like “Joe ‘KARL MARX’ Biden is using CRITICAL RACE THEORY to make American men sexually subservient to China!” to find a ghost town. After all, what could be ghostier than a ghost town? It’s literally a town full of ghosts! After waiting in line for only like an hour or two to get gas at the Van Nuys Costco, my wife and I were on our way to Calico, a ghost town northeast of Los Angeles.

The Approach

Here we are! According to the bullethole-riddled sign and also the nearby mountain, we’re in Calico! Now to just park my car and take a quick look down and— 

108 degree temperature on car

William Kuechenberg

 Maybe I should investigate, like, a haunted Dairy Queen or the Phantom of the HVAC Museum or something. 

–oh no. Oh, NO. This was a mistake. How was I to know it was going to be hot in the desert in the summer? I’m a writer: I sit on my little couch and write my little jokes with my cat snuggled in my lap and tell myself, “Of course this is a real job.” I’m not built for these temperatures. Look at my absurd last name. That’s a name that indicates I have thick Mountain Blood. This trip is a testament to Man’s Hubris.

But I came here to look for ghosts, dammit, and that’s just what I’m going to do! As soon as I step into the first building and buy a big ol’ bottle of water. And the very first building I happened to come across was the gift shop. I suppose it makes sense to put that next to the parking lot, to make it easier for people to carry their knicks-knack and brics-a-brac back to their car. 

Feeling a little skeeved out by all the Confederate flag-emblazoned clothing, I very bravely stepped outside into the suffocating heat. There were a few other people milling around the ghost town, people who were, tragically, not ghosts. In fact, most of the other tourists were Germans for some reason. For reasons too complicated to get into here, Germans love Westerns, though they generally root for the Native Americans because they see themselves as historically similar: a people who bravely defended their homeland from conquerors (in the case of Germans, the Roman Empire).

Or maybe because cowboys are cool and Universal Studios was closed that day? I’m not sure. Either way, just remember that while we were walking around there would occasionally be a little German child running by in his knickerbockers shouting “Mama! Mama! Rudi hat mir meine Taschenwurst geklaut, und jetzt habe ich ein großen Hunger!” 

Desperate to escape the relentless sun and German children, we entered the next building, expecting to find ghosts. Instead, we found– another gift shop? Okay, maybe they store the ghosts in that building across the street… nope, this is another gift shop. What the hell is going on here? And why is it apparently a legal requirement that any vaguely “historical” tourist attraction have the World’s Worst Candy for sale? I didn’t even know they still made candy cigarettes! 

Upon leaving yet another gift shop, I found an informational boulder. This is like an informational sign, except said information is bolted to a large rock. From this helpful bit of metamorphic stone I learned that Calico was a mining boom town founded in 1881 which primarily dug for silver, but also mined other semi-precious minerals such as… uranium and borax.

It was, at one time, the largest exporter of silver in California. Once the mining boom was over it struggled along for a while, even attempting to extract remnants of precious metals from the ground by saturating it with goddamn cyanide, but the town slowly died out. Possibly due to the passing of the Silver Purchase Act driving down the cost of silver, or possibly due to the fact that this place was literally built on a uranium mine that was later flushed out with cyanide. This is usually where I’d write a joke about how miserable, disgusting, or dangerous the Past was, but honestly I don’t think I can top that. 

Later, in the 50s, Calico was purchased by Walter Knott, the nephew of the man who first staked the mine. Walter Knott, for those who don’t live in Southern California, was a businessman best known as the founder of Knott’s Berry Farm, Los Angeles’ premiere combination berry farm/theme park. He’d intended to remake Calico into a sort of tourist attraction park, but that never really took off. Who’s to say why nobody wanted to drive over two hours outside of Los Angeles to a place that’s quite literally on the outskirts of the hottest place on the face of the Earth to come to a theme park that doesn’t even have berry picking – if you can even call it a theme park if it doesn’t have berry picking? 

Knott’s influence probably explains the mystery of the gross and inescapable commercialism of this place, but it doesn’t bring me any closer to seeing any ghosts. There was a small museum of sorts built into one of the old houses which mercifully was not a gift shop, though there was nary a ghost to be found there, either. Although I did see this sign which contains what is without a doubt the most hilarious Old Timey name I’ve ever seen, so not a total loss.

Borax Smith

William Kuechenberg

“Yessir, ol’ Borax Smith used to ride Dinah, his tractor-wife, up ‘n’ down these ol’ mulepaths. ‘Course, that were afore he got tooken by the Borax Madness.”

While the museum also talked about the town’s barber-dentist, Dr. Goodenough (yes), it was also disappointingly bereft of the tortured souls of the damned. Maybe if I get to the highest point in town I’ll see where I need to go? It works in video games, ergo, it should work in real life. You also use a first aid kit by stepping over it, right? 

Calico, California

William Kuechenberg

Not even a lousy quest marker?

Huh. Nope. No ghosts to be found. It’s not even particularly spooky. I’m afraid that this ghost town might be more of a roast town, because it’s very hot (“roasting”) and I’m flippant. Okay, I guess I’ll just amble on back down to the main drag. I could use another $11 bottle of water.

The Descent

After looking at some “ghost photos” that are barely worth discussing here, I coughed up the $16 for the self-guided tour of the mine, and in we went. This place has gotta be just lousy with ghosts, right? More ghosts per square foot than Pete Buttigeig’s basement. So we went into the mine and it was… well, it was a hole in the ground. Not particularly spooky, unless you’re of a particularly claustrophobic bent. Due to my small, hairy, rather dwarfish nature I feel perfectly at home crawling around in dirty holes in the ground, so I was fine. We reached the end of one tunnel, where an important discovery was made: 

Yes, I am a child. I immediately began making my way down the last tunnel, hoping to catch sight of this rumored “famous gloryhole.” Along the way I decided to take a page out of the Ghost Adventures handbook and take some photos to review later. Sadly, nary a ghost to be found in this strangely well illuminated mine.

If there were any prospector specters floating around, apparently they can’t be captured on an iPhone 7. Maybe the 14 will have the ability to commune with the dead? So far this was really turning out to be a bust. A real ghost bust, if you will. There were some mannequins dressed as prospectors and Ol' West ethnic stereotypes sprinkled around, which I guess is scary if you’re afraid of racist dolls. Which I’m not, antique porcelain dolls are so fragile they’ll develop hairline fractures if you think about them twice in one day: if one was possessed by the ghost of a jingoistic Victorian orphan, I would simply kick it back to Hell.

Overall Spookiness: We ended up leaving Calico without having seen a single spirit, phantom, or poltergeist – not even a lousy apparition or spirit orb for our trouble.

Score on the Spookometer: Sadly, zero out of ten cyanide flat banshees. Turns out the real ghost of Calico were Germanic children?

William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter, a Nicholl Top 50 Finalist, and an award-winning filmmaker. He’s currently looking to be a writer’s assistant, a showrunner’s assistant, or even to be staffed on a television show: tell your friends, and if you don’t have any friends, tell your enemies! You can also view his mind-diarrhea on Twitter.


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