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How a SoCal ghost town turned into an amusement park | Bartell's Backroads

Calico was once a mining destination in California, then a ghost town. Now, it's an amusement attraction showcasing its history.
Credit: ABC10
Calico Ghost Town was once the most profitable mining district in California. Today its an amusement park full of western oddities.

CALICO, Calif. — Just outside the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County is the former mining district of Calico, once California's most profitable mining district

The area got its name in the 1800s because of the colorful patchwork of minerals in the surrounding mountains. Borax and other minerals made miners rich. Record keeping in the mines were pretty bad back then, but it’s estimated that in 1883, 10% of the nation’s sliver came from Calico.

However, the silver rush in this area didn’t last long. Historian Jennifer Dickerson says Calico turned into a ghost town by the turn of the century. There were a few attempts to bring back borax mining, but they were not profitable. 

“The reason its called a ghost town is because there was a mass exodus after silver prices declined," Dickerson said. 

In the 1950s, Calico turned into a different kind of boom town. Amusement park entrepreneur Walter Knott purchased the mines and turned it into a tourist attraction.

“Walter Knott was most famous for being the founder of Knott’s Berry Farms, but what most people don’t know is that he also founded Calico as a tourist attraction," Dickerson said.

Before his amusement park days, Knott actually worked in the Calico mines. So, he went to great lengths to keep the buildings historically accurate.

San Bernardino County took over the park in the 1960s and made historical figures a part of the park. In the mine, you can meet John Mulcahy, the lonely mine owner. Then if you go down main street, you can learn about Dorsey the mail-carrying dog. Disney actually made a short film about Dorsey.

Calico was such an influential place that country music singer Kenny Rogers wrote an entire album about it. Calico may be considered a ghost town, but these days it’s lively as ever.

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