by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In today’s print edition of the Los Angeles Times (the story went up in the digital version a few days ago,) is an article by Louis Sahagun about a fire that, in the middle of the night on 15 June, swept through the historic ghost mining town of Cerro Gordo, perched some 8,500 feet above sea level in rugged mountains northeast of Owens Lake in Inyo County.
The current owners bought the property two years ago for $1.8 million and have had big plans for turning the remote site, accessible only by a road that requires four-wheel drive vehicles, into a luxury travel attraction. I’ve had a couple of conversations over the years with previous owners who told me of their hopes for much of the same.
The fire, undoubtedly, will be a major setback, along with the current economic downturn, to the ambitions of those who’d like to see Cerro Gordo be something much grander that, say, Bodie, a mining ghost town which is a state historic park to the north near Bridgeport. It turns out, though, the Cerro Gordo has a strong tie to the Workman and Temple families, with a couple of years of major activity during the first boom period in Los Angeles.
It is believed that Mexican miners, with experience from the silver mines of northern Mexico and other places in that country, discovered silver ore at Cerro Gordo (which means “Fat Hill”) in 1865. It didn’t take long for others to swarm the area, though not in the huge numbers found in other mining areas of the state, for their shot at success in extracting the precious mineral from the forbidding landscape, subject to blistering hot summers (with Death Valley just to the east) and cold, snowy winters.
Victor Beaudry, a French Canadian whose brother Prudent was a major real estate developer and mayor of Los Angeles during the growth period of the late 1860s and the first half of the following decade, was among the first arrivals at Cerro Gordo. He opened a store in the new community in 1866.
Then came Mortimer W. Belshaw, who had much experience in mining, including in Mexico, and his arrival in spring 1868 advanced the development of the town substantially. He acquired an interest in an existing mine and, when enough silver was mined to show to investors in San Francisco, he returned to Cerro Gordo with the capital to build a smelter for processing the ore on site.
By summer, he built a wagon road all the way up from the valley floor and, naturally, charged tolls for its use. With transportation to the mines established and his smelter in operation, Belshaw, by the end of the year, was transporting processed silver ore to Los Angeles, well over 200 miles to the southwest. Notably, before its waters were abstracted (some would have said stolen) by the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913, Owens Lake was a large navigable freshwater body that had steamships plying its waters forty miles from one end to the other.
The main figure in transporting the material to the Angel City was Remi Nadeau, another French-Canadian who arrived in Los Angeles in 1861 and became the “King of the Desert Freighters” as his mule teams began operating at a variety of eastern California mining towns and camps, including, from 1868, Cerro Gordo. Within five years, he had some 80 teams operating in his system and the trip from Cerro Gordo to Los Angeles took three weeks. Nadeau also built the first four-story building in the City of Angels, the Nadeau Block, which has been featured in this blog.
In 1873, F.P.F. Temple decided to try his hand at investing in Cerro Gordo. Temple, who was an avid investor in many business projects during Los Angeles’ first boom, including a woolen mill, shipping and warehouse company, eucalyptus tree raising farm, real estate subdivisions, railroads, oil and many more, formed the Cerro Gordo Water and Mining Company, which incorporated on 30 June 1873 with $2 million in stock at $100 each.
On 19 June, the Los Angeles Express, given to often wild flights of fancy in its boosterism of the growing little city, claimed that “The Golden Days [Are] Returning” in an editorial about renewed activity at Cerro Gordo. This included Nadeau’s recent return from the mines laden with bullion and Belshaw’s intention to have dozens of teams ready to transport smelted ore regularly. The Inyo Independent newspaper reported that Beaudry’s furnaces turned out over 4,500 bars of bullion during the preceding month and this including a few days lost for repairs. With Nadeau’s new contract said to be for three additional years, the prospect of up to 100 teams coming to Los Angeles meant spending in the city so that “times will be lively again and money plenty.” Merchants were encouraged to have lots of inventory to expect heady sales and the realization of “the good time coming.”
Several days earlier the Los Angeles Star, in its edition of the 22nd, reported that the company filed its articles of incorporation with the Los Angeles County Clerk’s office, though state certification was not until the end of the month. The purpose of the firm was “to supply water for the mines, mining works, smelting furnaces and other uses at Cerro Gordo, Inyo county, and for the mining and reduction of ores at the same place.”
Joining Temple as directors were his eldest son Thomas, a cashier at the Temple and Workman bank; that institution’s managing cashier Henry S. Ledyard; attorney Frank H. Howard, whose father Volney was a prominent lawyer and judge and close friend of Workman and Temple; and Scottish nobleman and owner of large domains along the coast near modern Los Angeles International Airport, Robert Burnett. Temple and Ledyard later joined Burnett’s associate Daniel Freeman in developing the Centinela townsite, a precursor to Inglewood. $1.2 million of the stock was already subscribed and William Workman took out 1500 shares at a significant discount.
The firm’s major project and one that aimed to fill an enormous need in the mining town, which probably peaked at about 1,500 people, was to tap a large spring of water some eleven miles from Cerro Gordo and deliver it via a pipeline laid in the rugged mountains to town. In its article, the Star observed that “the company is now building eleven and a half miles of 4-inch pipe in this city.”
On the 25th, the paper published a lengthy piece on “The Cerro Gordo Water Project” in which the Star reported that “two teams, loaded with water-pipes constructed in this city for the Cerro Gordo Water Works, were dispatched yesterday,” with the 2 1/2 miles worth probably freighted by Nadeau’s outfit. It was assumed that, once delivered, the water would “at once double the capacity of the furnaces, and increase all kinds of business.” Moreover, the paper gushed the enterprise “will, beyond doubt, prove one of the best paying investments on the coast.”
The source, known as Diamond or Miller springs, was deemed “ample for the demand,” with Cerro Gordo then consuming some 3,500 gallons per day, and was situated in a deep canyon, so that the fluid had to be carried up 1,800 feet through steam pumps and then left in a reservoir, with the pipes being taken up to the site conveying the water to the down. At one point, the pipes would be laid in another depression rather than bridging the gap and gravity would be used to get the water across.
The piece ended by assuring that the Temples and their associates “are mean of energy and means” who would make sure the enterprise was handled “with the utmost dispatch.” The Star offered its congratulations to “the people of Cerro Gordo on the prospect of speedy relief from their present water famine, and, also on the certainty of a much better quality of water than they have heretofore been used to in that region.”
The company worked quickly and, on 14 May 1874, the Los Angeles Star reported that Ledyard, the firm’s secretary, received a telegram from superintendent James Craig “that the water had been brought into the town of Cerro Gordo on the tenth.” The paper added that “this is a large and a most important enterprise . . . the cost of the works being in the neighborhood of $100,000.”
Another core component of F.P.F. Temple’s investment at Cerro Gordo was the creation of a railroad from Los Angeles to Independence, the county seat northwest of the mining community. First, a bill had to be approved by the state legislature granting Los Angeles capitalists a general franchise to build the line and Temple was among those who lobbied for the legislation with others including Belshaw, ex-governor John G. Downey, Benjamin D. Wilson, Leonard J. Rose, mining figures Patrick Reddy and James Brady, and Pleasant A. Chalfant, publisher of the Inyo Independent. It was anticipated that such as line could be extended into Utah and, someday, connect with the transcontinental completed a few years earlier in 1869.
The Los Angeles Express in its coverage of the passage of the bill allowed its imagination free rein in claiming that “there is no better railroad investment in the United States.” Moreover, the paper gushed, “it requires no spirit of prophecy . . . to predict that in less than five years the houses of Los Angeles will be in flourishing business correspondence with Asia and the Pacific Island and that Asiatic and Polynesian commerce will pass through our city to the Western World . . .”
The Los Angeles and Independence Railroad soon formed with Temple as president and with a host of other local residents, including Downey ( who was also Temple’s friendly rival as president of the Farmers and Merchants Bank, operated with Temple and Workman’s former bank partner, Isaias W. Hellman), was touted for being a major local rail project.
By the end of 1874, however, it was all-too-apparent that the project could not succeed without outside investment. United States Senator John P. Jones of Nevada, however, agreed to provide a significant amount of capital if the Los Angeles and Independence was reorganized so that it would build a line first to Jones’ new seaside resort town, Santa Monica, and if Jones assumed the presidency with Temple relegated to being treasurer (Downey, for example, dropped out, perhaps displeased with Jones’ majority stake taking control of the company.)
This was quickly accomplished and, with Jones providing the necessary funds and connections, work quickly commenced on the Santa Monica spur line, while grading was done eastward, including the critical work at Cajon Pass, which was greedily eyed by the powerful Southern Pacific.
By spring 1875, with the railroad work continuing apace and leading to the completion of the Santa Monica line in the fall, the situation looked generally well at Cerro Gordo and then disaster struck when the Diamond/Miller springs, said to have had such an ample supply of water, dried up. This crushing blow was compounded a few months later when the California economy cratered after a stock bubble involving silver mining companies at Virginia City, Nevada burst—one precipitating factor was when Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, a major investor there, sold a huge block of stock for several million dollars. He then came south to Los Angeles to invest in real estate, including the acquisition of the Rancho Santa Anita in the San Gabriel Valley.
The Temple and Workman bank, which must have used depositors’ funds for Cerro Gordo as well as a myriad of other projects in greater Los Angeles, was unable to sustain a depositors’ run when a panic erupted in late August. With Hellman in Europe, Downey agreed to Temple’s request for their respective banks to close for the month of September to try to calm the waters. When alerted, Hellman was furious with Downey and rushed home, stopping in New York to borrow some cash to help steady his customers’ nerves and then immediately reopening.
Temple, meanwhile, needed cash, too, but did not have Hellman’s connections. In desperation, he worked out a deal with Baldwin for a loan “on rather hard terms,” as Temple wrote to Workman, and the bank finally reopened in early December. By then, customer confidence was crushed and depositors rushed to close their accounts, draining the bank of the borrowed funds within several weeks. On 13 January 1876, the bank closed permanently and went into assignment.
Despite being elected as county treasurer the day his bank suspended business, Temple was allowed to take office in March, albeit with a deputy to run the affairs of the office. Workman, shell-shocked by the calamity with the bank, committed suicide two months later. Temple suffered a series of strokes and partial paralysis and, though he completed his two-year term in spring 1878, he was a wreck and died two years later.
Cerro Gordo declined after the water debacle and most of the mining efforts were ended by the late 1880s. Whether or not, its present owners can make anything of their investment obviously will be interesting to observe. Someday it would be great to make the trek to this remote site and try to imagine F.P.F. Temple walking through the boom town, believing his water project would lead to great things for Cerro Gordo and himself, only to have those hopes dashed by lofty ambitions and cruel circumstance.