National News

They Bought a Ghost Town for $1.4 Million. Now They Want to Revive It.

Posted July 18, 2018 2:27 p.m. EDT
Updated July 18, 2018 2:31 p.m. EDT

In Cerro Gordo, a town nestled in the Inyo Mountains of California, near Death Valley, there is a single saloon with swinging doors, two out-of-tune pianos and a mysterious bloodstain on the wall beneath three bullet holes.

It is one of Brent Underwood’s favorite places in the ghost town, and now that he owns it, he plans on sharing it with the world. (He is still trying to learn the story behind the bloodstain.)

Friday, Underwood and his friend Jon Bier became the latest owners of Cerro Gordo, which translates to “fat hill,” after buying it for $1.4 million. They plan to restore the town while preserving its past, Underwood said, adding that they hope to attract a variety of visitors. He said they expected to spend about $1 million to get things started.

Jake Rasmuson of Bishop Real Estate said that he received hundreds of inquiries after the sale was announced in early June. Twelve of the offers were serious, he said, noting that the original asking price was $925,000.

The previous owners of Cerro Gordo, who prefer to remain anonymous, are brothers who had inherited the town from their family, Rasmuson said. They felt it was the right time in their lives to sell the town, but they wanted to preserve its long history, he said.

They felt that the offer from Underwood and Bier, while not the highest bid, aligned with their hope, Rasmuson said.

“The sellers really liked their vision,” he said, adding that they closed the sale on Friday the 13th in “true ghost town fashion.”

The town, which is about 200 miles north of Los Angeles, is just over 300 acres. It is known for its part in Wild West history and used to average about a murder a week during the 1870s, the height of the mining era, Rasmuson said.

The property includes houses, an eight-bed bunkhouse, a church that also serves as a small theater, a general store and a museum. As with any credible ghost town, there have also been reported ghost sightings, he said.

Underwood, 31, heard about the sale from a friend. As founder of HK Austin, a hostel located in Austin, Texas, he had been looking for other opportunities for a place that could combine his passions of hospitality and history.

He researched the town and read books about its history. About three weeks ago, he flew out to meet with the owners and Rasmuson. He toured the town and met its current caretaker, Robert Desmarais, who will continue to live there as they restore buildings.

In 1865 a man named Pablo Flores discovered silver at the site, near where Mexicans had been searching for precious metals, and he began mining operations there, according to the town’s website. By 1869, the town became the largest producer of silver and lead in the state, until falling prices and setbacks ended most of the activity.

It was revived once more in the early 1900s, when high-grade zinc was excavated, and Cerro Gordo became the largest U.S. producer of zinc carbonates, according to the site. But by 1920, only about 10 men were employed by a Cerro Gordo mining company.

By the 1950s, the town was largely abandoned. In the mid-2000s, the owner at the time tried to restore parts of the town with the help of volunteers. He also catered to large parties in the American Hotel, a two-story building attached to the saloon.

Desmarais is currently the only resident in town, but Underwood said his plan is to soon make it comfortable enough for more groups to stay. He said that Desmarais had recently installed a water pump in the bunkhouse, which will be the first building restored.

Some of the plans include creating a music studio within the bunkhouse for musicians and building an observation deck in the town, Underwood said. On the night they closed the deal, he said, he saw shooting stars in the clear skies.

Underwood, who lives in Austin, plans on moving to Cerro Gordo in August, managing his hostel from afar as he and Bier restore the town. The first year will likely be a labor of love, he said.

“We might get quite a bit more done because there’s not too many distractions when you’re up miles away from anybody else,” he said.

From a balcony in the hotel, Underwood said, Mount Whitney is visible. On the other side of town, Death Valley National Park is within view.

The saloon, with its wood stove and antique bottles, is an experience unique to the town, Underwood said. He said he hoped to attract both individual travelers and groups on retreats.

“You very much feel like you’re back in time,” he said.