Stories

'I've spent 22 years searching for silver in a ghost town'

Cerro Gordo ghost town. Brent Underwood Image copyright Alamy

Robert Louis Desmarais is the only inhabitant of a Californian ghost town, Cerro Gordo, where he has been searching for a lost vein of silver for 22 years.

A 70-year-old former high school teacher, Desmarais used to visit the remote spot in the school holidays to search for ore. But he eventually moved there full-time, to live away from the crowds "up in the mountains, under the stars".

Cerro Gordo (Fat Hill in Spanish) was once the most fruitful silver mine in California.

"It helped to build Los Angeles," Desmarais says.

Convinced there is plenty of silver left, he descends 800ft with a chisel and hammer to "crack rocks and see what's behind them".

He thinks he's found traces of a lost vein in a couple of mine shafts.

"I'm hoping to find it. That's why I'm still here," he says.

Robert, the only resident of Cerro Gordo ghost town. Vivian Sacks Image copyright Vivian Sacks

"Over 22 years, I've found equivalent to a wheelbarrow full of silver," he says.

For now, he sells the ore in its raw form to tourists for between $5 and $20 a piece.

After Desmarais had been living in the town for a couple of years, someone gave him a cabin, which had once been the home of a miner called William Hunter. That's where he now lives, at an altitude of 8,200ft, with a commanding view of the valley that enables him to see visitors long before they reach the town.

It's not an easy life. Desmarais' wife had to leave because she couldn't stand the altitude, he says. She now lives in Nevada.

Every day Desmarais collects and chops firewood. There is electricity on the mountain, but no water, so he fetches it one lorry load at a time from the town below, called Keeler.

Keeler was once a rail station and thriving town. Silver ore would be sent down the mountain to Keeler, boated across Lake Owens, and put on a train towards LA.

Since Lake Owens was drained as part of the Los Angeles Aqueduct project the population has decreased to 30.

Another town 15 miles from Keeler - Lone Pine - is the nearest place to fetch supplies. It has cafes, shops, hotels, and bars.

As someone who lives completely alone - "apart from the ghosts," he jokes - Desmarais enjoys showing visitors around. He tells them about the history of Cerro Gordo, which was founded in 1865 and quickly grew to host a population of 4,500, and about mining, his great passion.

Brent Underwood Image copyright Brent Underwood

He'd like to give mining tours underground, but the town's current owners, LA entrepreneurs Brent Underwood and Jon Bier, are against the idea. Mines are "inherently dangerous" they point out.

They bought Cerro Gordo for $1.4m in July last year, closing the purchase on Friday 13 - fittingly for a ghost town.

Like Desmarais, they think there may be riches to be found here.

Cerro Gordo. Photo: Brent Underwood Image copyright Brent Underwood

"We all believe that the missing silver vein may one day be found. They pulled at least $500 million worth of minerals out of the mountain already and there are rumours there is at least another $500 million down there."

The town has been passed down "from dreamer to dreamer" since it was founded, they say. "All along the line there are interesting characters who all thought the hill could be more than it currently was."

Short presentational grey line

Brent Underwood and Jon Bier

Brent Underwood Image copyright Brent Underwood

The new owners want to bring some life back into the town by introducing overnight accommodation. They took to Reddit to ask what else they should do.

One Redditor suggested building a cinema, but as it happens, Cerro Gordo already has a converted chapel with a projector box and cinema seating. The owners plan to make use of this to screen a variety of films.

Someone also gave advice about what to plant. "He suggested that we grow more grape soda lupine which are very nice and purple and that we get a few goats to control the underbrush that gets close to the houses to prevent fires in the future."

Thanks to this suggestion, Turtle the goat has made the transition to mountain goat.

Short presentational grey line
Turtle the goat has made the transition to a mountain goat Image copyright Brent Underwood

The last owner asked Robert Desmarais to watch over the town, which he did on a voluntary basis. The new owners have hired him as a caretaker.

He mends windows. He has shot "a few snakes and rats" but never coyotes, which he considers "important, wonderful creatures". He picks up rubbish that "the bad people" leave. Once a month, he fills potholes on the road leading to the town.

Cerro Gordo. Brent Underwood Image copyright Brent Underwood

One Instagram user wrote: "Thanks for watching over Cerro Gordo all this time, Robert!" Another said: "I want to sit by a campfire under the stars and listen to Robert's stories."

Unfortunately, he'll never see their comments as he doesn't own a computer, or - in fact, any form of technology: "I'm old school."

"I love the animals, the adventure and the beautiful stars."

Stars at night, Cerro Gordo. Brent Underwood Image copyright Brent Underwood
Short presentational grey line

You might also be interested in...

Christopher Knight Image copyright Getty Images

Many people don't like being alone. They feel lonely. For others, though, it can be a source of ecstasy. The BBC's Shabnam Grewal spoke to a hermit on the Scottish moors, and learned about an American who turned his back on the world when barely out of his teens.

Why this man became a hermit at 20