Cerro Gordo
"Fat Hill"

Pictures and text excerpts are all from "From this Mountain - Cerro Gordo"
by Robert C. Likes and Glenn R. Day (1975) unless otherwise indicated.

Cerro Gordo
Click on this icon to view a map of the Cerro Gordo / Owens Lake area.

Phyllis (Likes) Fludine of Myrtle Beach, S.C. writes.

My name is Phyllis! I was surfing around looking for a few copies of my fathers book, and I was fortunate to have stumbled upon your website! My fathers name is Robert Likes and he wrote the book "From This Mountain". As a teenager, I spent many many weekends out there with my dad and felt like it was my "other home". My father loved to go out there and research that country. Although we all live in the south now, he still reads and watches all he can about the west. When I found your site tonight, I called to tell him right away. He was so thrilled! He told me to tell you to keep up the site.

Thanks again for a great and informative site!
Phyllis Fludine

Three Decades of Frustration

Julius M. Keeler arrived in Owens Valley in the winter of 1879-80. As an agent for D. N. Hawley, Keeler represented the Owens Lake Mining and Milling Company. Having purchased the Union Consolidated holdings at Cerro Gordo, Keeler began laying out a town and mill site near the Cerro Gordo landing in March 1880.

The Owens Lake Mining and Milling Company purchased Colonel Stevens' inactive lumber company as a means of obtaining construction material for the proposed town. The steamer Molly Stevens was included in the purchase. After the damaged section of the flume was restored, the sawmill was put into operation in October 1880. The Molly Stevens delivered the first consignment of lumber across the lake, and the small community called Hawley began taking shape. The name of the town was later changed to Keeler.

The steamer Molly Stevens did not prove to be as efficient as Julius Keeler had earlier hoped for. The Bessie Brady was pulled off the beach at Ferguson's Landing in the spring of 1882. After being towed to Keeler, her weathered hull was completely reconditioned. The Molly Stevens was dismantled and the powerful engine from the U.S.S. Pensacola was removed and refitted into the Bessie Brady.

On May 11, 1882, a spontaneous combustion from the oil, paint, and tar turned the Bessie Brady into an inferno. After sparing no expense to restore the steamboat, all that Julius Keeler could do was stand and watch her burn. Steamboat navigation on the Owens Lake had come to an end.

When the railroad came to Owens Valley, the famous freight wagons of R. Nadeau departed for Tombstone, Arizona where they were sold. Nadeau built a four-story hotel in Los Angeles, in 1883, and remained in the city his freighting company helped build as a successful hotel man until the turn of the century.

Cerro Gordo was a deserted town when state mineralogist, W. A. Goodyear, visited it in July, 1888. The great Union mine was under lease to Thomas Boland and John Gorman who were extracting and shipping small quantities of ore. A few others were probing here and there for pockets of rich silver that might have eluded the previous silver kings. Belshaw and Beaudry's smelters, as well as the town, were being cannibalized for material and equipment by those who historically follow the fall of the boom towns. In the Annual Report of the State Mineralogist for the year ending October 1, 1888, Goodyear made the following statement; "At the present time, there is altogether perhaps thirty or forty men around the site of the old town, getting their living as best they can."

The early 1900's were not "good times" for Cerro Gordo. The price of silver continued to drop, reaching a low of fifty-three cents an ounce in 1902. The effort of Thomas Boland was the only thing keeping Cerro Gordo alive. Boland refused to acknowledge the silver era was over, or that the mines could not be worked profitably again. There were times when as few as five men were employed. But there was always someone searching, someone keeping alive the dream that Cerro Gordo would again bring excitement and prosperity to the Owens Valley.

"From this Mountain - Cerro Gordo" by Robert C. Likes and Glenn R. Day

Teamsters headed down the "Yellow Grade Road" after yet another breakdown in the aerial tramway. The tram was completed in 1909 but continual breakdowns delayed shipments to the Four Metals Mining Company's smelter on the shore of Owens Lake.

Keeler in 1925

Carson & Colorado Engine No. 9 in 1954.

Cerro Gordo
Cerro Gordo between 1911 - 1919

Miners at the Wells Fargo Express payroll office at Keeler.

Yellow Grade Road 
Owen Dearborn riding one of the "wheelers" on the rugged 8 mile Yellow Grade Road to Cerro Gordo - circa 1911.

Stevens charcoal kilns built in 1876-77 located at Cottonwood Landing on the Owens Lake.

charcoal kilns
(photo courtesy of Rich McCutchan)

Miners emerging from the Estelle tunnel.

Cerro Gordo Ghost Town

When Cerro Gordo died, so did the remaining activity connected with it. The last 71 mile segment of narrow gauge track from Laws to Keeler was abandoned in 1960. The Southern Pacific Railroad announced the action unavoidable, "though regrettable from a sentimental point of view." The last narrow gauge common carrier west of the Rocky Mountains made its final run on April 29, 1960. A salvage company removed the rails in January, 1961, concluding the 77 year history of narrow gauge railroading in Owens Valley.

Once the busiest section of the valley, the dry lake bed now harbors only memories of Inyo County's silver era. Except for the small number of families residing at Keeler, and Wally Wilson's widow, Barbara, still living at Cerro Gordo at the time of this writing, few people travel the parched landscape on the eastern side of Owens Valley.

Rails that once transported ore cars to the tramhouse now stare into empty space. The tramhouse, identified with Cerro Gordo's second boom, was destroyed shortly after its machinery was removed in 1959. The course of the tramway from Cerro Gordo to Keeler is marked by wooden towers, and in a few places midway down the mountain, steel cables and suspended ore buckets.

Inside the buildings at the Union mine, machinery and equipment are that of Cerro Gordo's second boom. The exception to this is the remains of the old steam plant installed in the late 1800's. Embossing on the face plate identifies the manufacturer as Westinghouse-Church-Kerr and Company, Chicago-1890.

The adobe and stone ruins of Mexican vasos can be seen in the vicinity of the Ignacio mine, half a mile south of Cerro Gordo. A stone corral and several foundations beside a section of the original Yellow Grade Road, a short distance below the mine, also date back to the earliest days. Other ruins and debris at the mine reflect the period of reactivation during the zinc era.

A century has come and gone since the smelters of Belshaw and Beaudry sent silver bullion from this mountain, and the square nailed wooden structures at Cerro Gordo reflect its passing. Sprawling down the slopes of Buena Vista Peak, the cluster of old buildings will delight the heart of any ghost town buff. While only a faint glimmer of its former self, Cerro Gordo's remaining structures all contribute to the general feeling that here time has stopped the turmoil is over. What is left is a ghost town with an atmosphere worth sampling.

"From this Mountain - Cerro Gordo" by Robert C. Likes and Glenn R. Day

"Mules and Men"[pdf]

by Willis Linn Jepson

Moving the silver by Steamer, Mule Team and Railroad

Bessie Brady
Bessie Brady Steamer
Constructed by James Brady and launched into service on June 27, 1872.


Nadeau team
Remi Nadeau's 20 mule team

The Carson & Colorado Railroad
The C&C RR traversed some 400 miles from Mound House, near Carson City, Nevada, in the north to Keeler on the shores of Owens Lake in the south.

"The Desert Steamers"[pdf]
by Richard E. Ligenfelter


cerro gordo
Cerro Gordo with Owens Lake in the background
iron shoes
Iron shoes attached to the locked wheels of ore wagons slowed down wagons descending the steep Yellow Grade Road

cerro gordo smelter
Cerro Gordo smelter with bullion stacked up in front of the smelter waiting for transport down the Yellow Grade Road.


Further Reading on Cerro Gordo
spur From This Mountain - Cerro Gordo by Robert C. Likes & Glenn R. Day
The Story of Inyo by Walter Chalfant
The Desert Steamers, Journal of the West, Vo.1, No.2, by R.E. Lingerfelter
Slim Rails through the Sand by George Turner
The City-Makers by Remi Nadeau (the great, great grandson of the freighter)
ABE Books, making "out of print" books easier to find.


 One Packer's High Sierra Experience  

Brochures of the Eastern High Sierra  

More, Cerro Gordo  

More, Cerro Gordo


 Early Big Pine


 Early Bishop Pioneers


 Mary Austin


 Carson and Colorado Railroad

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This page was last updated on 18 June 2015