Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Desert Jim Mine, Knott’s Berry Farm

The Desert Jim Mine, Ghost Town, 1940s.
 When Walter Knott opened his faux “Ghost Town” on his berry farm in 1941, one of the original points of interest was the Desert Jim Mine (a.k.a. Desert Jim's Diggin's) – a tableau located between the Ghost Town Grill and the Drug Store on the south side of Main Street. It appeared as if a deep mine shaft (actually a shallow hole) had been sunk between the two buildings, with a hoist and various equipment at the top. 

The scene was designed by Ghost Town’s first artist/designer Paul Swartz, but within a year or so it bore an explanatory panel designed by Swartz’s replacement, Knott’s longtime in-house artist Paul von Klieben. The panel read,…

"DESERT JIM'S DISCOVERY 80 YEARS AGO -- A tiny vein of high grade ore kept Jim hopefully working for 20 years, driving a 700-foot tunnel through solid rock -- Just enough gold to provide a living and toiling ever onward he dreamed of the riches the widening of that little vein would bring.

"The crude homemade wheelbarrow and the little dump car helped get the ore out. Sorted, the high grade carried to the arrastra down by a spring half a mile away was ground to powder from which the gold was extracted with quicksilver. This exhibit, arrastra, wheelbarrow, dump car, rocks, etc., depict a real mining venture 45 miles across the desert from what is now Baker, California.

"Picture the labor and patience required to get gold from the desert with the few crude tools used by Desert Jim. With this crude blower he made his own tools."

Paul von Klieben drawing from the Ghost Town News Souvenir Edition, circa 1942.

This tableau in Knott’s Ghost Town reflected a very particular slice of California history. As the Gold Rush faded out, prospectors began looking farther and farther afield for better diggin’s. By the early 1860s, many were searching for gold and silver in the Mojave. But making a living there proved grueling. The logistics of bringing in water, fuel and other supplies were extremely difficult. High-quality ore was scarce, and the available equipment made mining slow and arduous. 

By the mid-1860s, the desert mining boom was already waning, with investors becoming more reticent and with Indian hostilities increasing. Then, starting around the 1880s, the yield from many of the remaining productive mines began to decrease.  The mines that survived were mostly large-scale operations.

A blurb about Knott’s Desert Jim Mine, printed in the December 1941 edition of Desert Magazine, stated that the "wheelbarrow, tiny dump cart and remaining tools" were all brought to Knott's from the original Desert Jim Mine site, "40 miles . . . from what is now Baker."

A small feature about the display in the Ghost Town News Souvenir Edition (published at Knott's Berry Farm, circa 1942) read, "Come on and I'll show you JIM'S MINE. That's a nice tribute to Jim. You know how some of them fellows get the fever -- just pack up and leave everything -- to hunt sudden riches. It says on the board that old Jim located enough gold to keep him going until he died. Well, we all have a right to pick our own way through life . . ."

The accompanying illustration by von Klieben later also decorated the menu of the adjacent Ghost Town Grill.

Paul Swartz hoists Walter Knott out of the Desert Jim Mine, Ghost Town, circa 1940.

Work to expand the Grill began in early 1953. According to the February 1953 issue of the Knotty Post employee magazine, the plan was to add seventy-five new seats to the restaurant and that "the space between the Grill and the Print Shop [the same building as the Drug Store] will be utilized as will a portion of the old Steak House kitchen behind the print shop."  At this time, von Klieben’s replacement, artist Otheto Weston, filled in the Desert Jim Mine and designed and built a new entrance for the restaurant. 

Attempts to locate the original circa 1860s-1880s Desert Jim Mine, forty to forty-five miles from Baker, have not yet panned out. But numerous clues, near misses, and possible leads for further research have come to light.

The only known/documented Desert Jim Mine I could find was near Surprise, Arizona, circa 1883, and seems unlikely to be the correct mine. 

Weston's plan for the new Ghost Town Grill entrance, displacing Desert Jim, 1953.
Three mines closer to the target: Jim, Jim #1 and Jim #2, appear to be roughly the correct distance from Baker (T 19/20 N, R 9 E, SBBM), and were located near what’s now the Kingston Range Wilderness nature preserve. However, these mines lack the “Desert” half of the “Desert Jim” name that would clinch the connection. 

Further muddying the waters, a good number of mines named “Lucky Jim” have also come and gone, including some in the Mojave. Indeed, in helping me search for the Desert Jim Mine, both desert mining historian Larry Vredenburgh and Ken Stack of Stack’s Liberty Ranch came up with “Lucky Jim” as the closest match. 

Stack found references to a Lucky Jim Mine, near Carbonate Peak in the Old Woman Mountains of San Bernardino County, about fifty miles southeast of Baker (34.57944 - 115.13583). This mine, he says, “was worked for just about twenty years,” matching the description on Knott’s Desert Jim Mine panel. “Seems it was abandoned in 1930, so the opportunity to pick up any scattered equipment would have been good for Knott.”
A tourist poses in Ghost Town. (Courtesy Eric Lynxwiler)
Vredenburgh found references to a “700 foot long” tunnel (also matching the panel’s description) at the “the Lucky [Jim] Mine owned by a J. E. Stevenson, located about thirteen miles southeast of Baker.” Note the substantially different distance from Baker.

Suffice it to say that the original mine’s exact name and location bear further investigation. 

But if, as Knott’s claimed, “Desert Jim” indeed worked his own little mine in the Mojave for twenty years, beginning around 1860 and ending around 1880, old Jim was undoubtedly a tenacious, rugged, and optimistic soul, active throughout the halcyon years (such as they were) of small-time prospectors working little claims in the California desert. 
Close-up of Jim's dump car. (Courtesy Chris Merritt) 
As such, the little scene was the perfect fit for Ghost Town, in which Walter Knott used the setting of a forgotten mining town to not only entertain the public but also promote the ideals of hard work, perseverance, entrepreneurism and independence.

[Thanks to Eric Lynxwiler and Chris Merritt for letting me pick their brains and photo collections; to Ken Stack, Eric Plunkett, and Larry Vredenburgh for searching through old mining reports and other dusty tomes for me; to Allen Palovik for the technical assist; and to Steve Lech and Nick Cataldo for pointing me toward additional clues.]

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