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The ghost towns of Route 66

Before we leave Needles, California, on our westward trek along old Route 66 we stop and fill up our tank. West of Needles, the historic old highway veers away from the Interstate 40 – first to the north, then to the south.

We face more than 241km of barren desert road littered with relics from the past, along what some call the “ghost town” section of Route 66.

Riding along this crusty path we eventually come to the town of Amboy. Two extinct volcanoes are located to the west. One of these, Amboy Crater, is a 6000-year-old cinder cone volcano. {{image2-A:R-w:320}}

Once an old Route 66 tourist attraction, the crater now stands in silent vigil over the small town – but it wasn’t always this way.

One day in the 1950s the crater spewed forth a black cloud of smoke. Fearing an eruption, Route 66 and the Santa Fe railroad were shut down and a team of investigators was dispatched to investigate the event further.

To their surprise and relief, instead of billowing clouds of ash, red-hot lava and steam, the investigators found a bonfire burning tyres and trash – a hoax perpetrated by some kids from the nearby city of Barstow!

I don’t know if this story is true or if it’s an urban legend but it tickles my fancy.

We continue westward through a few more old towns. Like others we have passed on our journey, many of these desert towns kicked off with the launch of the Santa Fe railroad, boomed with the mining industry, blossomed while servicing traffic along Route 66 and withered away following the opening of Interstate 40.

So it was with Daggett, one of the next towns we come upon. Founded in the 1860s, the town boomed when silver was discovered in the Calico Mountains to the north. The mineral borax was also important to Daggett’s economy; for two years the town was the terminal for wagons led by 20 mules that ran from a borax mine near Furnace Creek in Death Valley.

In 1883 the Furnace Creek mine was abandoned for a more favourable borax deposit in the Calico Mountains just east of the silver mining district of Calico. Initially the ore was hauled to Daggett using the same 20 mule teams once used in Death Valley but in 1894 the operators experimented with a steam tractor the locals came to call “Old Dinah”.

This experiment was a failure and in 1898 a narrow gauge railroad was constructed to transport ore to a calcining plant just north of Daggett.

From 1890 to 1907 these mines were the largest producers of borax in the US, with a total production of more than $US9 million ($AUD10.2 million), but in 1907 the main borax operations were shifted to new mines back in the Death Valley region, causing Daggett to go into decline. Nevertheless, Daggett tenaciously survives today.

Before heading on down the Mother Road to Barstow, we take a side trip 11km north of Daggett to the historic ghost town of Calico, site of the silver and borax mines.

During the late 1800s, while the country was switching from the silver standard to the gold standard, the price of silver plummeted – along with Calico’s population.

Just after the turn of the century the narrow gauge Calico railroad was dismantled, borax mining ended and the town slowly died. By 1935 the town had been entirely abandoned and left to decay in the Mojave Desert.

However, in 1950 Calico was restored by Knott’s Berry Farm and was subsequently donated to the San Bernardino County Regional Parks.

After catching a glimpse of life during the old mining days, we continue on to Barstow along Route 66.

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