On the Trail & ‘Round the Campfire

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The Cannon Balls of Panamint

Posted by on in Southwest Stories
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Nothing inspires the southwest imagination like ghost towns, outlaws and stage robbers.

Many are the fascinating tales of the old west ghost towns where robbers made off with a bonanza of gold and silver riches.

Panamint City was one of those ghost towns—a town of outlaws, stage robbers and shoot-outs. It is located on the west side of the Panamint Mountains on the edge of Death Valley, CA. USA. The old ruins are located at the upper end of Surprise Canyon. Prospectors were the first to arrive here. They began staking out their silver claims in 1872. Soon the grapevine-news was out and a real rush for wealth began. It was thought that a bonanza greater than the famous Comstock Lode of Nevada was about to happen.

This mountainous desert region is home to the Panamint Rattlesnake, a speckled rattlesnake of varying shades of color. Panamint is also the home of the Panamint Alligator Lizard, it too is of varying shades of color. Also, it is home to the unique Panamint Chipmunk living among the rocks of ancient pictographs. The Panamint Mountains has been the habitat of many wild desert creatures.

Take for instance such wild desert creatures as outlaws! The outlaw-bandits were known to raid the stages and freight wagons headed up to Panamint Valley. The road leading up to the valley is in Surprise Canyon. It is in a very narrow gorge so the outlaws found it easy to jump the wagons as they traversed the rugged canyon.

Sometime in 1873, between robberies, a band of thieving outlaws discovered that they were sitting on a rich load of silver, right where they were camped! They got all excited and staked out their claim. But they had a serious problem; they were outlaws! But, not having the capital to develop a silver mining operation, and not having good reputations, they were hard put to reveal their rich find and raise capital; and not get arrested!

Somehow, some way, they got the attention of a wealthy Senator, named John P. Jones, who had his own special reputation. He was a tough hombre, a big man, associated with the great Comstock Lode of Nevada. He understood the wild-west and its two main rules of survival "honor among thieves and the law of out-smartin' others." He also knew the lingo of honest outlaws and how to check out the truthfulness of their claims. Not to mention, that he had a clever mind and the power of government persuasion on his side.

The mountains paralleling the valley proved to be very rich in silver and copper ores. It wasn't long until Senator Jones, brought in his partner, Senator William M. Stewart of Nevada, and they bought up most of the mining claims for a song—an estimated $250,000. They formed a mining district and the pair came to be known as "The Silver Senators." With that investment, the town of Panamint was born and a great silver mining boom began.

 Main Street was laid out a mile long in the sloping valley, situated at the base of the Pantimint Mountains. It is said that the first saloon was a pine board laid across two oak barrels, upon which two glasses were placed. Soon other saloons were in business. By the winter of 1874, there were twenty saloons caring for a population of more than 3000 inhabitants. Besides saloons, the town quickly grew to have 200 houses, a hotel, a brewery, a bank, and a newspaper office— the Panamint News. Side streets were developed up a few smaller canyons. One of these had a boardinghouse, a saloon and a brothel and the Masonic Lodge—and plenty of outlaws. Needless to say, this was one rough and tumble place.

Records show, that during its short history of just three years, over fifty shootings took place, some with six-guns, some with shotguns and some with rifles. According to the Panamint News, the local butcher shop wagon also served as the town hearse for many of the killings. The camp town was the scene of many notorious outlaws wanted by sheriffs from all over the west. The outlaws were attracted to the possibility of easy-money from all the new diggings.

A huge mill and smelting furnace were completed on July 4, 1875 and a grand parade celebrated the event. Leading the procession was a band followed by the well-known butcher's cart, ridden by three little girls dressed in colorful taffeta and white lace, each waving flowers.

In the crowd were two well-known outlaws. They had their own ideas as to where the first shipment of silver was to end up. They had carefully laid their plans for weeks. They planned to hide out and wait in the narrow gorge through which the wagon would have to pass. The bandits were determined to cash in on the very first shipment of silver to leave town.

The inaugural shipment of silver left Panamint promptly. But, strangely, it had nobody riding shotgun! The bandits couldn't believe it! They wondered; was this some sort of a deception on the part of Senator J. P. Jones? Was the wagon a decoy... was it empty?

It was a foregone conclusion to everyone that there would be an attempted hold-up on first load out of town. Because of that, even Wells Fargo refused the freighting of first load. In fact, the area was so lawless they would not even establish a Wells Fargo office in town! So, why this apparent nonchalance of sending the first wagon load out with no armed guard as protection?

Soon the wagon was inching its way down the rough, narrow, Surprise canyon road and when it got to the spot where the robbers were hiding, they jumped out from their cover and demanded that the driver pull up.

A bandit hollered: "Whoa! Hold it right there! Let's have the silver!"

"Help yourself", the driver said: "I'm haulin' cannon balls... they're all yours".

After pulling the load cover back, the bandits took one look and exclaimed:

"Damn it! Them ain't cannon balls!" They knew they had been out-smarted.

Sure enough, carefully secured in the bottom of the wagon were these large balls of metal weighing at over 400 pounds each! They were solid silver ingots that had been cast in the shape and size of wrecking balls. The balls of silver had been oxidized to turn black and were much bigger than any cannon ball. It would be impossible for the greediest of bandits to pick one up, let alone carry it away.

They threatened and cussed the driver and Senator Jones all in one breath, and finally rode off in to the sunset. As for the driver, he had self-control enough to suppress his snicker until they were well out of sight, lest they should shoot him out of embarrassment and spite. Being in no mood for jokes or to be laughed at, they could have easily killed him, just to get even.

Now, to these outlaws it might have seemed an unfair trick, but there was a southwest irony involved; "honor among thieves." In the mind of honest outlaws, being out-smarted was wild-west justice, and they understood it well. So, as soon as it was known that no bandit could carry away such heavy shipments of silver cannon balls, the news got around and the silver shipments were left alone. No bandit ever made another effort to hijack the silver. As a result, Wells Fargo lost its negotiating power and so they were no longer needed. It is said, that the wagon driver, affectionately, named his freight wagon, "The Cannon Ball Express!"

As for the ghost of Panamint City, it had one more trick up its sleeve to out-smart them outlaw-bandits—and this weren't no joke. Subject to severe flash floods because of being built at the intersect of some steep mountain canyons, Panamint was nearly washed away when a cloud burst caused a great flash flood on July 24, 1876.

Waves of water, forty feet high, came hurdling down the canyons and rushed down Main Street. Tree trunks, timbers and boulders tumbled into Panamint, smashing houses and businesses. The flood carried away over 200 of the town's inhabitants, killing at least fifteen people, and it took a few of the outlaws out of town with it! Attempts were made to rebuild and keep the town alive, but the silver veins had pretty much petered out so most of the population drifted away.

But, it wasn't until 1901 that Panamint City was completely deserted. That's when another flash flood wiped out most of what had been re-built or had been left standing from the previous floods. Except for the unique Panamint Rattlesnake and Alligator Lizard, the once rowdy mining camp is the lonely ghost town...with a fascinating tale of silver cannon balls!

© Ed Keenan





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