The Mojave Desert Ghost Town of Ballarat, California
Updated Monday, August 4, 2014
During a recent excursion to Death Valley National Park with a photographer friend, I visited the virtual ghost town of Ballarat, California, on the way home. I have long-since wanted to explore this desolate town in the Mojave Desert and, with a massive storm brewing over the Panamint Range, it made for a perfect photographic opportunity. Located just outside Death Valley National Park, Ballarat now has a sole resident – Rocky Novak, who operates the general store – and his two dogs. The town is off Highway 178 (Trona Wildrose Road), not far from the small desert town of Trona, famous for the Trona Pinnacles. There are still some ruins remaining, including decayed living quarters, a jailhouse and morgue, a cemetery, and a truck that belonged to Bobby Beausoleil, a member of the infamous Charles Manson Family, who were arrested near the town after the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders.
In the 1960s, Charles Manson and the “Manson Family” of killers moved into a ranch near Ballarat (Barker Ranch in the Panamint Range), and left graffiti and an old truck in the town, a very pertinent fact that I discovered only after departing Ballarat. I simply wanted to kick myself for not going inside the truck; however, I did not know at the time whether the truck was private property and we needed to return home after days in the hot desert. Good sources confirm that the truck belonged to Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil, who tried to escape after the Barker Ranch hideout was invaded by lawmen. Beausoleil furiously drove the rickety old truck down the rugged mountains on the washboard roads, ending up in Ballarat when the truck finally broke down.
Ballarat was founded in 1896 as a supply point for the mines in the canyons of the Panamint Range. A quarter-mile to the south is Post Office Springs, a reliable water source used since the 1850s by prospectors and desert wanderers. George Riggins, a young immigrant from Australia, gave Ballarat its name when he proposed it should be named for Ballarat, Victoria, in the heart of Australia’s gold country. In its heyday—from 1897 to 1905—Ballarat had 400 to 500 residents. It hosted seven saloons, three hotels, a Wells Fargo station, post office, school, a jail and morgue, but no churches. Ballarat was a place for miners and prospectors in the area to resupply and relax.
The town began its decline when the Ratcliff Mine, in Pleasant Canyon east of town, suspended operations. Other mines nearby also began to play out, and in 1917 the post office closed and all that remained were a few diehard prospectors and desert rats. The 1969 movie Easy Rider has a scene filmed in Ballarat; after arriving in the town, Peter Fonda’s character, Wyatt, removes his Rolex watch and throws it away before he and Dennis Hopper’s character, Billy, head east on their motorcycles towards New Orleans.
Ballarat is a great place for photographers who love to shoot urbex/rurex and for those into paranormal encounters. The images were taken with my Nikon D800; I will add more photos to this post as they are processed. Meanwhile, you can check my most recent images on my Flickr site.