Darwin Dreamin'

Darwin lies tucked away in a depression between the Argus and Coso Ranges in a desolate high-desert scrubland still populated with freely-wandering wild burros. The southern boundary is a stone’s throw from the China Lake Naval Air Weapon Station and its only paved access is via California State Route 190—the main thoroughfare for tourists traveling from the Eastern Sierra into Death Valley proper. The road to Darwin is easy to miss unless you happen to stop to read the “E Clampus Vitus” interpretive monument at the pullout near the crest of the pass.

The southwestward six-mile drive into Darwin leads past a smattering of dilapidated but picturesque mining structures spread across the eastern slope. This is the old Anaconda Mine, of which the tailings mound features the characteristic pastel hues of other extraction remains common to this region. Directly west of the mine is a large, playful arrangement of rocks forming the much-parodied Christian ichthys symbol complete with legs sans the name Darwin within its body. The stone marker signals to the newcomer that they are definitely entering a place off the beaten path.

Just beyond the mine is a ramshackle collection of old buildings, misfit shacks, wind-ravaged double-wides, abandoned cars, homes featuring clever travel trailer additions, various junk piles of rusted tin cans, obsolete mining machinery and, curious enough, modern art.

At the end of the road is “downtown” Darwin. A first-time visitor surveying their surroundings is immediately drawn to the luminously white, minimalist, cast-marble sculpture of a couple sensuously embracing. Placed in front of its creator’s local retreat, this striking artwork was created by the renowned California sculptor Jim Hunolt. Directly across the street is Hunolt’s vertically mounted pairing of two very impressive raw Dolomite monoliths.

Other architectural details, such as the adjacent geodesic dome with the door placard identifying the structure as the INSTITUTE OF GEOPHYSICS AND PLANETARY PHYSICS SYSTEMWIDE OFFICES suggest that Darwin is not your typical living desert ghost town. Understandably the stratum of human occupation displayed over time here is truly fascinating.

Darwin began its life as a mining camp during the 1870s. It is known that the Shoshone and Paiute people had traveled through and occupied this area long before the camp came into existence. The settlement had been named after Dr. Eramus Darwin French, a rancher from Fort Tejon, who was led into the spot in 1850 by an Indian guide while searching for the legendary Lost Gunsight Lode—which French and his expedition party failed to locate even after a second exploratory trip was conducted ten years later.

Prospecting had occurred in the Darwin area for many years prior to autumn of 1874 when a rich silver-lead ore called galena had been discovered leading to Darwin’s founding shortly thereafter. The town’s most productive mines—The Defiance (named after questionable legal maneuvers landed an original Mexican American mining claim into the hands of white investors)[1] and associated mines are said to have produced up to $1,500,000 in revenue by the late 1870s when nearly sixty mines were operational with five smelters processing ore around the clock.

Although the Defiance closed its doors during the late 1880s the mine has been operated intermittently under various ownership over the last 100 years, first as Darwin Silver, Darwin Lead, Consolidated, American Metals, Signal Oil and in 1945, as the Anaconda Mine.

This extraction of mineral wealth resulted in explosive boom development early on—first as a canvas tent city and then by the end of 1875 with permanent structures including a hotel, three restaurants, seven saloons, two butcher shops, a livery stable plus several stores.[2] Notably, Darwin has never had a church. At its highest count the town’s population was believed to be at least 3,500 and likely higher, if one takes into account that census recorders often overlooked transient miners and many non-whites living within the surrounding area.

Not surprisingly, Darwin’s rampant growth brought with it more than an occasional act of violence, earning the town a reputation as being rough and tumble. The Panamint News reported in March 1875 that robberies were occurring every few days on nearby roads leading to and from the encampment. Darwin also had its share of shootings, gun and knife fights, and outright murders—at least thirty known and confirmed total incidents during the town’s boom period between 1875-79. Petty crimes including public drunkenness were the norm. Armed bandits robbed the Wells Fargo express numerous times between 1876 and 1880. During one of these stagecoach robberies, passenger Jack Lloyd was shot and killed, perhaps by accident, in 1877.

The most famous Darwin murder was that of Nancy Williams, 45, on September 13, 1877. Williams was a well-liked “retired” madam running a boarding house at the time of her death. Also known as “Feather Legs,” Williams was found bludgeoned to death by unknown assailants who were never brought to justice, although a substantial reward had been posted on her behalf. As a testament to her popularity, which the Coso Mining News attributed to Williams being “one of the kindest, most liberal of women,” a prominently placed obelisk, commemorating her, stands in the center of the Darwin cemetery upon entry.

Oliver Roberts—Darwin resident during its heyday and author of The Great Understander, himself charged and acquitted of an unrelated murder in 1877, stated, “At one time there were more bad men and desperados in that town [Darwin] than in any of its size in the world.”[3] Indeed, compare Deadwood, South Dakota, during 1876—considered the town’s most violent year—which had only four killings including that of Wild Bill Hickok.[4]

By 1878, mining profits and productivity had declined significantly causing labor strife and associated violence such as the shooting deaths of two striking miners that same year. New strikes in Bodie and Mammoth, up north, sent businesses and miners further away. The first of three devastating fires to hit Darwin occurred in 1879, destroying most of the original main business district. By summer 1880, only eighty-five people remained in Darwin.

Mining activity and prospecting in Darwin continued sporadically during the twentieth century, on occasion at a larger scale. Over the years more than $29,000,000 in mineral wealth has been extracted from mines in the Darwin area.[5] During the 1940s, Darwin was considered to be California’s largest lead supplier, producing two-thirds of the state’s supply.[6] Darwin area mines have also produced zinc, copper, talc and tungsten.

A corner of the Brannigan home with a sculpture of Monty's in the foreground. The framed text reads: "The knights pledge of the round table. May we all have long days and horny knights. So as life will tickle the shit out of all of us forever." Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Darwin’s fast-paced growth during the 1870s could only be sustained if water was added to the mix for both household and industrial mining purposes. Back then and even today, Darwin’s sole water source emanates from a pristine spring located about eight miles southwest of town within China Lake Naval Air Weapon Station protected borders.

Victor Beaudry was the entrepreneur who originally secured the water rights here, and laid pipes conveying water into town in 1875. Beaudry had previously set up the for-profit water distribution system at a nearby silver mine at Cerro Gordo. It is rather interesting to note that it was Victor along with his brother Prudent who acquired rights to the City of Los Angeles water system around the time that Prudent was mayor from 1874-76. By the late 1880s, the water conveyance system was in the hands of “water mogul” Frank Carthery, who kept water barrels filled for $3 a month.

In 1962, a localized “water war” broke out when a group of Darwinites attempted to build a dam to provide water for a proposed swimming pool near the old Anaconda Mine. The contested move created opposing alliances that were finally settled after gunshots had been fired, ensuring that no recreational pool was to be constructed.

Another contentious water disagreement occurred during the late 1970s when lines were drawn again for or against a proposed community effort to modernize the water delivery system. One group believed that by enhancing the spring’s water flow and storage, future development would follow. The other group opposed the idea, in part due to the cost, but mostly because they were outwardly anti-growth. The pro-growth group ended up getting new and improved infrastructure (with a hefty price tag) but no additional water was made available.

Today, Darwin’s water distribution is limited to no more than thirty-five full-time residents. The community’s water board must obtain permission to enter China Lake boundaries to manage the pipeline and clear the spring itself from excess willows and tules. The quality of the water is considered to be excellent and is actively protected from further exploitation.


A second unintended boom (this time for land and not silver) erupted during the summer of 1967 when an unknown person posted a flyer on a public bulletin board in Lone Pine stating that “free” lots were available in Darwin. Not long after the notice was posted people began inquiring at the Inyo County seat in Independence about acquiring the properties that measured 100 by 45 feet each. It was determined that Darwin had been “platted” for ownership many years earlier for a filing fee of $5 per lot to allow prospectors a piece of land where they could build a modest shack to habituate.

After looking into the matter, Inyo County Superior Judge McMurray deemed that the purchase fee was indeed valid although he limited lot purchases to three per buyer. When the plots finally became available, scores of people mobbed the Inyo County Clerk’s office and filed on the remaining 254 lots. Speculators purchased the majority of the properties and today many lots remain empty.

Around this time Hal Newell and his wife Shelly made their way out to Death Valley from their home base in Big Sur. Hal had been encouraged to do so by his father, Gordon Newell, the celebrated Monterey Peninsula sculptor noted for his striking mid-century stone forms. He is responsible for the twin granite Haupt Fountains that consciously frame the White House from the Ellipse Circle off Constitution Avenue in Washington DC.[7] Gordon had previously explored the more remote areas of Death Valley numerous times, once with the famed photographer Brett Weston during a side trip to Saline Valley Warm Springs while heading down to Baja California in the early 1960s.

Hal and Shelly ended up moving out to the old Ballarat ghost town in Panamint Valley on January 1, 1970, staying for few years while Hal did a variety of heavy labor jobs including some stints at local area mines. Gordon came out to visit the couple and during one of their exploratory excursions together the group discovered Darwin. All were enamored with the town. By the mid 1970s, Hal and Shelly decided to move to Darwin permanently. They commenced building their partially-buried passive-solar home from local field stone, salvaged wood beams, concrete when they could afford it plus any scavenged materials they could get their hands on. Far more sophisticated than the local “troglodyte” mining dwellings, this unique home reflects some characteristics of the primitive earthen dugouts located in washes west of town.

A few years later Gordon, too, moved his studio to Darwin because, as Hal commented, “He couldn’t get any work done at his Monterey Sculpture Center on Cannery Row because it became so popular with the tourists.” (The Cannery Row studio building was eventually destroyed in order to make way for another ubiquitous waterfront restaurant.) Gordon and his wife lived and worked primarily in Darwin, but continued to visit their home on the Central Coast until his death in 1998 at age ninety-three. Hal later conceived and constructed a monumental forty-foot diameter covered public memorial for his father, utilizing twelve massive dolomite slabs varying in height from six to eight feet, similar to the ones that Hunolt used for his sculpture pairing on Main Street. Each slab was purchased for $35 a piece from a local quarry.

Monty Brannigan, born and raised in Los Angeles, is a sixty-two-year resident of Darwin. Monty first arrived in late 1953 via Gabbs, Nevada, where he had been employed at Basic Magnesium, Inc. Brannigan, 88, lives with his wife Nancy in their home attended by two giant golden Buddha statues stationed at the entry that serve as a silent reminder of Darwin’s large, but overlooked Chinese population, which according to the 1880 census made up a quarter of the town’s residents. Their house is a modified manufactured home. Nancy proudly showed me an old butcher knife she used to cut the holes in the interior to deconstruct it along with several room additions that house her very extensive collection of eclectic brass knick-knacks and other fascinating objects.

Also featured are Monty’s celebrity portraits of Western film personalities, American Indian chiefs, Elvis, and various country singer/songwriters. Scattered around the room are his strange sculptural figures including a marble egg that he is most proud of because it resulted from a dare of sorts. Local sculptor Jim Hunolt, who taught Monty stone-sculpting techniques, commented that an oval form was the hardest shape to coax out of stone so Monty stood up to the challenge. From the looks of it, he seems to have succeeded in doing just that.

Brannigan began painting in 1957 shortly after his sister passed. During my visit he reflected on how she had won several art scholarships and was destined for a successful career in commercial art when she died unexpectedly. Heartbroken and unemployed, with too much time on his hands, Monty decided to pick up where she left off. He taught himself how to paint using common house paint dulled with flour because he “didn’t know any better and had no money to buy them anyhow.”

While honing his artistic skills Brannigan continued to labor at a variety of jobs throughout the area to support his family. He spent four years at the local Anaconda Mine before he was hired by Inyo County where he worked as a park ranger for eighteen years. He then retired with a pension.

Besides his artwork, Monty has a passion for vintage automobiles and has customized several over the years. One serves as Darwin’s paddy wagon and sole fire truck. When asked about the Buddhas, Monty candidly responded, “If I was going to be anything I would be a Buddhist—I’m not a religious man. Religion don’t turn the right way for me. I got nothing against any other man’s religion or his way of life, but if he don’t like me being a Buddhist, that is tough.”[8]

Over the years, a number of artists have gravitated to Darwin such as Kathy Goss, 74, a writer/musician and owner of the earlier mentioned geodesic dome (actually a unique design by a protege of Buckminster Fuller), who moved here from San Francisco over two decades ago. Goss and other locals were responsible for creating the Darwin “ichthys” stone geoglyph on view at the town’s entrance. Painter John Hamilton, 85, made his way to Darwin from Northern California around 2000 to work as a caretaker at the old Anaconda Mine and is permanently settled here. The subject of his paintings span contemplative vivid landscapes representing the surrounding desert, mountains and ocean plus a series of mostly larger-scale graphic geometric abstracts. Another full-time resident artist is a gentleman who carves Native American-inspired petroglyphs onto locally sourced stones and sells them in Lone Pine and Furnace Creek.

Other Bay area expats include British semi-retired advertising executive turned visual artist Judyth Greenburgh, 51, and her French husband Pierre Valeille, 62, a retired San Francisco Bay ferry captain. The couple moved out from their houseboat in Sausalito, California to build a partially-buried home in Darwin out of shipping containers. By doing so, and in similar fashion to Hal Newell’s buried home, the interior temperature remains a comfortably stable mid-70° Fahrenheit regardless of exterior temperature. The structure itself is a colorful funky artist assemblage with several travel trailer guest quarters among a communal outdoor cookout area. Judyth’s art studio is set high above the buried containers. Like the others, they live an affordable, unstructured lifestyle against a remotely beautiful desert backdrop. Time will tell if a new generation of miners, artists, or some other group will continue to occupy and breath life into this unconventional desert community outpost.

Visitors are welcome in Darwin, but please respect the privacy and property of the residents. There is NO gas, food or lodging. The old Anaconda Mine owned by Project Darwin is currently inactive and off-limits so heed warning signs and do not trespass. The author graciously thanks the residents of Darwin for sharing their stories and Jon Klusmire of the Eastern California Museum in Independence, CA for providing the early photographs of Darwin from their collection. This article is co-published with KCET Artbound. Visit Artbound’s Mojave Project page here.

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[1] For further reading see: Robert P. Palazzo, Darwin, California (Portland, OR: Western Places, 1996).

[2] Palazzo, Darwin, California, 15. Note that three devastating fires swept through Darwin in 1879, 1917 and 1918. One of the few original 1870s buildings said to survive is the old schoolhouse located directly across from the old post office.

[3] Palazzo, Darwin, California, 36.

[4] Palazzo, Darwin, California, 36.

[5] Harlan D. Unrau, Death Valley: A history of the lands added to the Death Valley National Monument by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994 (Special Study History), U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service, September 1997, 63.

[6] Palazzo, Darwin, California, 45.

[7] The Haupt Fountains are identical sculptural pools constructed from two 18-square-foot by 1-foot-deep blocks of 3.5-million-year-old granite sourced from Minnesota. They were created as a collaboration between Gordon Newell and his then-apprentice James Hunolt. The fountains were placed at their current location in 1967 as a gift from Mrs. Enid Haupt.

[8] Monty Brannigan passed during fall of 2016 after his battle with cancer.

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