- DateFebruar 2016
- LocationDarwin, Death Valley, California, USA
- CategoryStory, Series
- ObjectOld Mining Town
- Together with/ Video byMaximilian Sperber
- Text & ImagesJonathan Danko Kielkowski
USA | Story | Februar 2016
Road Tripping USA – Episode 12
- 7000 km, two months and six US states. In early 2016 I traveled along the American west coast from north to south. This post is part of a series of articles created during this trip.
Three days before my return flight back home my friend Max a temporary LA local and I decided to go on a last small trip to the desert. With a SUV rental we followed recommendations and headed to an old mining town called Darwin. We were expecting a typical wild western era ghost town but boy – we were in for a surprise.
- HistoryDarwin was named after Dr. Darwin French who named a nearby wash after himself when he was in the area in the 1860's looking for the "lost" Gunsight Lode. Darwin was a supply center for local mines in the early 1870's until a rich strike was discovered in 1874 transposing Darwin into a boomtown. The town almost immediately gained a reputation for violence, with 124 graves in the cemetery, 122 by knife or gun! By the end of 1875, Darwin boasted two smelters, some 20 operating mines, 200 frame houses and more than 700 residents. The town reached its peak in 1876 with five furnaces and about three thousand inhabitants. The town started to decline in 1878 with the rise of Bodie and Mammoth. Mining in Darwin continued intermittently until the 1970's, giving the town a longer lease on life than most mining towns in the region.
Darwin splits up in two parts, Old Town and New Town. Driving down the road we first went through the newer part. It consists of about 30 buildings surrounding an old mine that was up and running until the 1970s. Most of the buildings used to be mine workers homes and after years of decay they are in quite a bad shape. Being overwhelmed by the site we missed to notice the signs that warned trespassers from entering the area and that it is protected by dogs.
We stopped the car next to one of the ruins and started exploring the place. As we were heading for the mine entrance we saw that one of the buildings next to the entrance was still inhabited. There were cars parked and several sleeping dogs in front of the building. We decided to stay away from them and check out the rest of the area first. We split up, Max was filming and I was taking pictures. After an hour or so suddenly loud dog barking broke the desert’s silence followed by screaming and the sound of engines. Not being up for trouble I decided to hide in one of the buildings and wait. A few minutes later an angry looking guy was driving around the building that I was hiding in and shouted something obscure. But I understood that it was addressed to me. Not seeing any convincing alternative options I decided to leave my hideout. I was screamed at again but this time from close range. In short terms: the guy was pissed of that we were on his property and he made it clear that he hates trespassers. Trying to talk myself out of this situation, maybe even get an interview or some additional infos about this spot failed badly. The guy did not want to talk to me and made it clear that if I would not leave I would get shot. Well that was convincing. He was kind enough to drive me back to our car were Max was already waiting. As it turned out we were spotted because Max got a bit too brave at one point and got to close to the dogs. They woke up and started chasing him. Being lucky that the car was parked near by he managed to jump into the car before the dogs got him. After we were both back in the car we decided to stick to our plan and check out to other part of Darwin out.
The town sign came into sight »Darwin, founded 1875, Inhabitants 50 … or so…«
The contrast to the part of town we just left behind was massive. To our surprise this part was obviously inhabited. There were ruins and car wrecks too but most of the buildings were in good shape. There even were a lot of new ones, pieces of art, gardens and people. This place looked friendly. Not being sure of what to expect exactly of the inhabitants or if someone would threat to shoot us again we decided to be a bit more careful this time. We approached the first guy we saw in order to introduce our selves and asked if it would be cool to take a few pictures here. He was wearing a big hat and a dog was following him. As the dog saw us from the distance he started running towards us. »Oh shit here we go again.« Before the dog reached us »J« shouted over «Don’t worry! This is the mayor and he just wants to play.«
»J« is one of about 35 permanent residents of Darwin. According to him, »J« found himself 20 years ago in Darwin after he was running away from a girl he fell in love with but could not be together. He liked this new place and never left. »J« collects and sculpts minerals he finds in the surrounding mines and has an impressive collection of all kinds and sizes (the biggest and heaviest one weighs over two tons) The way he talks and the knowledge he has of his stones left the impression that he could be a scientist or geologist. David, a photographer and his neighbor joined the conversation soon afterwards and we kept talking for hours. At some point Max left the conversation and disappeared. I found him an hour later at Ida’s (David’s mom) home. Ida is way over 80 years old and spend a good portion of her life in Darwin. She spends her time writing books and poems on her old Mac computer as well as improving her self build tiny house.
As we talked the hours flew by and the sun begun to disappear. Since we still wanted to shoot some footage and Max needed to be back for a job in LA the next mooring we could not stay any longer. We left Ida’s home and tried to catch the last rays of sun.
Darwin is a dropout heaven, a town without government or a church. A working utopia that existed almost unnoticed for many years. In contrast to the overhyped Slab City, people of Darwin live together peacefully and in harmony (except for the one family by the old mine that wanted to shoot us). They help out each other, create art together, build their own houses and maintain them. The range of different people who live here is as colorful as the town itself. You find former businessmen from the Bay Area as well as outlaws who hide out there. Darwin is a oasis of live and creativity surounded by and sureal and inhospitable moonlike landscape. But Darwin is dying. There are no young people in Darwin or any jobs. The next town with a shop or a doctor is far away, access to a drinking water source too. Combined with the extreme climate of the desert this leads to the constant decrease of its resident’s numbers.
We left Darwin with mixed emotions. We where thankful for this experience, for the people we met, the conversations we had and the impressions we took.
If you want to learn more about Darwin and how it is to live there, make shure to watch Nick Brandsteins amazing documentary feature from 2011. Trailer down below. Link to the Website, here.