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Written by Donna McCrohan Rosenthal

Two Names, One Overriding Theme.

The names: Dr. Rose Victoria Lamont Burcham and Dr. Thomas A. Drummond.

The overriding theme: The spirit of the Old West never died here.

Photo courtesy of Donna McCrohan Rosenthal”

Photo courtesy of Donna McCrohan Rosenthal”

Between Highways 395 and 14 some hour and a half east of Bakersfield and nestled in the high desert’s treeless brown and gray Rand Mountains—so designated after gold country in South Africa’s Transvaal—the living ghost town of Randsburg looks much as it has for over a century, with dramatically fewer inhabitants than in its bonanza days, yet many of the same structures.

Credit gold mining and Dr. Rose Victoria Lamont Burcham for its spectacular entry into the world spotlight. Dr. Burcham and her husband Charles A. Burcham lived in San Bernardino in the late 19th century. She practiced medicine. He ached to find gold. She grubstaked him for two years. He headed north. Just before those two years expired, he and partners John Singleton and Fred Mooers unearthed a rich deposit in the Rand Mining District. They filed claims but had no skill with management. Dr. Burcham stepped in, running the enterprise in exchange for a share of the Yellow Aster Mining & Milling Company.

Dr. Burcham relocated, living initially in a tent and then in the first home built by the Yellow Aster Company. She espoused a practical philosophy about wifely duties, radically ahead of her era. “When women come to realize that home-making does not mean dusting or seeking for one speck of dirt,” she told a reporter, “they will perceive that home-making and business life are not necessarily opposed to one to the other.” But, she added, a woman in business “must be content to enjoy her home as a man does, and trust the actual attention to details to a housekeeper.”

Stamp Battery at the Rand Desert Museum. –Photo courtesy of Greg Bock

Stamp Battery at the Rand Desert Museum. –Photo courtesy of Greg Bock

Over the next four decades, the mine earned more than $16 million, an amazing sum in those days. In 1904, the Los Angeles Times recognized Dr. Burcham as one of the “Men of Achievement” in southwest mining. She had, in fact, established herself as the first female mining entrepreneur of the Old West and the only successful female mining operator in the entire United States. Soon the Yellow Aster ranked as the largest gold producer in southern California with the best and most modern equipment in the state.

The Rand District had other profitable mines as well, and a thriving community grew up around the prosperous output, with a Wells Fargo stop, railroad, assay office, post office, general store, saloon, theater, bakeries, blacksmiths, barber shops, a hairdresser, hoteliers, a “Floozy House – Overnight Accommodations” and its staff of women of relaxed virtue. Their names: Mexican Nell, Big Ella, and French Marguerite, among others.

Tragedy struck at intervals: cave-ins, broken and pulverized bones from mining accidents, a succession of fires, and a raging smallpox epidemic.

Now skip ahead to that second name: Dr. Thomas A. Drummond. This physician drove into the Rand Mining District in 1933, a young med school graduate with a degree from the University of Southern California. He left Los Angeles and, much like Charlie Burcham before him, headed north seeking his future. When his car ran out of gas near Red Mountain, he decided to stay. He took up residence for about a decade although, as a private pilot, he increasingly found himself flying to Inyokern to provide care there and sleep on sofas to await the births of babies. When the Red Mountain hospital burned down in 1944, he moved to Ridgecrest at the very beginning of another sort of gold rush boom town scenario—the Navy’s arrival in the form of the Naval Ordnance Test Station, which in due course blossomed into the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake.

Charlie’s “Ore House. Photo courtesy of Donna McCrohan Rosenthal”

Charlie’s “Ore House. Photo courtesy of Donna McCrohan Rosenthal”

Drummond constructed a modest medical facility in Ridgecrest in 1945. It became Ridgecrest Hospital, which he later sold to Ridgecrest for the token sum of one dollar.

Randsburg Today

Not much mining goes on in Randsburg anymore, but the now small hamlet remains a bastion of free spirits who express themselves through antique shops, folk art, galleries, and kicky puns (Charlie’s Ore House: “The Best Little Ore House in Randsburg”). Visitors include motorcycle clubs, dirt bikers, other outdoor recreation enthusiasts, and tourists. The old jail greets you by the side of the road as you approach from Hwy. 395. If you find the door open, go in and say “howdy” to the life-sized bad-guy and ladies-of-the-evening mannequins behind the bars.

On Butte Street in the heart of Randsburg, the General Store serves old-fashioned sarsaparilla, sodas, and phosphates such as the Green River Lime Soda Phosphate (“1897 miner’s favorite”) along with sandwiches, burgers, and “bar-b-que,” and its soda fountain, purchased in Boston, dates back to 1904. A few doors away sit the local bar—the Joint—and the marvelously well-stocked Rand Desert Museum (760-374-2400 and 760-374-2359), and across the street, the White House Saloon. In Butte Street Mercantile and open on weekends, Cheryl McDonald Creative Gallery offers classes and displays watercolors, drawings, and photography of California mixed with antique items on consignment. Other shops and galleries either open Friday-Sunday or Saturday-Sunday, with paragraphs posted to explain hours that essentially amount to, “If we’re here, we’re open.” Free spirits.

Yellow Aster mine. –Photo courtesy of Greg Bock

Yellow Aster mine. –Photo courtesy of Greg Bock

Each autumn, Randsburg’s annual adventure in time travel draws crowds on the third Saturday of September. Old West Days feature The Old West Mounted Lawmen’s Association who turn out in force, dressed like Wyatt and the Brothers Earp and stage shoot-outs in an atmosphere of historic sights, donkeys, horses, exhibitors, vendors, live music, food, and fun. In the winter on the second Sunday in December, Christmas Open House in Randsburg celebrates yuletide with open shops, refreshments, and holiday lights.

If strolling through or driving around Randsburg imparts an eerie sense of déjà vu, keep calm. You may have seen the surroundings in movies, from Hidalgo and Cowboys & Aliens to Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town. By all means, bring a camera for memorable photo opportunities—unique exteriors, sweeping vistas, and with luck, coyotes, roadrunners, and hawks. Then let your mind’s eye fill in the blanks—Mexican Nell, Big Ella, and French Marguerite refreshing their client lists, Dr. Tom down by Red Mountain tending his patients, and Dr. Rose of the Yellow Aster reaping a fortune.

They’re gone, just like the flourishing mining trade.

Nonetheless, something about Randsburg insists the Old West never died here. Thank the free spirits for that.

Ed. Note: If you’re looking to grab food, gas, or hitch your horse for the night, there are a number of small towns around Randsburg that fit the bill. California City and Mojave are close, but the best bet is Ridgecrest, just about 17 miles away.

Article appeared in our 30-3 Issue – August 2013

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