This episode was originally released on August 7, 2020.
The old Latin phrase "memento mori" is a favorite of 33 year-old Brent Underwood's. It refers to the inevitability of death, which is fitting given that Brent owns something that died long ago: a ghost town.
Cerro Gordo, California is an abandoned silver mining town tucked between the tallest mountain in the continental United States — Mount Whitney — and the lowest point in North America, Death Valley. During its heyday in the mid-late 1800s, it's believed to have produced half a billion dollars worth of silver, adjusted for inflation.
When the town was put on the market in 2018, Underwood — founder of the hostel HK Austin -- got a message from a friend that joked, "I know you're looking for a bigger project. Look at this ghost town for sale!" Within the month, Brent, his business partner Jon Bier, and a handful of friends-turned-investors had purchased Cerro Gordo for $1.4 million with a plan to revive the town for visitors while preserving its history.
From dealing with a lack of running water at Cerro Gordo to getting snowed in there during a global pandemic, Brent has had no shortage of challenges so far. But he thinks back to "memento mori" — everything dies, so what does he want to do with the time that he has?
His answer? Cerro Gordo.
Ben Brock Johnson: In many ways, Brent Underwood is like all of us right now. Just a person, stuck at home in a pandemic. Trying to get his home internet to work.
Brent Underwood: Goddamnit.
Amory Sivertson: And yet, at the same time, Brent’s situation is also pretty unique. Even his internet situation.
Brent: Hello, can you hear me?
Ben and Amory: Yes.
Brent: My Internet overheated. Ghost town problems, I guess. That battery overheated on my little router so I think the router is meeting its test right now.
Ben: Why is his internet router running off of a battery? Good question.
Amory: Also, did he say, “ghost town”? Great question.
Ben: Yes. He did. Brent Underwood is probably in one of the safest places you could possibly be during a pandemic. He’s on a huge piece of land all by himself in California. There’s nobody for miles.
Brent: I'm at a 8,500 feet in elevation. So it stays pretty temperate luckily.
Amory: Brent’s spending his days on a rusty patch of the Inyo Mountains in the shadow of a low peak among a group of old buildings.
Brent: I'm at the bar and the saloon ever closes here at Cerro Gordo.
Ben: Every once in a while, do you go up the bar and like, slam your hand on the bar and be like, "Whiskey."
Brent: Yeah. I do. I have a glass here. I practice sliding across the bar. I think it's an important skill to have as a saloon owner. (slide sound)
Ben: That sounds legit.
Brent: Yeah, not bad.
Ben: Yeah, alright.
Amory: It was Brent’s plan to be here, kicking around this abandoned town, in 2020. But not all by himself. He was planning on opening a business this spring.
Brent: The May 1st opening is definitely out the window.
Amory: Do you have what I would call, "Oh, shit days" where you're like, oh, shit, what have I done?
Brent:I definitely have the days where I get up and I'm like, what in the world are you doing? But luckily, so far, the positive days have greatly outnumbered almost 90-to-1 negative days. But we'll see if I can keep that enthusiasm through, you know, not just this year, but the years or decades to come.
Ben: Brent is following a dream through a pandemic. He thinks it’s going to be his life’s work. He thinks he’s onto something. And he and his business partners have put more than a million dollars on the table in a big. Like a brash gunfighter putting in all his chips on one hand in a tense game of poker.
Amory: Brent bought a ghost town and he wants to turn into one of the coolest, more interesting places to visit in the world. Does it have good internet yet? Nope. Does it have running water? It’s complicated. Does it have any silver still in that dusty old mine? You gotta ask the guy with the dynamite.
Brent: Somewhere on the property here, I won't say exactly where, because I think it's illegal to say exactly where. But there is a dynamite vault here at Cerro Gordo.
Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson.
Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson.
Ben: And you’re listening to Endless Thread.
Amory: The show featuring stories found in the vast ecosystem of online communitiescalled Reddit.
Ben: We’re coming to you from WBUR Boston’s NPR station. Today’s episode: Ghost town.
Amory: Two hundred miles north of Los Angeles, in the middle of stunningly beautiful nowhere, and at the end of a long dirt road that requires all-wheel-drive on a good weather day, sits Cerro Gordo, California. It’s tucked between the tallest mountain in the continental U.S. — Mount Whitney — and lowest point in North America, Death Valley. And, much like its geography, the town itself has had epic highs and dramatic lows.
Ben: It’s named for the glory days. Cerro Gordo is Spanish for “fat hill,” and in the mid 1800s that hill was fat with silver.
Brent: So the town was originally established in 1865 by a guy named Pablo Flores. And he was a prospector that came up here and set up a really small scale operation. I think they were getting a ton of ore every week or so.
Amory: And the quality of that ore was really good. So Cerro Gordo started getting the attention of developers and investors.
Brent: And so by 1870, full scale operation, they were pulling a couple of tons of ore per day. And then by 1880, it was the spot in California. It was the mine in California. It was known throughout the state. And they were pulling just an insane amount of ore. They pulled something like, adjusted for inflation, five hundred million dollars worth of silver out of the mountain.
Ben: OK, tough to confirm whether half a billion dollars worth of silver is accurate. But trust, it was boom times, baby.
Brent: And it was so prosperous that like the demand of Cerro Gordo and its four thousand five hundred residents that many people at its peak, that it demanded a larger port city to supply all the supplies. And so Los Angeles, the time is kind of a sleepy little town and the demand of Cerro Gordo forced Los Angeles to develop quicker and forced Los Angeles into developed into what it is today.
Amory: And Los Angeles was developed with the silver from this little mountain town. Cerro Gordo was developing too. Dozens of hotels, hundred of cabins, a general store, four — count ‘em FOUR — brothels, and the building Brent calls the “crown jewel” of Cerro Gordo, the American Hotel. He gave us a little tour. Oh and heads up — that crappy internet we were talking about is… crappy.
Brent: The hotel was originally built in 1871. And so what do you first see when you walk in is the old bar...
Ben: There are 22 buildings on Cerro Gordo’s nearly 400 acres. Most are made of some combination of wood and tin, and each one is like its own little museum — full of artifacts and relics. From old photographs and letters, to guns and tools, including something called “the widowmaker” that was used to blast into the mountainside in search of silver.
Amory: These buildings are also full of stories. Some we’ll never know, but others have been pieced together just enough for intrigue.
Brent: Just off of the saloon is the infamous card room. And this is the room that I believe in about 1880 there was a card game gone awry and a guy got shot.
Ben: There’s even still a bullet hole in the wall and a bloodstain on the floor. And this is just one of the shootouts that happened in a town that averaged a murder a week during its heyday. Which for a population that maxed out at 4500 is… not great.
Amory: Brent also showed us the mechanic garage-turned-church-turned-movie theatre…
Brent: And that piece of stained glass is actually from a Steve McQueen movie called Nevada Smith that they filmed up here.
Ben: And then there’s the bunkhouse, where the miners and contractors would stay. It’s also where Brent became a believer in ghosts.
Brent: And even saying that out loud. You know, as a preface to that, I believe in ghosts now. It sounds ridiculous to me. But one night I was headed towards the bunk house, and as I was walking by, I noticed the curtain in the front room opened and closed and a face was looking out and the light was on in the living room. And it wasn't terrifying at first just because we had contractor staying in the property. And so they have been staying in the bunkhouse. So to me, I thought that these contractors were still staying there. And the next morning, I asked Robert, the caretaker, “Hey, Robert. How long are the contractors stay here?” And he kind of turned and said “they left two weeks ago,” which was a bit spooky because I know I saw somebody in there the night before.
Amory: So Brent padlocked the bunkhouse which Brent… come on. Locks aren’t gonna stop ghosts. The next night, the light was back on.
Brent: My way to handle potential ghosts is, I know where they potentially are and I just avoid that. And then hopefully they avoid where I am. And, you know, we're one big happy community up here. Amory: This feels very Scooby Doo.
Ben: He would have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for you meddling kids.
Ben: You don’t have to believe in ghosts to know that Cerro Gordo is haunted… by its past. The silver boom times of the mid-1800s didn’t last. Within a few decades, the fat hill was famished.
Brent: By about 1895, the silver had pretty much run out. They lost the vein. I don't know too much about mining, but apparently there's a vein. They lost it.
Amory: And they lost all the prosperity that went along with it. Cerro Gordo did get a second chance in the early 1900s with the mining of zinc, but then the zinc ran out too.
Ben: The final straw though, the thing that would do Cerro Gordo in for the foreseeable future, was when its water source ran out. When nearby Owens Lake was drained, and its water redirected to Los Angeles as part of the LA Aqueduct program of the early 1900s. So no water and no minerals left, pretty much nobody wanted to be up here. So yeah, for about the past 100 years, it's been essentially vacant outside of individual owners. Ghost towns, and ghost mining towns, are pretty common out West. They’re part of this familiar history, America’s prospecting history. When maybe all you needed to get filthy rich was an active imagination, a tip on a spot where there might be gold in the ground and a willingness to take a leap of faith.
Amory: But those days for Cerro Gordo are long gone. You’d have to be crazy to pay a big chunk of change for an abandoned, bullet holed, blood stained, possibly haunted mining town with zero access to water. Unless?
Ben: Unless you’re a NEW kind of prospector with an active imagination.
Amory: So let’s get to know Cerro Gordo’s newest owner, Brent.
Brent: He’s 33. Tall, skinny, red hair. He kinda looks the part of a prospector from out west. But he grew up in Tampa, so...
Brent: When we bought the property, CNN wrote an article about it and they wanted the headline to be “Florida Man Buys Abandoned Ghost Town.” And they ran it by us, and they typically don't do that. And my business partner Jon was like, “Absolutely not. No, that is not the headline that is running.”
Amory: Long before Brent was making headlines, his career plan was to go into finance.
Brent: So I worked at an investment bank for about a month and I quit. Took my money, traveled for a long time as many people do. I did like the typical backpacker trip through Central and South America. Took a couple months there. I went to Southeast Asia. And during that process, I kind of fell in love with hostels. You know, these places where you share rooms with people, you meet other people from all over the world.
Ben: Brent decided he wanted to open a hostel of his own. Which he did, in Brooklyn in his early 20s. Then he got priced out of New York, and he started looking for other prospects. He looked in Austin, Texas, and he found a historic building for lease.
Brent: And the building was built in 1891. So it's my first experience in like a pretty old building. And so I just loved it. I dug into the history of the building. I learned who owned it when, why they owned it, what they did, their kind of importance in the city. And when it gets to come and say, I'll be able to recount back to that, I go, “Hey, you know, you're staying in this part of Austin's history. It's not just, you know, a white box Marriott, you're like really physically participating in the history of this town.”
Ben: A couple years into this hospitality-meets-history experiment, the hostel in Austin was thriving. And Brent decided he was ready for something bigger. He got a text from a friend one day that said…
Brent: Look at this Ghost town for sale, isn’t that funny? And he texted me like 3 in the morning almost as a joke. You know, I think he was just tongue in cheek. “I look at this as the project for you.” And I woke up and I just became obsessed. You know, it was this. This is it.
Amory: The asking price for the town was $925,000, which Brent didn’t have. But he just couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Brent: To me, the thought that this sleepy little mountain town in the middle of nowhere that helped develop one of the most well-known and influential cities in the world was for sale just seemed mind blowing. Like, this true piece of American history was for sale for by private owners. And just the thought of history, hospitality, like what better thing than a property with 400 acres and 20 different buildings?
Ben: So he called up the listing agent and offered over asking. WAY over asking — 1.4 million dollars. And he didn’t stop there…
Brent: And so me being a very aggressive or ambitious and optimistic person that I am, I told the guy that we would, the broker, that we will close in all cash in seven days, which is a very strong real estate offer. The only problem there is that I had nowhere near the amount of cash that we needed to purchase this property. And so that was a fairly stressful day, when you wire essentially half your life savings on a deposit that doesn't get refunded if you don't get the money together. That week was full of phone calls, bartering, no paperwork to anybody.f
Amory: Brent had a business partner in all of this. A guy named Jon Bier. And those phone calls they were making… were to friends, colleagues, former clients — pretty much anyone they could think of. Brent has a marketing company. Jon has a PR firm. So they had a lot of contacts. And in a matter of days, they had investors. They did it. Cerro Gordo was theirs.
Brent: And the first thing they did was just hand me the stack of one hundred keys, you know the craziest keyring you ever seen, for every building and every lock and everything here. We came in here. We came to the saloon. We're digging around. I found this old bottle of whiskey, like who knows how old it was, it was pretty disgusting. And like, we just, like, drank the whiskey and we had a great time. And then we kind of wake up in the morning with the hangover. And you’re like, oh, yeah, “we got to do something now.”. It's time to, you know, figure out what to do with the property.
Amory: One of the things Brent and his co-owners could do with the property is go back to its roots. Find more silver.
Brent: And so I mentioned earlier that they pulled something like 500 million dollars worth of silver out of mountain. Depends on who you ask, but there's rumored to be an additional 500 million dollars worth of silver here.
Amory: And here’s where another interesting wrinkle of this ghost town comes in. Remember how Brent mentioned caretaker? Yes. This ghost town has actually had one mortal resident for the last 23 years. And he’s still around.
Amory: Who is Robert? Why is he there? Where did he come from?
Brent: So Robert Desmarais is a former school teacher, but also a miner by trade. And Robert came to Cerro Gordo about 20 years ago to find the lost silver vein. And, you know, the reason that he'll give you now is that he loves the town, he’s a historian, he takes care of it. But I mean, there's also the five hundred million dollars worth of silver that he still looks for. You know, after it rains, he goes and circles the property and looks for telltale signs of deposits. You know, he's supposed to come up in the next month or so or go do another blast of dynamite to open up an old portal that he thinks might have some silver deposits in it.
Ben: One big bonus of owning a ghost town, if you want to, you can blow stuff up.
Brent: And it's funny, when we bought the property, remember I said I was handed all these keys. One key was suspiciously missing and that key was the key to the dynamite vault, after which, bringing it up to Robert, he said, rightfully so, that it was probably best that I didn't have that key. So I actually don't have the key to the dynamite vault. Robert is the only one with that currently.
Ben: Man, you better stay friends with him.
Amory: Yeah, that’s right. I was gonna say, you better be a good new sheriff in town to him.
Brent: Yeah, I hope so.
Amory: When the pandemic hit, Robert left Cerro Gordo to be with his wife, who lives a couple hundred miles away. But he’ll be back. He told Brent that he wants to be buried at Cerro Gordo. He’s in it for the long haul...just like Brent. The question is...what does that long haul look like?
Ben: We’ll get a glimpse after the break.
Ben: Brent Underwood has co-owned Cerro Gordo for a little over two years now. And the progress has been slow. Mostly because, in a ghost town, you really can’t take anything for granted.
Ben: What’s your water situation?
Brent: Water situation is a tough situation. I have been surviving by bottled water, we have a lot of bottled water. And then when we had snow, I would melt a lot of the snow. Anything I wasn't drinking, I would use snow for.
Amory: Chopping wood to start a fire to melt some snow just so you can take a bath is exhausting to think about. But Brent is motivated by what he hopes Cerro Gordo will someday become.
Ben: He wants to breathe new life into this ghost town. Revive the main buildings. Maybe add some cabins on the grounds for people to stay in. He wants to make it a place where people can gather from all over the world and immerse themselves in the history and the beauty of Cerro Gordo.
Amory: Brent also has a strong sense of what he does not want Cerro Gordo to become.
Brent: If you look at other “ghost towns,” they typically go to the museum or almost like Disneyworld end of it, where there's fake shootouts at noon in the middle of the street and there's like everyone's in Western wear. And that type of the stuff.
Ben: Brent did an AMA — or Ask Me Anything — on Reddit about a year after he bought the town. That’s how we first found out about Cerro Gordo. And redditors had ideas for him.
Brent: There's certainly some interesting ideas, some good ones. Some admittedly pretty bad ones.
Ben: What’s the worst one? Oh man the worst ones...The Westworld one, you know, to have robots roaming around. I get it. You know, I've seen the show. I don't think that that's really what we want to do. I think that's the most popular thing that gets suggested, somebody wanted to create a waterpark up here, which I don't think they understand the dynamics, how we were able to pull that off. I would love to have waterslides up here, but I'd love to have a running sink first.
Amory: Brent did another AMA a few weeks into the pandemic when he had a LOT of time on his hands, and he got some pretty sobering advice in the comment section…
Brent: This guy chimed in, I think he was called like Resortdude or something with his username. And he had really practical suggestions. He owns a pretty substantial resort here in California that is off the grid. And so he deals with water issues. He deals with state permits. He deals with construction, relocation. So he was just like an absolute pro. And so it's just crazy to me, like who you happen to meet through Reddit and the other relationships that develop there.
Ben: This remote advice and human connection was especially helpful this past winter, when Brent found himself completely snowed in.
Brent: I came up here with about two weeks of food, I thought that was going to be plenty, but very quickly I ran through that, maybe in a week and a half. The final seven miles of Cerro Gordo Road are a dirt road that twists and turns with switchbacks. And if you go a couple feet off of either side, you're tumbling down thousands of feet. So if you get a couple feet of snow, there's no way out.
Amory: Some of Brent’s friends started texting him “All work and no play…,” referring to Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining, who goes insane while taking care of an isolated resort in the winter.
Ben: Luckily, even though he was snowed in, Robert, the caretaker, had some food stashed away there. Brent went building to building...finding old canned goods.
Brent: There were some expired beans and some kind of weird stuff. Who knows if that led to appendicitis. I'm not a doctor, but I have my suspicions.
Amory: Oh yeah… He got appendicitis during all this.
Brent: Luckily, the snow melted to the point where I started to drive myself two hours to the hospital with appendicitis. So like every bump along the road was like a stabbing, a knife in your stomach, basically. So it wasn't necessarily the best. But I escaped that. But I, you know I always try to go back to the positives and I don't have to worry about if other people who have touched these doorknobs. You know, in a really selfish way, staying in place means I “shelter in place” across 400 acres, so there’s like, you know, a privilege that not a lot of other people get to have. So when I am feeling down about being so far away from everybody, I try to remember that I’m in a pretty fortunate place up here, and you know, that keeps me going too.
Ben: Like Brent said, he’s a pretty optimistic person. So he’s been able to find a lot of other positives in these several months of solitude. Like the time it’s given him for reflection.
Brent: It's particularly interesting to be up here right now because. I read a lot of the history books of Cerro Gordo, and the Spanish Influenza hit Cerro Gordo pretty hard. It was something that went through the town. And there's miners in the cemetery here — there's a cemetery onsite with like 400 or 500 graves — and there's miners buried there that died from that major pandemic. And so to be up here during this major pandemic, it's a really kind of trippy, like a flash into to the past, connection to history, and to me, there's this Latin term that’s memento mori, or remember that you're going to die. And I think that, like Cerro Gordo is a giant memento mori. It's very difficult to escape the thought of death here, whether it's the miners died from the Spanish influenza or the ones that died in a gunfights here or died underground. And to me, it's not necessarily spooky. It's not grim. It's not depressing. It's a little bit invigorating, like the fact remains that everybody is going to die. And so, like, what are you gonna do with the time that you're given? And so for me, it's the time up here has helped me clarify what I want to do with my life. And I think it's helped clarify that, that the answer to that is Cerro Gordo.
Ben: Like all of us, Brent Underwood is not having the 2020 he thought he would. Just a little over a century after the Spanish Flu Pandemic, we’ve got our own. Brent started this year thinking he'd be able to Airbnb one of the buildings by this spring. Maybe even have a meet-up with some of the Redditors who seemed really excited about Cerro Gordo. That is clearly not happening any time soon.
Amory: The setbacks he’s faced would make most people think “Oh dear, oh God, what have I done? I bought a town?” But Cerro Gordo isn’t most towns. And Brent isn’t most people. He’s not gonna give up that easy.
Brent: I don't regret it at all. You know, not a single bit. I really believe in Cerro Gordo. I think it's it's it's something that deserves to be a place for people to enjoy. And so I think that kind of like determination and belief helps get you through the nights where you're stressed a little bit about finances or ghosts or whatever else stresses you out up here.
Amory: Okay, so tell me about one of the positive days or one of the positive moments where you have just basked in the awesomeness of the fact that you bought Ghost Town.
Brent: Two or three weeks ago, I was cleaning up the general store. Behind one of the counters that I hadn’t been behind in years because the furniture and the way and there was this blanket or sheet type thing. I picked that up and I read that there was this really old briefcase that was almost made out of paper so thin you could see some stuff. I opened it up and it was just the entire life of three different miners. The highs, the lows, the peaks, the valleys. There were lawsuits in there. There's love letters. There's divorce papers. There was mining claims and bank statements and uncashed checks, all from about one hundred years ago. And so it's just like this crazy time capsule into a part of American history and like these miners’ lives. And I don't know, it's just, these people lived and died and kind of gave their life to this mountain. And that was reassuring in a weird way. We're like, “Hey, this is this is something that is important.” You know, you aren't just wasting your time up here. And so little discoveries like that just kind of keep me going.
Ben: We recorded this interview with Brent at the end of May. And at the time, he was full of silver linings for his old silver mining town. He was going to use the rest of the pandemic to get the buildings in even better shape before visitors set foot in Cerro Gordo.
Brent: If they were gonna be somewhat comfortable, let's make them even more comfortable. Let me take the time and try to get the movie theater open. Let's try to get the saloon open and maybe a little kitchen open.
Amory: But then. Just a few weeks later, in the middle of June, Brent faced his greatest test yet. He sent us this voice memo.
Brent: Sometime just before 2 o'clock in the morning, I heard what I thought was fireworks, and I thought the first thing was some kids had come to town and had gone into the parking lot and set off some fireworks. And I looked out my window and I saw a red hue. And then I just leave my room and yell out, oh no. And at that point, the hotel was already fully engulfed in flames.
Ben: The American Hotel, Cerro Gordo’s “crown jewel," home to the saloon and the card room with the bullet hole and bloodstain, had burned completely to the ground.
Brent: Just was delirious. Hit a state that I’d never been in before. And so I took what water buckets we could get and poured them all on the hill to prevent it from going up there before the police came, before the fire department came. They got here within an hour, which is remarkable, but that hour it felt like a century when you're watching your hopes, dreams, life savings, love, history that’ll never be replaced go up in flames.
Amory: Old wiring, dry wood, Brent still isn’t sure how the fire started. But he is sure that he’s not throwing in the towel. Not now. Not ever.
Brent: I'm gonna die at Cerro Gordo. Cerro Gordo is going to be here after I'm gone. And there's going to be a hotel here. And that hotel is going to have the story of, you know, the fire of 2020.
Amory: Memento mori. Everything dies. But if there’s one more silver lining to offer here, it’s that just a week before the fire, Brent stumbled upon the original floor plan for the American Hotel.
Brent: We're gonna rebuild. What other option do we have but rebuild. So, I gotta get to it.
Ben: Brent and his business partner Jon are trying to raise money to rebuild, but hey, you never know. Maybe Robert will keep blasting away with the dynamite. Maybe these guys will find that leftover $500 million dollars worth of silver supposedly in the mountain. Maybe they’ll cash in on that big bet.
Amory: In the meantime, Ben, some GOOD news.
Ben: Whew, we could use it.
Amory: Cerro Gordo has 5 new residents: Tofu, Bubba, Elon, Bucket, and Senorita Juanita. They’re goats!
Ben: Goat town! Ayo!
Amory: Ok, as promised, an update from Brent. He writes:
“These days construction on the American Hotel is in full swing. We have the basement done after a long battle to get concrete and cinderblock up here. We are working desperately to get the building framed and enclosed by the winter time so we can keep working on it this winter. We recently had a massive flash flood however (as part of the larger Death Valley flooding) and it completely washed out our road. So we have to wait to rebuild that before we can bring up the supplies needed to move forward. So the battle always continues up here! My main goal is to still get the hotel open so many generations of people can come and enjoy this place.”
Brent, power to you. For the rest of you, you can see a picture of the basement progress on the Cerro Gordo Instagram page, as well as tons of other pictures of artifacts he’s found, old mining shafts he’s repelled down, and even some alpacas on Brent Underwood’s and Cerro Gordo’s instagram pages. I’m not a big instagrammer, but they’re great follows, and you’ll feel like you’re revitalize your own ghost town vicariously through Brent. Sort of.
This episode was written by me and Ben. Mix and sound design by Matt Reed. Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back with a new episode next Friday. See ya then!
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