California Worst Ghost Town Has Been Revealed, Study Finds
In Central California’s Lake Isabella, which is in the southern foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the signs of drought are easy to see. Around the lake, the shoreline looks like a big toilet bowl ring, and the bottom of the lake is full of the remains of long-forgotten secrets that are in different states of decay. The man-made lake is now only 8% full, but it is showing the roots of one of the most famous towns in the Wild West. You can see it all from the shore or by boat.
Yes, Whiskey Flat is back. It was one of the craziest, most tragic, and story-filled places in the Old West and during the Gold Rush. So much of American folklore is based on this place’s past. This long-perched valley is where many of the Old West’s tropes, tall tales, and tragedies can be traced back to.
The lake is 35 miles northeast of Bakersfield. It is 2,500 feet above sea level and is where the natural north and south forks of the Kern River meet. The area is a year-round location, even though it gets hot in the summer and snowy in the winter. Most importantly, since the early 1950s, it has been one of the main sources of water for farming in Kern County.
The tributaries have also sent water down into the green valley below, where the Tubatulabal, Kawaiisu, and Owens Valley Paiute live. After the war, the area was the site of one of the worst and most brutal attacks on Native Americans by U.S. troops. There were also ongoing family feuds among settlers in the area, which was later the setting for movies that tried to bring these Old West stories to life.
The End of the Gold Rush
In 1860, near the end of the Gold Rush, a lone prospector named Lovely Rogers found the valuable ore in a place that had not been explored before. Rogers’ mule supposedly ran away, and when he picked up a big rock to throw at it, he allegedly held a 42-ounce piece of pure gold.
The 49ers used that one find to find their way from camps in Northern California that were running out of food quickly to the southern end of the Sierra Nevada, where they quickly set up a camp for miners.
In the late summer of that year, Adam Hamilton, a whiskey vendor during the Gold Rush, set up a tent in the camp and a pair of whiskey barrels crossed by a board. Hamilton named his homemade bar “Whiskey Flat,” which is also the name of the town that grew up around it.
The hunter-gatherer groups that had lived in the valley for thousands of years were pushed out by the miners and sheepherders who moved in as soon as the town sprung up, what seemed like overnight.
Native American groups and settlers fought a bloody war for two years. Sixty white settlers and 200 Native Americans were killed. Native Americans were camped on the Kern River about 2 miles north of Whiskey Flat on April 19, 1863. On that day, 70 soldiers from the 2nd Regiment California Volunteer Cavalry, led by Capt. Moses A. McLaughlin, who was 29 years old and from Ireland, were sent by farmers to attack them.
The boys and old men McLaughlin sent back to the camps, along with 35 other Native Americans whose safety no one could answer for, were either shot or stabbed, he would later remember of what became known as the Keyesville Massacre. (Today, three memory crosses stand where the killings happened.)
Whiskey Flat Rivalries
The women of Whiskey Flat changed the name of their town to Kernville a year after the Keyesville Massacre. They did this in honor of Edward Kern, a topographer who helped John C. Fremont map the area on his 1848 western journey. People still call it “Whiskey Flat,” and every Presidents’ Day weekend, thousands of people come to the area to dress up as settlers and celebrate the area and its past for four days.
In the area, there were also strong family ties that lasted for generations. The Gibson, Burton, and Walker mining families were especially close, with the five Walker brothers being the most famous of the group.
The last one, Newt, who was the second-to-youngest, was the fastest and hottest of all of them. Newt showed the jury that he had the fastest gun in the West by firing six shots before his defense attorney dropped a hanky. This was to clear himself of a run-in and shoot-out in April 1905 that killed two men.