Sunday, May 8, 2011

Ghost Towns: The Prowler

The Movie
   The Prowler (directed by Joseph Losey, 1951) stars Van Heflin as policeman and certifiable creep Webb Garwood, who manipulates and cons his way into marriage with a woman he meets on a routine call.  Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) has been taking a shower at night with the bathroom window open and shades up, and is actually shocked when she looks out of the window to see a peeping tom.  Garwood and his partner arrive to log the incident, and Garwood takes a shine to Susan, who is a night widow - her wealthy husband is out late most evenings, fully occupied with his agricultural radio show.  One evening follow-up call by Garwood, a few visits more, and Things Begin to Happen...

California Mining Rush
   Trying not to spoil the ending for anyone who hasn't seen the movie, the action towards the end of the film takes place in the California desert, part in an active town and part in the ruins of an old mining town.  As I watched this movie, I started wondering just how many vacant towns sit in the desert after all these years.  The answer is that many still exist, in differing states of repair.  Most mining towns in California came into existence in the mid 1800s to the early 1900s, to exploit rich deposits of gold, silver, borax, tungsten, chrysolite and other minerals.  The towns experienced booms at peak extraction and crashes when the resource was tapped out.  They were either supported by another livelihood such as agriculture or manufacturing, or died out as residents left. 

Ghost Towns
   The state of ghost town remains is different from town to town, and depends on a lot of factors.  Weather, geographic location, visitors and original construction material and techniques can all play a part in how well a site is preserved.  Eastern California has an ideal dry climate for the preservation of artifacts, and the remote locations of many of the sites keep them from being visited frequently by vandals.  Many mining camps were exactly that - camps - and the major structures were tents;  in many of these locations, little to nothing visible is left.  In other locations, where building materials were wood or stone, remains are still visible.  The modernization of travel by rail and eventually by car also led to the end of many western towns as travel became quicker, requiring fewer stops along the way.

Calico History
   Calico, California, the site of filming for The Prowler, is located west of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert just north of Barstow. 
"There's no argument that Calico is a real ghost town. Established in 1881, Calico produced $86 million in silver and $45 million in borax during its glory years. At its height, the town boasted a population of 1,200, 22 saloons, a "Chinatown," and a well-known red light district. When the price of silver plummeted in the 1890's, the town survived on borax revenues until its official death in 1907."   -Roadtrip America
   The remains of the town were left in peace until 1951, when the land was bought out by an entrepreneur with amusement-park dreams who had previously worked in the mines there himself.  He began to add artifacts and additional buildings, aging everything to add the patina of history until it became difficult to tell the difference between original and re-creation.  In 1966, the land was donated to San Bernadino County and is currently maintained as a historical park.  The Prowler was filmed in 1951, at a time when the location was probably still in its pre-restored condition.

Don't forget to draw the curtains.
Links and Sources

California Ghost Towns
Calico, San Bernadino County, Wikipedia
Calicotown, California
Calico, California

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