Old Benton Hot Springs

Most people in California have driven over HWY 120 that goes through Yosemite from Manteca on the west side of the Sierra. Few have driven the entire 152 miles over the mountains to Old Benton Hot Springs near the junction of Hwy 6 and the Nevada State Line. Nor do they know that Old Benton preceded its famous sister, Bodie, and was a full blown mining camp of 3,000 to 5,000 people in 1862.

It is hard to imagine that only thirteen years after the California Gold Rush, there were men digging holes for gold and silver all over Blind Spring Hill. The town was so large that it had its own Chinatown and flourished for 50 years.

Unlike Bodie, Old Benton was never completely abandoned and exists to this day as a living ghost town. For visitors there is a general store, campground with unique hot spring tubs, and a bed and breakfast. Many buildings have disappeared but the unusual pumice stone structures remain. The entire place is totally green and heated by hot spring water. The water is so good that it is drinkable, and some swear that it is the “fountain of youth.”

I first visited the town passing through on my way to go hiking in the 1970s. I remember seeing the elderly owner, Buster Bramlette, sitting in his rocking chair watching the world drive by his front door at the old store.

Outside the screen door at the entrance was a sign that said, “Browsers not welcome!” Off to the side of the building were two Dobermans behind a chain link fence that meant business.

All was okay if one entered the store and requested to buy some beer or soda pop. Then you got to see a real life museum with pristine wagons, tons of artifacts, thousands of arrowheads and Chinese relics. There was even an old juke box in mint condition from the 50s.

In the back could be heard laughter and a big welcoming hello from Buster’s wife, Maybelle, who was the total opposite personality from Buster, who wanted to run everybody off.

The next time I went to Benton was to help my buddy, Slim, during a cattle round up in the fall. Slim kept some cattle on Buster’s pasture and would come every year to help with the roundup. After the work was done we were treated to a real old fashioned lunch at the store and ice cold beer.

Little did I know that in future years I would work for their grandson, Bill, when he was the recreation officer on the Mammoth Ranger District in the 1980s. He was the best boss any of us ever had in the forest service, and we have remained friends to this day. When Maybelle died in 1997 followed by Buster a year later, Bill inherited the ranch and old town. He and his wife, Diane, are keeping the place intact as their grandparents would have wanted.

Buster Bramlette was born in Downey, California, and grew up with his brother Tommy and sister Lucille in Little Lake on Hwy 395. His father, Bill, was a race car driver in the teens, helped form the AAA Club of Southern California, and owned the first bank in Downey. In 1910 he bought Little Lake which has since burned down. He then purchased the Bramlette Ranch near the agricultural inspection station on Hwy 6. Finally, in 1928, he made the best purchase of all, when he acquired Old Benton Hot Springs.

Maybelle Bramlette was raised on the Kern plateau in the southern Sierra. Her father, Porter, homesteaded out there, had a sawmill, and ran cattle. When Maybelle needed schooling, she was sent down to Little Lake to be tutored. She was 14 when she met Buster, and he fell in love. He decided to hike all the way up to her father’s cabin to ask for her hand in marriage. When he got there, Porter slammed the door in his face, and he had to go all the way back down the mountain brokenhearted. Buster was persistent though and returned the next year to ask for Maybelle’s hand now that she was 15. This time he was successful and the rest is history.

Grandson Bill reminisces about how his grandparents used to send him out to watch the cows all summer when he was a boy. He had a little mustang pony named Tuffy that he rode to move the cattle to their grazing areas in Truman Meadows, Pizona and McBride Flat.

Isolation was a friend to Bill, and he later became a wilderness ranger. That started him on a career that led to becoming a Forest Supervisor on the Inyo National Forest.

Bill has a lot of great stories to tell about the people he grew up with in Benton. One of the more colorful characters was a lion hunter and mountain man named Charlie Tant, who was hired by the ranchers to remove lions from preying on their cattle and sheep. Bill said Charlie used to stuff newspapers under his clothes for insulation and would come down once a year from his cabin in the mountains to soak in the hot spring to get the newspapers off. Then he would repeat the process.

Bill and Diane, who was also a Forest Supervisor on the Modoc National Forest, have honored Buster and Maybelle’s memory by donating land to the Eastern Sierra Land Trust to hold for the public into perpetuity. This is really one of the best things they could have ever done for all of us, because Old Benton is truly a special place in the history of the West.

To learn more about Old Benton contact historicbentonhotsprings.com.

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2 Responses to “Old Benton Hot Springs”

  1. Todd Walker Says:

    Appreciate your blog! Looks like you might have stopped. Don’t! We’re out here.

  2. john Says:

    Another great article, thank you

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