Posts Tagged ‘history’

Old Benton Hot Springs

August 14, 2012

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


Buttermilk and the Tungsten Hills

March 25, 2012

            One thing about visiting Bishop,California is there is no lack of recreational opportunities, whatever they may be, in every direction out of town. Not only are there excellent places to hike, but the area is popular with climbers, equestrians, Off Highway Vehicle lovers, mountain bikers, hunters and fishermen, photographers, research people and many more.

            Two areas that have become well known in recent years with climbers and OHV enthusiasts are the Tungsten Hills and the Buttermilk country.  I lump these two recreation areas together, because they adjoin each other.  The Tungsten Hills is a premier off road and motorcycle playground, and Buttermilk is the home territory of the young Boulderer, who comes from all over the world to climb there.  Buttermilk and the Chalk Bluffs on the Volcanic Tableland are the two most frequented places to climb for the past fifteen years. These two areas are totally separate from the Sierra Crest and have their own ecosystems that are high desert and fragile.

            The Tungsten Hills was an area where cowboys, sheepherders and miners roamed before the steel hardener called Tungsten was discovered and heavily mined during WWI. Not much is left of the small mining district except rusty cans, old mill foundations and broken shards of glass.  Some of the deposits that were removed created huge holes in the earth which dot the hills. 

            Near the entrance to theTungsten City a housing area called Rocking K ranch.  This area was developed back in the 60s, and is where the elite of Bishop meet the fleet.  Such notables as Dave Mc Coy, the creator of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, and Bob Tanner, the owner of Reds Meadow resort, built their homes there.  It is a beautiful place that they made an oasis out of in the high desert of  Bishop.

            Dave McCoy was an all around man and still is with his photography adventures and his photo blog.  One of Dave’s loves when he wasn’t busy working up on the ski hill was to ride dirt bikes with his buddies.  They would go right out of his house and actually made most of the motorcycle trails that exist in the Tungsten Hills today.  Now in his nineties, Dave and his wife Roma still venture out in the Hills in their Rhino.

            As things began to tighten down because of more riders and resource damage, BLM specified a trail system in the Tungsten Hills that includes all OHV users and all levels of ability.

            For the most part the OHV trails are sandy and travel through areas of boulders and fantastic granite rock formations.  There are few trees in that area, and it is rocky and stark with deeply cut washes.  There are small stream crossings and numerous mining sites accessed by a network of roads. Most of the really dangerous mine shafts have been fenced for public safety, but there are still some that cannot be seen until one is right on top of them. Those are the super dangerous shafts that you do not want to approach to look down or dare to let your dog near.

            From every vantage point and from on top of a knob like Tungsten Peak, elevation 5,951, the Sierra Crest looms large in the background. Mt.Tom at 13,652 feet and Basin Mt. at 13,181 feet dominate the horizon.

            All mining activity has ceased and much of it has been cleaned up by the Forest Service and BLM.  In between the maze of roads and trails one can walk for miles through strange and wonderful natural areas.

            Although the Buttermilk area off Hwy 168, not far out of Bishop, adjoins the Tungsten Hills, it is totally different and has beautiful granitic rock formations and huge boulders left over from the glaciers.  The Pinyon and Jeffrey trees with the interesting rock formations, orange and white sand, and majestic views of the Sierra all combine to make the place seem enchanted.

            Naturally, it would become one of the most popular areas in the country, if not the world, to climb boulders.  It wasn’t always so and thirty five years ago, nobody was out there, except the last stockmen and miners.  Logging had gone on in locations above Buttermilk as far back as the 1890s, and they, along with the Nevada Power Company, made the old roads.  When bulldozers were invented in the 1920s, the roads that we use today were constructed.  Before that it was horse drawn graders in places where there was no rock.  Otherwise, all the rock had to be removed by hand, and some of the old wagon roads are still intact near the housing area called Starlight.  They are really fun to follow and look for the old purple glass and cans.

            When the local Bishop climbers started writing and posting on the internet about the wonders of Bishop and what a great new area it is to climb, people came from all over like it was the new Haight Ashbury of the rock climbing world.  Many of them stayed, started climbing schools and guide services, and raised families. More climbers continue to come each year, and the place is more popular than ever with the young adults.

            What is really nice about the whole deal is that all the camping is dispersed and free.  There are numerous side roads along creeks and near meadows, like Sharps Meadow that have excellent camp sites.  It is a mix of Forest Service land, BLM, and Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power, and unless it says no camping, it’s okay.  All that is needed is a California Campfire Permit which can be obtained at any forestry office and is good for a year.  Since Buttermilk is in the foothills of the Sierra, it snows less and is warmer.  People climb out there most of the winter, but summer is just too hot. At that point everyone has to retreat up high into the mountains.

            For the hiker these areas offer many places to explore far from any of the other user activities.  Many spots have burned in the last thirty years, but in between, are dense patches of brush that are difficult to walk through.

            The area has many springs and sloping meadows where cattle grazing once dominated.  Creeks cut through deep canyons filled with immense Jeffrey trees and Cottonwoods.

            Evidence of Native Americans is everywhere to be seen in the form of obsidian flakes left over from ancient hunting forays. 

            Small pockets of hard rock mining are tucked away and hidden in odd places one would never expect.  Some mining sites they packed mules up to and blasted to create a shaft.  Other sites were accessed by bulldozer from the 30s until the 70s, when mining on the Inyo National Forest began to become more restrictive.

            When one looks up at the Sierra Crest from Buttermilk, old mining roads that the bulldozer operators made are visible in incredibly steep places.  Those men were truly fearless, but accidents did happen, and some lost their lives.

            Next time you are cruising Hwy 395 through Bishop, drive upWest Line St.about 8 miles to the Buttermilk turnoff.  The Tungsten Hills can be reached off Ed Powers Rd, about 5 miles north of Bishop.

            Every now and then the residents of Bishop are treated to a spectacular show during storms when the Buttermilks are lit up with sunlight and a rainbow, while everything around them is dark and foreboding.