YESTERDAY'S PROVIDENCE -- TODAY ( 1963 )
As I turned north at the highway sign,"Mitchell Caverns State Park--23 miles" and peered between the raindrops at the cloud-banked providence mountains far ahead,I dropped beside the road all the cares and burdens of civilization. They would be waiting there to resume their accustomed places on my shoulder when I returned the next day.
Since two hours before dawn I had been hi-balling it over the freeways from Los Angeles,thru Morongo Canyon,Yucca Valley,Twenty-nine Palms and Amboy. Alone in the little canvas cab of my jeep,I looked forward eagerly to two days of exploring the empty streets,skeleton buildings and rusting dumps of the ghost town of Providence.
This silver-mining town reached the peak of its development about 1889. Although I had seen several Published references to the old town,I was not sure of its exact location,and had only a faint idea of what I would find there if I did find the site. My only clue was a note that it lay some six miles from Mitchell Caverns State Park. My purpose,then, was to visit the state park first and seek directions from the Rangers there.
The park rangers were about the nicest people I had met in a long time. One of them drew a small free-hand sketch of the area and noted the mileages and intersections I would need to find the ghost town of Providence.
Since I was already at the park,I decided to take the guided tour through the caverns. These natural caverns in the limestone strata of the Providence Mountains (only one was open to the public at that time) lay at the 4300 foot level and were formerly used by the indians of the region. Many indian artifacts are on didplay in the park office.
A self-guiding nature trail has been constructed along the mountain side leading to the caves. At intervals,numbered or lettered posts have been set beside the trail and a printed brochure gives a simple,lucid explanation of the designated points of interest. Nearly all common and some uncommon desert plants,fossilized coral,desert varnish and a simply unbelievable vista of the open desert are to be enjoyed along this quarter mile foot trail.
At the cavern itself,called "Tecopa," our guide took from a small cabinet a gasoline lantern,and handed out flashlights to each of us-( there was no electricity in this out of the way place at that time). Just inside the entrance the path dove steeply for a few feet and opened out into a huge,vaulted chamber. From the ceiling hung a maze of stalactites ,barely visable in the beams of our flashlights. Where the curving dome of the roof met the floor, stalactites the size of tree trunks formed a veritable curtain of stone. Into this labyrinth our guide plunged with the aplomb of one entering his own basement. The rest of us,however, followed more slowly, timorous of the strange environment. The passageway was wide enough for only one person at a time,and occasionally,fallen stalactites formed a barrier which we had to clamber over or under.
Wherever the trail widened our guide would pause and give a short talk, while directing our beams to particularly impressive rock formations. Once our lights picked out a scurrying pack rat which had its nest on a high ledge.
Back in the main chamber we were shown the blackened walls where indians had built their fires,and the guide gave an interesting lecture on the phenomena which had created this cavern.
This tour is well worth the time of anyone who is interested in out of the way desert spots. The state park maintains a small campground easily accessible by family car.
However,my destination was the gost town of Providence, so I left the little party chatting with our guide and hurried back to the parking lot.
Five miles back the way I had come I followed a small sign pointing left to the XIL Ranch. The drizzling rain had ceased and the sun was out warm and clear. Rain water steamed in puddles in all the low spots of te rude desert track. Soon the XIL Ranch came into view a couple miles away,but my route lay to the left at an unmarked intersection, down through a "badlands" area, with the road becoming increasingly rough and rocky. I knew I was on the right road,if only because roads to ghost towns are not commonly maintained by county road crews.
Suddenly I looked up. There, a mile away,and looking lonely and disconsolate against the bare mountain, stood half a dozen crumbling stone buildings. Impatiently, I tried to hurry, but the road condition permitted no haste! The ascent steepened as the canyon narrowed, and in second gear I came to a halt in front of the first old building I reached.
Providence is going the way of all old desert ghost towns that are left unguarded. In there present state of dilapidation,it is almost impossible to determine what some of the old buildings were used for. The interiors have been gutted, windows shattered, and wooden floors, if any ripped up.
The structure that now confronted me could have been used as a general store, hotel, restaurant or any number of other businesses. The large concrete front porch was crumbling at the edges. The main portion of the roof was still intact,but it had not kept out very much of the recent rains. One room showed evidence of recent occupation. an old wood -burning stove was set up in one corner, with its rusty stove pipe disappearing though a hole in the roof. In another room I found ,stored, a kitchen sink, two wash basins and several wooden screens which I am sure will be carted away by the first person who may have a use for them.
Just up the slope stood four bare stone walls with mountains of trash between them and a mound of broken glass bottles off to one side. This pile of glass was a sure indication of a former saloon.
Across the street stood the crumbling ruins of several old buildings on the edge of a ravine. I scratched thru the dumps here and uncovered two or three old bottles, one of them a large white Mentholatum jar which I fancied might date back to the turn of the century.
A quarter of a mile up the steep grade, near the mine dumps at the head of the canyon, stood another cluster of decaying buildings. The roofs of two old stone structures had collapsed in a mass of rubble between the walls. Nearby was a complex of frame buildings that must have houses a dining room or boarding house, saloon, and an old assay office, because in a gully behind lay hundreds of broken clay crucibles, which are used by assayers, broken whiskey bottles, and many shattered fragments of old English dinnerware.
These buildings were probably a part of the original town, because in the dump I dug up two very old quart whiskey bottles, dark green and crudely made, heavily opalized from having been burried in the mineral-rich gravel for, probably, three-quarters of a century.
On a promontory overlooking the whole town and the valley below stood the skeleton of a huge frame structure that was surely a hotel, and a large one. Behind it was a large courtyard with stables for horses, a concrete-lined cave, apparently used for storage of perishable food, and several outbuildings. In the yard lay two sets of old wooden-framed bed springs, a twisted bicycle frame, old pots and pans, and mountains of trash left by modern day tourists and campers.
Here I decided to spend the night. A high stone wall would protect me from the ever-present wind, and would reflect the heat of the campfire for warmth.
After a solid meal, with a couple of hours of daylight remaining, I took a long rambling walk through the deserted streets of the old town. I scratched in the dumps desultorily for old bottles, but my mind was not really on the job. I lapsed into a deep reverie, unconsciously recreating the spirit that must have pervaded these mountains seventy five years ago, when Providence was a teeming metropolis of 3500.
Looking down from my lofty promontory, I could see, in my mind's eye, the phantom wraiths of heavily-laden freight wagons struggling up the steep slopes to the town, hear the shouted curses of the teamsters, and smell the stifling dust tht must have constantly filled the air from the clanking mill machinery higher on the mountain. In fancy I pictured the town as it existed when silver was still king. I saw the rough-clad miners descending the mountain after a long day of work, their women , in the floor-length dresses of the day, eagerly awaiting their return. In these brush-grown streets, nameless now, I saw the panorama of a busy people in a busy town, acting out the drama of their little lives. I shared, in retrospect, their hopes of wealth and fame as a reward for enduring the hardships of life in a frontier desert town.
Returning to my camp, bone tired, I built up my fire as darkness fell and sat on my cot sipping scalding cups of coffee. Still in a daze from the acuteness of me phantasy, I almost expected the proprietor of the old hotel behind me to open his door and invite me in. So strong was this feeling that I actually flashed my light at the door-- and returned to reality with a jolt. No genial host would ever again usher his guests through this gaping black hole! The beam of my torch moved over the wall, highlighting the naked studdings held together by broken lath. Through the glassless window frames I could see heaps of fallen masonry and the pile of rubble that was once a stone fireplace ad chimney. Its cheery blaze was extinguished forever.
I awakened in the chill pre-dawn and rekindled my fire. By full daylight, I had broken camp and packed my jeep for another day of exploring, te fantasys of the previous night dispelled by the cheery rays of the early morning sun.
Locking in the front-wheel drive of the jeep, I set out to explore the mountain tracks leading up to the old mines above town.
Here was no scratching of the surface by a lonely prospector! Before me lay the blood and guts nd hopes and fears of thousands, who had freely given of their labor in exchange for the riches that the earth so reluctantly released.
Striking in its symmetry was a perfect cone of mine tailings almost entirely filling the gully in which it stood, and rising for many yards to a sharp apex. At its base lay scattered the corrugated iron, rusting water tanks and miscellaneous bits of machinery from old buildings which had once stood upon the brink of the ravine.
An old wagon road led me high into a little box canyon with walls rising sheer for many feet. The trail became so steep and rocky that even the jeep, in compound low, had difficulty. Reluctantly, I returned to Providance and the huge trash dump where I commenced to dig for old bottles.
This old dump lay in a gully paralleling the road, about a quarter mile below the town proper. Extending for several hundred feet, it consisted mainly in rusting tin cans of all shapes and sizes, and literally hundreds of broken bottles, many of which were the old pottery bottles for Guiness Stout, made in England and shipped to the west coast of americas in the eighteen seventies. While bottle collectors had already picked up the whole surface bottles, flood waters had buried much of the trash in a foot or two of sand and gravel.
Here I dug up an old beer bottle with a bulbous neck and the word "Root" emossed on the bottom. The sun overhead, however, indicated that time was running out. After a last, long hike paralleling the road, during which I found another bottle that must have been thrown from a horse-drawn vehicle many years ago, I washed the desert dust from my face and arms, changed into clean clothes, and pointed my jeep toward civilization.
I paused at the foot of the grade for a last, lingering look back. The ruined stone buildings of Providence gleamed whitely in the desert sun, their gaping window holes staring sightlessly into the vastness of the valley below while, invisibly, the relentless fingers of the encroaching desert continued to pry and probe among the fallen stones.
Written by my dad Elmer Long (1919-2005)