Cerro Gordo was once California’s largest producer of silver. The town produced nearly $500 million of minerals during it’s heyday. It was also a lawless town. During it’s peak, the town averaged a murder per week and a local judge described the population as “lawless ruffians who with murder in their hearts and the implements of death strapped upon their persons, congregate in public places, ever ready to discharge their death-dealing weapons upon the unoffending and unarmed citizens.”
Even so, Cerro Gordo was an important town in the American West. The prosperity of the town contributed to Los Angeles’s early development.
This video is a brief overview of the town’s past, present, and future.
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Cerro Gordo was first established as a mining town in 1865 by Pablo Flores and several companions. The first large-scale mining operation was set up in 1866 by Jose Ochoa, who was extracting about 1.5 tons of ore every 12 hours. At the time, silver ore sold for about $300 a ton. The quality and quantity of ore that Cerro Gordo produced attracted a lot of interest statewide including merchant Victor Beaudry, who thought Cerro Gordo has the potential to be far more than a typical mining town. Beaudry opened the first general store in Cerro Gordo in 1866.
In 1868, Beaudry teamed up with Mortimer Belshaw to expand the mining operations in Cerro Gordo. The same year Belshaw brought the first load of Cerro Gordo silver to Los Angeles. There he pitched Egbert Judson, president of the California Paper Company on the potential of Cerro Gordo. Judson was impressed by the pitch and the ore that Belshaw brought to LA and agreed to finance the Cerro Gordo operations. The trio formed the Union Mining Company.
Armed with the finances, Cerro Gordo started an era of unequalled prosperity in 1868. The mine started regularly sending silver bullion to Los Angeles in December of that year. Each ingot was 18 inches long, weighed approximately 85 pounds, and depending on the silver content worth $20-$25. By the end of 1869, more than 340 tons of bullion has been pulled from Cerro Gordo and transported to Los Angeles. Cerro Gordo silver became the most common silver in Los Angeles, proudly displayed at the best hotels and banks, as well as many of the businesses along Main and Spring Streets.
In 1869, The Los Angeles Times praised Cerro Gordo for helping expand Los Angeles and outlined the city’s dependence on the mine, “What Los Angeles is, is mainly due to it. It is the silver cord that binds our present existence. Should it be uncomfortably severed, we would inevitably collapse.”
The rapid expansion of Cerro Gordo’s mining operation meant the rapid expansion of the town. By 1869, just three years year after operations began, the town’s population had increased to 1,500.
In 1871 the two-story American Hotel was completed (which still stands today), as well as other permanent structures.
The silver output had expanded to five tons per day by 1871. In 1874 Cerro Gordo delivered more than $2,000,000 worth of bullion to Los Angeles.
By 1874, 3,400 tons of supplies were shipped into Cerro Gordo annually to support the town’s population eventually grew to more than 4,500.
In the coming years, the price of silver plummeted and a lot of the mining operations were shut down or moved to different towns. By 1888, the town was all but abandoned, with only 30-40 people still living there.
In 1905, the property was purchased by the Great Western Ore company. The company had created a new smelting device designed to extract zinc and silver at a cheaper price. The success of the company brought a new wave of activity and prosperity to Cerro Gordo. The town again grew to a few hundred residents as they mined silver, zinc, and limestone.