We bought a ghost town
I’ve been making a few more startup investments lately, but this summer I made one that I never could have predicted: a town.
Back in July my friend Ryan Holiday mentioned an investment opportunity he was getting involved with: an old mining town in California. I’ve long been fascinated by taking money made from internet businesses and investing it into real-world businesses, so I was immediately intrigued!
After a little back and forth over details, I wired off the money to join a group of ten investors as the new owners of Cerro Gordo, an old ghost town in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
The entire town, the mine, and 336 acres of land was purchased for $1.4 million. Not the highest bid the owners received, but the one they accepted because of our commitment to restore the town and maintain its heritage.
Even the New York Times covered the sale!
Where is Cerro Gordo?
So, where is it? If you don’t know the remote areas between Mt. Whitney and Death Valley, you wouldn’t recognize Cerro Gordo at all. I’ve driven through that area on a road trip to Mexico as a kid, but I wouldn’t have thought anything of that valley or the small town of Lone Pine.
From the hill next to Cerro Gordo you can look across out over the valley 5,000 feet below, across Lake Owen, to Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48 states.
The history of Cerro Gordo
Cerro Gordo was first established in 1866 and reached it’s peak mining capacity in the early 1880s. At that time it produced the majority of the silver for Los Angeles.
Here’s a brief summary from Wikipedia:
Discovery of the silver ore is credited to Pablo Flores, who began mining and smelting operations near the summit of Buena Vista Peak in 1865. Due to hostile Indian activity early mining efforts were rather limited. When hostile Indian activity subsided following the establishment of Fort Independence, mining efforts increased.
These early miners employed relatively primitive techniques of open pits and trenches, and used adobe ovens to smelt the ore. Businessman Victor Beaudry of nearby Independence, California, became impressed by the quality of silver being taken out of Cerro Gordo and opened a store near the mine. He soon acquired several mining claims to settle unpaid debts and proceeded to have two modern smelters built. Beaudry continued acquiring mining rights from debtors until he soon owned a majority of the richest and most productive mines in the area, including partial interest in the Union Mine.
In 1868 Mortimer Belshaw arrived in Cerro Gordo (Rich Hill), attracted by the rich deposits of galena ore. After establishing a partnership with another stakeholder in the Union Mine, he brought the first wagon load of silver from Cerro Gordo to Los Angeles. In Los Angeles he was able to secure financing to build his own smelter that was superior to all other smelters at Cerro Gordo, as well as to build the first wagon road up the mountain. This road became known as the Yellow Road from the color of the rock that it had been cut through. By operating the Yellow Road as a toll road, Belshaw was able to earn income and control the shipments of silver from the mountain.
Visiting Cerro Gordo
In October Oliver had the week off from school so Hilary and I decided to take a 650 mile road trip down to Cerro Gordo. Of course we took the Tesla! Despite the entire drive being through remote mountains and desert, Tesla has super chargers the whole way. Even one in Lone Pine, which is the closest town to Cerro Gordo.
And yes, the vlog is coming back! This is the first episode. I have a few more shot that will be edited soon.
We drove from Boise, but most people visiting Cerro Gordo will drive four hours from Los Angeles or slightly longer from Las Vegas. There is a small airstrip in Lone Pine, but it’s just for small planes. If you plan to fly down, make sure to stop in Boise and pick me up along the way!
Once you reach the bottom of the mountain it turns into a 7 mile dirt road where you gain almost a mile of elevation! I’d heard that the road was sketchy, but I wasn’t sure if that was just city folk talking. Since I grew up in the mountains I’m used to dirt roads just wide enough for a single car with 100+ ft drop offs. So I thought the road was just fine.
Officially 4WD is recommended, but it wasn’t needed when I went. Though if it rained a lot and the road was washed out you’d have a different experience.
I drove my Tesla Model S and just had to carefully pick my path in a few spots to avoid deep ruts. So I’d drive pretty much any car up there, but generally more clearance is recommended.
Currently the town has 20 buildings, many of which are in good condition. There are a total of 17 bedrooms now and that will be expanded as the remodel continues through next year. As an example, the hotel has 4 bedrooms now, but that will be expanded to 6 later on.
A great example is the Gordon house. The team tore out the carpet and two layers of linoleum to find beautiful hardwood underneath. Now that has been sanded and refinished to keep the house authentic. It’s going to be beautiful when the restoration is complete.
Here’s a map to give you a better idea of where everything is in the town. There’s also another 2 bedroom cabin (currently used as the caretakers house) just off the map.
Cerro Gordo is already a popular tourist destination. So much that on a single morning I was there I gave tours to 5 different groups! Now, my tour wasn’t very good since I had only arrived the night before, but each person was grateful to be able to see inside the buildings that are normally locked and off limits to those that come through. Robert, the caretaker, gives really great tours from what I hear.
The future of Cerro Gordo
Jon Bier and Brent Underwood are the fearless leaders of this ragtag group of investors working to restore the town. They’ve already started the restoration projects to get it up and running. Starting with running water (as you can see in my video). Then the next step is to get the Gordon house restored and ready for groups to stay in.
You can meet Jon and Brent in this segment from the Today Show:
By next fall it will be ready to be rented by groups for corporate events, photography expeditions, writers retreats, music festivals, masterminds, and more! While it’s not big enough now for our ConvertKit team retreat, I plan to host a few small masterminds and workshops there. Possibly starting with a mastermind for SaaS founders.
This is an incredibly expensive project, so Cerro Gordo also relies on revenue from photo shoots, commercials, and other projects to pay for the restoration. There have already been several shoots on the property for film, ads, and TV!
We’ll eventually expand beyond the existing buildings to increase capacity, but make sure to do it in a really authentic way that matches the aesthetic of the town. As experience focused travel becomes more and more popular, there will be a ton of demand for overnight stays.
To keep up with the latest at Cerro Gordo follow the town on Instagram.
Sometime over the next few years I hope to spend time with you in Cerro Gordo! Drop a comment below with any questions or to talk about the event you’d like to host there.