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.
Explore Cerro Gordo on Google Maps
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.
29 Responses to “We bought a ghost town”
This is how Westworld started lol
Congratulations and thank you, to all the investors, for revitalizing this town with an emphasis on its history.
Sometimes all we need is a fresh look to help us see with new eyes. Congratulations for making it happen! 😎👍
If you ever need anyone to preach in your little church, let me know.
Contratulations Nathan. Hope to visit this place some day.
Always enjoy following your blog and learning about your adventures.
The new project sounds fun but could you explain how you evaluated the investment decision?
Oh wow! That’s so cool! I hope I’ll go there someday. :)
Very intriguing! Proud to know you Jon Bier!
That’s pretty sweet! Happy for you and Hillary and the kids, they seem pretty stoked too!
Love this, Nathan!
Here’s the event I want to host…
A photography workshop in two parts:
1) night sky photography
2) drone video and photography
I have a network to make this happen, but need realistic dates when you could host 10-15 people and ballpark costs.
Very cool and interesting. Congrats Nathan. Ive been to Death Valley a few times so probably drove by the access road to it. Best wishes in your restoration plans. Take Care, Uncle Mike
My uncle has talked about it for years and I wanted to see it before many changes had been made so I went up the day after Thanksgiving. Everyone was gone for the holiday but Larry was there overseeing the place, he’s a hoot to talk to. Loved the experience!
this is amazing. Thank you for the write-up! :-D
Amazing, well done!
I would love to come photograph this place! If you guys are ever open to that idea keep me in mind please!
Looking forward to meeting you in the next year! My husband and I got a kick out of your twist on the history and what you thought things were! It is an amazing place and we are excited about the possibilities and working with all of you!
Roger & Cecile Vargo
Cerro Gordo A Ghost Town Caught Between Centuries
Images of America Cerro Gordo
Great to hear from you! I bought 5 copies of your book on Cerro Gordo and have been giving it out to friends who plan to come visit. Thank you for such a great resource!
Oh my! Thank you!!! Sorry we missed meeting you by a couple weeks or so it looks like. We came up around Veteran’s Day for a film shoot and finally met Kelley, Jon, and Brent in person after many e-mails back and forth to each other since July. Nice to see time and energy put into the place again!
My dad was a mining engineer and Cerro Gordo has a piece of my heart. I can’t wait to visit again!
I’ve been going there off and on for over 30 years, back when Mike and Jodi first got it, after Jodi passed on and Mike ran it for years by his lonesome, until he too passed.
I’ve heard the Jodi ghost stories in the window screen; tasted Mike’s Cerro Gordo Rootbeer slid down that beautiful bar to me; seen the Church’s gorgous stained glass; oogled over every piece of history in the old musuem, store, now clubhouse including the miner’s helmets with candle holder and the Chinese opium tins; as well as the Levi stories from some of the buildings…such great history. I will be back. Del.
Really glad to see that your group is dedicated to keeping the town alive and expanding. So much history in one spot, the education on entertainment that can come from such a place is priceless.
I grew up in Lone Pine, and some of my Ancestors worked at Cerro Gordo.
So to see it not wither and have some dedication means alot.
Wow Nathan, I am SO HAPPY to hear you’re going to take good care of Cerro Gordo!
I’ve been up there with different groups of friends a number of times over the years. Cerro Gordo is such a treasure. So were Jodi & Mike. One time just my girlfriend & I came up by ourselves in my Jeep. We stayed for the weekend and were happily surprised when Jodi invited us over for dinner. “Nothing fancy”, she said, (I think it was tuna noodle casserole) and the company was excellent.
Most people do not know that the Belshaw house, had direct access to the mine tunnels and a shower where the mine tunnel came up into the house so Mr Belshaw could get clean before tracking dirt into the rest of the house.
One time Mike was telling us of the professor (researcher? geologist?) that came up a bunch of times to map out all the mine tunnels. More than 8 miles of tunnels with many different levels. Mike told me that after a long day of tunnel mapping, they were having a late dinner with the professor in the Belshaw house. Anyway, they were discussing that they were pretty much finished mapping all the mine shafts & tunnels and what a lot of work it had been over the past couple of years – when they heard an enormous noise. And a cloud of dust blew into to the dining room from the door where that shower is & the mine tunnel.
That great noise they heard was a main shaft collapsing! Which destroyed access to most of the mine tunnels. The professor said; “Well I guess we don’t need this map anymore”. And they were both glad to be having dinner when it collapsed, instead of being smashed or trapped down there forever.
As a 4×4 Jeeper, I’ve come in to Cerro Gordo several ways, from both sides. Great county. I just Love the Inyo mountains. Once time we tried to follow the Salt Tram down the hill, but that was practically impossible. Because cliffs.
I met Robert, the caretaker, some years ago when he walked into my business. My husband and I stopped by Cerro Gordo on the way to LV one time. Robert was up in the mountains blasting, but we got the solo tour.
I hope Robert has stayed on during this transition. His knowledge of the location and town is irreplaceable.
People like me did not want to see the town turned into more of a tourist attraction than it already was…but I do hope that it is *restored* and not turned into a Disney Land type thing….
Best of luck to you. Hopefully, we will meet you soon.
When Mike & Jody owned the town, it became my second home. I spent much copious amounts of time up there helping Mike to restore the town. I laid the phone cable from the mountain top and discovered the root cellar underneath the Hotel kitchen.
Nathan, I have a question about the town for you. When convenient, could you please give me a call? 360-213-8431
Who owns Swansea, at the bottom of the hill now?
I knew Mike Patterson the last year of his life. It was well past Jodi’s passing. He loved that town and brought it alive every time he told of its history. You bought a treasure. His dream of restoring and maintaining history lives on. I, for one, am grateful.
When Jody was alive I brought Army ROTC cadets to Cerro Gordo. Jody let us use the bunk house and had an MRE meal with us. Later I brought Tehipite Chapter of the Sierra Club members up to stay in the bunk house. I have rented the Belshaw house twice to stay in while we visited the Salt Tram, Trepier Cabin, etc. I hope to be able to use stay at Cerro Gordo again soon with guests.
Moved to LA from Back East in ’99. Got a good book on CA Ghost Towns and proceeded to check them off my list: Cerro Gordo was first. Went there in…2000 or maybe 2001 for the first time. It was…a diamond in the rough. Really rough. Stayed all day, taking pictures and wondering about (not sure who was there…one man let us have the run of the place really) but we did not stay the night. Bought some really cool old bottles from him that we still have on display. Love that you bought it but…don’t fix too much. There’s a fine line between “That’s really cool!” and “I can tell I’m the millionth person thru here that had the same experience/view/photo I just did.” Overall, I’ll agree that it needs to be a bit safer for folks to see/wander around, but don’t sterilize it. It’ll be those rough edges, those “Whoops. Let’s go with Plan B.” dinner/sleeping options, those small but still survivable/manageable mistakes or unplanned events that will REALLY make it special to people that visit and/or stay for a bit. The West was wild for a reason. It built character. It HAD character. Don’t polish your little gem to a perfect shine. Leave a little “character” on it for us to see, please?
Any chance you would open up for more investment through something like WeFunder. I’m not rich, but I’d be fine with putting some money into getting a piece of this. If something like that happens, absolutely let me know!