Cerro Gordo has long been a shell of its former self. The one-time silver mine dried up, and its residents left town with the last of the precious metal in 1919. As the buildings slowly fell apart and the rich history began to fade, one man stepped in to save it all. But so many people have been left to wonder… why?
This article was originally published on WHerMoments
In its prime, Cerro Gordo had a ton of residents who caused more trouble than you’d imagine in such a small town. It’s quiet now, of course, but that silence hangs heavy over the dilapidated buildings that point to a much more storied past. Some people swear that even if they visit by themselves, they’re not there alone.
Ghosts supposedly still linger in the one-time mining destination, and that’s only the first problem you’d encounter in this place nestled unsuspectingly in the mountains of California.
There’s also the fact that Cerro Gordo sits far from civilization, just as it did in its turn-of-the-20th-century heyday. Even now, the closest town’s 50 miles away.
There’s no running water, and there’s only one gravel road into town. So when things go wrong – and they do — there’s no one around to help.
Even the town’s new owner, Brent Underwood, has had his fair share of freakouts on the dusty streets of the town he purchased in 2018.
He told Vice, “I was not a big believer in ghosts prior to buying Cerro Gordo…” And then he looked up at a window of a crumbling building and saw a shadowy villager from the town’s past staring back at him.
You’re probably wondering, why would anyone want to visit this place, let alone buy it?
Underwood has his reasons – and, if they come to fruition, they could push Cerro Gordo forward after years of stagnation and neglect. Of course, it would all depend on whether the ghosts would cooperate with him…
Native Americans once roamed the stretch of land that would come to be known as Cerro Gordo in California. But their Mexican neighbors to the south had an inkling that the land might contain silver.
Their first attempt to climb the mound – “Cerro Gordo” means “fat hill” in Spanish – resulted in the Native American tribe killing three prospectors.
But the U.S. Army founded its nearby outpost, Fort Independence, in 1862, at which point the Mexicans decided to try to excavate Cerro Gordo once more. It would take three years for someone to actually find the promised precious metal, though.
Pablo Flores tapped into a vein of silver and, within two more years, other prospectors flooded in to try their luck at striking it rich.
Americans slowly took over Cerro Gordo by 1869, and they were the ones to really dig into the hill.
They transformed it from a place where someone struck silver into the state’s top producer of the precious metal, and lead, too. A smelter was erected on-site so they could extract the ores and sell those as well.
And while Cerro Gordo sat 275 miles from Los Angeles, its thriving mine had a huge impact on the West Coast metropolis. An 1872 piece in the Los Angeles News newspaper said, “To this city, Cerro Gordo trade is invaluable.
What Los Angeles now is, is mainly due to it. It is the silver cord that binds our present existence. Should it be unfortunately severed, we would inevitably collapse.”
Little did the author know that the downfall of Cerro Gordo would take place in just three years’ time. First, miners had trouble finding ore within the area’s once-lucrative landscape.
They then ran out of water. And those in charge battled over who had legal rights to the mining operation too.
The legal battle ended in 1876, but the envisioned revival of Cerro Gordo never happened. Instead, the mines failed to offer up any more silver or lead.
And then a fire ripped through the underground hallways and through the shaft. This was it: no one wanted to dig in this once-booming town anymore.
Eventually, people left Cerro Gordo in the dust, seeking new destinations with fruitful landscapes. It transformed into a ghost town – and not just in the literal sense.
People have long said that the former mining hub has at least a trio of ghosts living there to this day.
One lingering spirit supposedly belongs to the person who once ran the Cerro Gordo brothel. Another ghost is said to have died after a game of cards went awry.
And perhaps most ominously, the third ghoul has no backstory: they’re present, but they’re a total mystery to those most familiar with the abandoned mining town.
Indeed, Cerro Gordo wasn’t some idyllic old Western town that lost its luster. It was a rough place to live and work: one person got murdered every week while the mines were booming.
That’s quite a big death toll for a town that only had about 500 residents at its peak.
The miners even surrounded their cots with sandbags piled four feet into the air so that bullets that went astray wouldn’t hit them while they slept.
And some say that 30 workers got buried in one of Cerro Gordo’s mine shafts. Any one of these ill-fated people could be the unidentified spirit that still lingers onsite.
You might hear the history of Cerro Gordo and think you’d rather hightail it out of there than explore its abandoned buildings and dark past. But that wasn’t the reaction that Brett Underwood had.
When he learned about the one-time mining hot spot, he fell in love with the place.
It wasn’t unlike Underwood to be up for a bit of adventure. In 2014 he opened HK Austin, a coworking and coliving space where locals and visitors gathered in the Texas capital.
The hostel became the highest-rated accommodation on HostelWorld, the world’s biggest site for booking a bed in such lodging.
At the same time, Underwood proved himself an expert in advertising, too. He continues to serve as a partner in a firm called BrassCheck Marketing, through which he masterfully led online campaigns for authors ahead of their book launches.
With a background in hospitality and creative marketing, well, what he did next makes at least a bit of sense.
In July 2018 Underwood purchased Cerro Gordo with the intent of “breathing life back into a mining town that was originally established in 1865,” according to his LinkedIn page. As you can imagine, it’s not cheap to buy an entire town.
The one-time hostel owner had to come up with $1.4 million to seal the deal, which required “every penny from every account” he had, he told Vice in 2021.
His life savings weren’t enough to foot the bill, though. So Underwood and his business partner, Jon Bier, gathered a unique group of investors to help them raise the necessary funds. They got money from a UFC fighter as well as from Hulu and Netflix executives.
The latter makes a bit of sense, at least, considering the fact that Cerro Gordo would make a great backdrop for any future Hollywood Westerns.
But that’s not what Underwood had in mind when he coughed up $1.4 million to buy the place. Instead, he hopes to transform Cerro Gordo into a luxury destination for travelers.
To make that dream a reality, he believed he’d have to spend $1 million more to make the mine the top-of-the-line accommodation he envisioned.
In Underwood’s mind, Cerro Gordo’s visitors would get the full Wild West experience. They’d sleep in the bunkhouses and hotels where 19th-century residents rested their heads.
During the day, guests could hike the hill from which the town got its name. And afterward, they’d eat well: only gourmet meals would be on the menu at this luxury destination.
A year into the project, though, Underwood and his business partner Bier had a few harsh realities to face. As the miners before them had learned, Cerro Gordo was an unforgiving place to live and work.
It might have seemed like a lucrative opportunity at first, but it could turn into a money pit – and fast.
As of October 2019, the pair had already sunk $400,000 into their renovations. They also discovered that Cerro Gordo’s operating costs were incredibly high.
Each month, they forked over a whopping $10,000 to cover everything from payroll to WiFi to utilities to their loan payments – presumably the ones that got them the property in the first place.
And then there was the issue of water – one with which Cerro Gordo’s original residents would have been extra familiar. Twenty-two buildings still stand in the former mining hub, and only three have functional plumbing.
That water doesn’t come from the local landscape but from a water tank of 2,500 gallons, which sits in another town that’s an hour’s drive away.
In 2020 the struggles continued for Underwood. People who heard of his plans took to the internet to complain about how he had purchased Cerro Gordo.
Specifically, online commenters wrongly labeled him, the son of two teachers, as a trust-fund baby. He told the Los Angeles Times newspaper in June of that year, “That hurt a little bit.”
A pandemic was to follow, and Underwood thought he’d be wise to wait it out in the abandoned town he had just purchased. It seemed to be a great idea – that is until five feet of snow fell onto Cerro Gordo.
The marketing pro recalled, “There was no way in or out for several weeks.” And, once he was finally free, Underwood checked into the hospital “with a bad case of appendicitis.”
Now, those who believe in the supernatural might be thinking about the aforementioned ghosts who may still inhabit Cerro Gordo.
Could they have something to do with the troubles faced by Underwood, Bier, and the rest of the team attempting to change the rough mining town into something new?
Someone who thought the same was Underwood himself. In fact, he claimed to have seen something so horrifying that it gave him reason to wonder whether or not his problems were physical or paranormal!
On June 15, 2020, the Cerro Gordo owner awoke with a start at 3 a.m. In front of him, flames raced up the hill toward the town’s remaining historic buildings.
The fast-moving blaze soon reached the propane tanks that helped fuel Cerro Gordo – boom.
As they exploded, the flames grew to encompass the American Hotel, an original building that Underwood had hoped would be a centerpiece of his envisioned luxury travel destination.
Underwood couldn’t do much to stop the blaze; remember, Cerro Gordo had a paltry water supply on-site. He later said, “All I could do was call 911.
And then, with help from a caretaker, I used buckets to desperately fling water from storage tanks onto the flames.” By the time firefighters arrived, three buildings were gone forever: the hotel, a house, and an icehouse.
The whole situation felt a bit suspicious to Underwood. For one thing, the date of the fire sounded familiar. He later revealed, “The American Hotel opened on June 15, 1871, and it burned to the ground 149 years to the day later on June 15, 2020.”
It could have been a strange coincidence, but then, there was the cause of the fire – or lack thereof.
Underwood explained, “We may never know exactly what started this fire. Fire officials told me that it could have been a thousand different things in these old buildings.”
So he came up with an explanation of his own, one that brought the history of the town and the surrounding myths into consideration.
Perhaps, Underwood said, a paranormal presence had ignited the blaze. It happened just after a staffer had a supposed ghost sighting.
The Cerro Gordo owner recalled, “The caretaker here told me that he and another person saw a shadowy apparition moving in the hotel kitchen at 4:00 p.m. the previous day.”
But even with all of those setbacks, Underwood continues to toil away in pursuit of his dream – a reopened, revitalized Cerro Gordo. As of January 2021, he had moved on-site and worked his daytime marketing job remotely.
Once he finished, he could get right to work, restoring any one of the 20 remaining buildings in the ghost town.
And while the mines dried up long ago, they do offer one invaluable resource to Underwood as he works. He explained to Vice, “Back in the mines the wood is perfectly preserved from the elements.
It’s not moist; the mines are dry but not too dry, and they’re removed from the sun, the snow, and the rain. So I’ve been rebuilding all of the buildings using 150-year-old wood from the mines.”
Underwood doesn’t just look for salvageable wood when he descends into the mines, which dip deep into the earth below Cerro Gordo. He has trekked his way along much of the network, which stretches for 30 total miles.
And he has found a treasure trove of trinkets left behind by the tough guys who used to work there.
Underwood’s finds include a 103-year-old jacket, a stick of dynamite, century-old newspaper clippings, and even a hidden gun – perhaps a necessity in the rough-and-tumble Cerro Gordo of the past.
The property owner hopes to put it all into an onsite museum, another draw for history buffs to come and stay the night.
As of 2023, the town is still being renovated for future tourists. But according to Underwood, the town still gets hordes of visitors every single day, even while it's under construction.
"We had volunteers humming [while] building a new library, we had life in every corner of this town," he said in a YouTube chronicling the construction process. The construction progress has even made him rethink the former village's label of "ghost town."
"After a lot of thinking, I don't think it's best to call this a ghost town anymore," he revealed. "I think I'll just call it home." And even 3+ years into construction, Underwood still hopes that the town will eventually be home to other people, too.
He wants to add more places for guests to stay, and the ongoing upkeep will likely employ him for a lifetime.
And this was always the plan when Underwood bought his way into Cerro Gordo: he’d stick around for life. He concluded, “When people ask me what the ‘exit plan’ is [for this investment], the exit plan for me is dying.
I think a situation like this only works if you’re really willing to dedicate your life to it.” And it’s no secret that he’s up for the challenge — ghosts and all.