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Darwin Dreamin’

Darwin, Inyo County California
Artist Monty Brannigan is a resident of Darwin, California
Artist Monty Brannigan poses with three of his celebrity portraits (Charlton Heston, Robert Redford, Tom Selleck). | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

The Mojave Project is an experimental transmedia documentary by Kim Stringfellow exploring the physical, geological and cultural landscape of the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Project reconsiders and establishes multiple ways in which to interpret this unique and complex landscape, through association and connection of seemingly unrelated sites, themes, and subjects thus creating a speculative and immersive experience for its audience.

Darwin lies tucked away in a depression between the Argus and Coso Ranges in a desolate high desert scrubland still populated with freely wandering wild burros. The southern boundary is a stone’s throw from the China Lake Naval Air Weapon Station and its only paved access is via California State Route 190 -- the main thoroughfare for tourists traveling from the Eastern Sierra into Death Valley proper. The road to Darwin is easy to miss unless you happen to stop to read the E Clampus Vitus interpretive monument at the pullout near the crest of the pass.

The southwestward six-mile drive into Darwin leads past a smattering of dilapidated but picturesque mining structures spread across the eastern slope. This is the old Anaconda Mine, of which the tailings feature the characteristic pastel hues of other extraction remains common to this region. Directly west of the mine is a large, playful arrangement of rocks forming the much-parodied Christian ichthys symbol complete with legs, sans the name Darwin within its body. The stone marker signals to the newcomer they are definitely entering a place off the beaten path.

Ichthys stone work in Darwin, California
This modified Christian ichthys stone marker greets visitors upon arriving in Darwin, CA.  | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Just beyond the mine is a ramshackle collection of old buildings, misfit shacks, wind-ravaged double-wides, abandoned cars, homes featuring clever travel trailer additions, various junk piles of rusted tin cans, obsolete mining machinery and, curious enough, modern art.

At the end of the road is “downtown” Darwin. A first-time visitor surveying their surroundings is immediately drawn to the luminously white minimalist cast marble sculpture of a couple sensuously embracing. Placed in front of its creator’s local retreat, this striking artwork was created by the renowned California sculptor Jim Hunolt. Directly across the street is Hunolt’s vertically mounted pairing of two very impressive raw dolomite monoliths.

Sculpture by Jim Hunolt
Jim Hunolt's cast marble sculpture of a couple embracing stands in Darwin, CA. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
Sculpture by Jim Hunolt
 Jim Hunolt's paired dolomite monoliths stand in Darwin, CA. |  Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Other architectural details, such as the adjacent geodesic dome with the door placard identifying the structure as the “Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics Systemwide Offices” suggest that Darwin is not your typical living desert ghost town. 

Darwin began its life as a mining camp during the 1870s. It is known that the Paiute and Shoshone people have traveled through and occupied this area long before the camp came into existence. The settlement had been named after Dr. Erasmus Darwin French who was led into the spot in 1850 by a Native American guide while searching for the legendary Lost Gunsight lode -- which French and his expedition party failed to locate even after a second exploratory trip was conducted ten years later.

Prospecting had occurred in the Darwin area for many years prior to autumn of 1874 when a rich silver-lead ore called galena had been discovered leading to Darwin’s founding shortly thereafter. The town’s most productive mines -- The Defiance (named after questionable legal maneuvers landed an original Mexican American mining claim into the hands of its white investors)1 and associated mines are said to have produced up to $1,500,000 in revenue by the late 1870s when nearly 60 mines were operational with five smelters processing ores around the clock.

Although the Defiance closed its doors during the late 1880s the mine itself changed ownership several times over the last 100 years, first as Darwin Silver, Darwin Lead, Consolidated, American Metals, Signal Oil and, in 1945, as the Anaconda mine.

Darwin, California in 1906
The Darwin Store run by Reynolds and Etcharren Partners, 1906.  |  Photo: Courtesy of the Eastern California Museum.

This extraction of mineral wealth resulted in explosive boom development early on -- first as a canvas tent city and then by the end of 1875 with permanent structures: a hotel, three restaurants, seven saloons, two butcher shops, and a livery stable plus several stores.2 Notably, Darwin has never had a church. At its highest count the town’s population was believed to be at least 3,500 and likely higher, if one takes into account that census recorders often overlooked transient miners and many nonwhites living within the surrounding area.

Not surprisingly Darwin’s rampant growth brought with it more than an occasional act of violence, earning the town a reputation as being rough and tumble. The Panamint News reported in March 1875 that robberies were occurring every few days on nearby roads leading to and from the encampment. Darwin also had its share of shootings, gun and knife fights, and outright murders -- at least 30 known and confirmed total incidents during the town’s boom period between 1875-1879. Petty crimes including public drunkenness were the norm. Armed bandits robbed the Wells Fargo express numerous times between 1876 and 1880. During one of these stagecoach robberies, passenger Jack Lloyd was shot and killed, perhaps by accident, in 1877.

The most famous Darwin murder was of Nancy Williams, 45, on September 13, 1877. Williams was a well-liked “retired” madam running a boarding house at the time of her death. Also known as “Feather Legs,” Williams was found bludgeoned to death by unknown assailants who were never brought to justice, although a substantial reward had been posted on her behalf. As a testament to her popularity, a prominently placed obelisk commemorating her stands in the center of the Darwin cemetery. The Coso Mining News attributed the positioning of the pillar to Williams being “one of the kindest, most liberal of women.”

Grave at the Darwin cemetery
Nancy “Feather Legs” Williams’ grave at the Darwin cemetery. Williams, a well-liked retired madam, was murdered in 1877. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Oliver Roberts De La Fontaine -- Darwin resident during its heyday and author of “The Great Understander: True Life Story of the Last of the Wells Fargo Shotgun Express Messengers,” once charged and acquitted of an unrelated murder in 1877 stated, “At one time there were more bad men and desperados in that town [Darwin] than in any of its size in the world.”3 Indeed, compare Deadwood, South Dakota during 1876 -- considered the town’s most violent year -- which had only four killings including that of “Wild Bill” Hickok.4

By 1878, mining profits and productivity had declined significantly causing labor strife and associated violence such as the shooting deaths of two striking miners that same year. New strikes in Bodie and Mammoth up north sent businesses and miners further away. The first of three devastating fires to hit Darwin occurred in 1879, destroying most of the original main business district. By summer 1880, only 85 people remained in Darwin.

Mining activity and prospecting in Darwin continued sporadically during the 20th century, on occasion at a larger scale. Over the years more than $29,000,000 in mineral wealth has been extracted from the Darwin area.5 During the 1940s, Darwin was considered to be California’s largest lead supplier, producing two-thirds of the state’s supply.6 Darwin area mines have also produced zinc, copper, talc and tungsten.

Children playing jump rope outside the Darwin School, 1900
Children play jump rope outside the Darwin School, 1900. |  Photo: Courtesy of the Eastern California Museum.

Darwin’s fast pace growth during the 1870s could only be sustained if water was added to the mix for both household and industrial mining purposes. Back then and even today, Darwin’s sole water source emanates from a pristine spring located about eight miles southwest of town within Naval Air Weapon Station China Lake protected borders.

Victor Beaudry was the entrepreneur who originally secured the water rights here, and laid pipes transporting water into town in 1875. Beaudry had previously set up the for-profit water distribution system at a nearby silver mine in Cerro Gordo. It is rather interesting to note that it was Victor, along with his brother Prudent, who acquired rights to the City of Los Angeles water system around the time that Prudent was mayor from 1874-1876. By the late 1880s, the water conveyance system was in the hands of “water mogul” Frank Carthery, who provided kept water barrels filled for $3 a month.

In 1962, a localized “water war” broke out when a group of Darwinites attempted to build a dam to provide water for a proposed swimming pool near the old Anaconda mine. The contested move created opposing alliances that were finally settled after gunshots had been fired, ensuring that no pool was to be constructed in Darwin.

Another contentious water disagreement occurred during the late 1970s when lines were drawn again for and against a proposed community effort to modernize and sanitize the water delivery system. One group believed doing water flows would improve chances for the development of some untouched privately owned parcels. The other group opposed the idea due in part to the cost, but mostly because they were outwardly anti-growth. The first group eventually won the new infrastructure but with a hefty price tag and no additional water for further development.

Today the spring’s water is limited for distribution to no more than 35 full-time residents. The local water board must obtain permission to enter China Lake boundaries to manage the pipeline and clear the spring itself from excess willows and tules. The quality of the water is considered to be excellent and is actively protected from further exploitation.

A second unintended boom (this time for land and not silver) erupted during the summer of 1967 when an unknown person posted a flyer on a public bulletin board in Lone Pine stating that “free” lots were available in Darwin. Not long after the notice was posted people began inquiring at the Inyo County seat in Independence about acquiring the properties that measured 100-by-45-feet each. It was determined that Darwin had been “platted” for ownership many years earlier for a filing fee of $5 per lot to allow prospectors a piece of land where they could build a modest shack to habituate.

After looking into the matter, Inyo County Superior Judge John P. McMurray deemed that the purchase fee was indeed valid although he limited lot purchases to three per buyer. When the plots finally became available, scores of people mobbed the Inyo County Clerk’s office and filed on the remaining 254 lots. Speculators purchased the majority of the properties and today many lots remain empty.

Hal Newell in his Darwin home
Hal Newell in his Darwin, CA home showing a photo of one of his father's sculptures in Big Sur. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Around this time, Hal Newell and his wife Shelly made their way out to Death Valley from their home base in Big Sur. Hal had been encouraged to do so by his father Gordon Newell, the celebrated Monterey Peninsula sculptor noted for his striking midcentury stone forms. He is responsible for the twin granite Haupt Fountains that consciously frame the White House from the Ellipse Circle off Constitution Avenue in Washington D.C.7 Gordon had explored the more remote areas of Death Valley numerous times in the past, once with the famed photographer Brett Weston when they first explored Saline Valley Warm Springs and environs while heading down on a road trip to Baja California in the early 1960s.

Hal and Shelly ended up moving out to the old Ballarat ghost town in Panamint Valley on January 1, 1970, staying there for a couple of years while Hal did a variety of heavy labor jobs including stints at a few local mines. Hal’s father came out to visit the couple and during one of their exploratory excursions the group discovered Darwin, feeling equally enamored with the town. By the mid-1970s, Hal and Shelly decided to move permanently to Darwin where they began building their partially buried passive solar home from local field stone, salvaged wood beams, concrete, when they could afford it, plus any scavenged materials they could get their hands on. Far more sophisticated than the local “troglodyte” dwellings, this unique home reflects the miner’s original primitive earthen dugouts found in the washes west of town.

Memorial to Gordon Newell
Hal Newell's memorial to his father, Gordon Newell. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

A few years later Gordon, too, moved his studio to Darwin because, as Hal commented, “He couldn’t get any work done at his Monterey Sculpture Center on Cannery Row because it became so popular with the tourists.” (The Cannery Row studio building was eventually destroyed in order to make way for another ubiquitous waterfront restaurant.) Gordon and his wife lived and worked primarily in Darwin, but continued to visit their home on the Central Coast until his death in 1998 at age 93. Hal later conceived and constructed a monumental 40-foot diameter, covered public memorial for his father, utilizing 12 massive dolomite slabs varying in height from six to eight feet, similar to the ones that Hunolt used for his sculpture pairing on Main Street. Each slab was purchased for $35 dollars apiece from a local quarry.

Monty Brannigan, born and raised in Los Angeles, is a 62-year resident of Darwin who first arrived in late 1953 via Gabbs, Nevada, where he had been employed at Basic Magnesium, Inc. Brannigan, now 88, lives with his wife Nancy in their home with two giant golden Buddhas stationed at the entry, that serve as a silent reminder of Darwin’s large but overlooked Chinese population, which according to the 1880 census made up a quarter of the town’s residents. Their house is constructed from a customized manufactured home (Nancy proudly showed me an old butcher knife used to cut the holes in the interior) with several additions that store Nancy’s very extensive collection of eclectic brass knick-knacks and other fascinating objects.

Also featured are Monty’s celebrity portraits of Western film personalities, American Indian chiefs, Elvis, and various country singer/songwriters. Scattered around them are his sculptural figures, like a marble egg that he seems technically most proud of because it resulted from a dare of sorts. Hunolt, who taught Monty stone sculpting techniques, commented that this shape was the most difficult one to coax out of stone so Monty stood up to the challenge. From the looks of it, he seems to have succeeded in doing just that.

Portrait of Nancy Brannigan
Nancy Brannigan with her extensive collection of brass knick-knacks.  | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
Art by Monty Brannigan
Various paintings and sculptures by Monty Brannigan. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Brannigan began painting in 1957 shortly after his sister passed away. During my visit, he reflected on how she had won several scholarships to art school and was destined for a successful career in commercial art when she died. Heartbroken and unemployed with too much time on his hands, Monty decided to pick up where she left off and taught himself to paint using house paints dulled with flour because he “didn’t know any better and had no money to buy them anyhow.”

While honing his artistic skills Brannigan continued labor at a variety of jobs throughout the area to support his family. He spent four years at the local Anaconda mine before he was hired by Inyo County where he worked as a park ranger for 18 years. He then retired with a pension.

The Brannigan home in Darwin, California
The entrance to the Brannigan's Darwin, CA home. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Besides his artwork, Monty has a passion for vintage automobiles and has customized several over the years, in particular Darwin’s paddy wagon and its only fire truck. When asked about the Buddhas, Monty candidly responded, “If I was going to be anything, I would be a Buddhist -- I’m not a religious man. Religion don’t turn the right way for me. I got nothing against any other man’s religion or his way of life, but if he don’t like me being a Buddhist, that is tough.”

Over the years a number of artists have gravitated to Darwin, such as Kathy Goss, 74, a writer/musician and owner of the “Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics Systemwide Offices” geodesic dome (actually a unique design by a protégé of Buckminster Fuller), who moved here from San Francisco over two decades ago. Goss and other locals were responsible for creating the Darwin “ichthys” stone marker playfully documented in this video

Painter John Hamilton, 85, made his way to Darwin from Northern California around the year 2000 to work as a caretaker at the old Anaconda mine and is now permanently settled here. The subjects of his paintings span contemplative vivid landscapes that represent the surrounding desert, mountains and ocean, and graphic geometric abstracts. Another full-time resident artist is a gentleman who carves Native American-inspired petroglyphs onto locally sourced stones and sells them in Lone Pine and Furnace Creek.

Artist John Hamilton  is a resident of Darwin, California
Painter John Hamilton in his home/studio. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
Artist John Hamilton  is a resident of Darwin, California
Paintings by John Hamilton in his home/studio. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Other Bay Area expats include British semi-retired advertising executive turned visual artist Judyth Greenburgh, 51, and her French husband Pierre Valeille, 62, a retired San Francisco Bay ferry captain. The couple moved out from their houseboat in Sausalito to build a partially buried home in Darwin out of shipping containers. By doing so, and in similar fashion to Hal Newells’ buried home, the interior temperature remains a comfortably stable mid-70 degrees regardless of exterior temperature. The structure is a colorful, funky assemblage with several travel trailer guest quarters among a communal outdoor cookout area. Greenburgh’s art studio is set high above the buried containers. Like the others, they live an affordable, unstructured lifestyle against a remotely beautiful desert backdrop. 

Time will tell if a new generation of miners, artists, or some other group will continue to occupy and breathe life into this unconventional desert community outpost.

Artist Judyth Greenburgh
Artist Judyth Greenburgh stands in front of one of her sculptures.  |  Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
Art by Judyth Greenburgh
“Can Dust” collected from Darwin, CA. The label reads: “Sprinkle to activate: The possibilities are endless.” | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
A corner of the Brannigan home in Darwin, California
A corner of the Brannigan home with a sculpture of Monty's in the foreground. The framed text reads: "The knights pledge of the round table. May we all have long days and horny knights. So as life will tickle the shit out of all of us forever." | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
A corner of the Brannigan home in Darwin, California
The guest bedroom of the Brannigan home. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
The Brannigan's customized vintage automobiles
Two of the Brannigan's customized vintage automobiles. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
Darwin's Black Metal Saloon, 1905
Darwin's Black Metal Saloon, 1905. Another saloon was curiously named the "Hypolite Galerkin." |  Photo: Courtesy of the Eastern California Museum.
Darwin, California in 1931
A view of Darwin, CA in 1931. | Photo: Courtesy of the Eastern California Museum.

Visitors are welcome in Darwin, but please respect the privacy and property of the residents. There is no gas, food or lodging. The old Anaconda mine owned by Project Darwin is currently inactive and off-limits. The author graciously thanks the residents of Darwin for sharing their stories and Jon Klusmire of the Eastern California Museum in Independence, CA for providing the early photographs of Darwin from their collection.


1 For further reading see: Palazzo, Robert P. “Darwin, California.” Western Places. 1996.

2 Palazzo. 15. Note that three devastating fires swept through Darwin in 1879, 1917 and 1918. One of the few original 1870s buildings said to survive is the old schoolhouse located directly across from the old post office.

3 Palazzo. 36.

4 Palazzo. 36.

5 Unrau, Harlan D. “Death Valley: A history of the lands added to the Death Valley National Monument” by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994 (Special Study History). U.S. Dept. of the Interior. National Park Service. September 1997. 63.

6 Palazzo. 45.

7 The Haupt Fountains are identical sculptural pools constructed from two 18-square-foot by 1-foot-deep blocks of 3.5-million-year-old granite sourced from Minnesota. The fountains were created as a collaboration between Gordon Newell and his then apprentice James Hunolt. The fountains were placed at their current location in 1967 as a gift from Enid Haupt.

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