Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Last Chance, California—Ghost Town of the Old West

By Miralee Ferrell

While researching my first historical novel, my husband, Allen, and I journeyed to Last Chance, now just a wide spot in the road with a few tombstones, foundations, and hundred-year-old fence posts rotting in the woods. Nolan Smith, District Archaeologist for Tahoe National Forest, drove with us over three hours round trip from our B&B up to the high-mountain site of Last Chance. He was invaluable, showing us the area and providing wonderful bits of insight into the local history. 

Last Chance, CA, is now a ghost town with only one small shack and a cemetery attesting to the thriving mining town that once existed. Allen and I flew to Sacramento, drove to Auburn, then ventured on a nearly three-hour drive through the winding canyons and steep slopes leading to the spot in the forest that once sheltered Last Chance. I wouldn’t call the drive harrowing, but in some places, almost. Our car climbed canyon walls with sheer drop-offs to a depth of over 5,000 feet, then dipped back down again to cross streams before climbing again. 

This was the main route for mule trains packing supplies to the town filled with miners and prospectors hoping to strike it rich, as well as all the hangers-on who often accompanied them. Road crews widened the roads, but at the time of my book, the trail was so narrow and steep they occasionally lost heavily-laden mules and even men over the edge. Later, another route was opened into town allowing wagon travel that was safer, but the trails were still used.

The mining dwindled by the turn of the century, but the town continued on well into the 1920s, then people began to leave, and eventually, it was completely abandoned. By the 1960s the empty buildings were falling into ruin and transient people were camping out, using them for temporary homes. As the heavy winter snow and hot summers continued to ravage the remaining structures, the Forest Service made the decision to tear the buildings down rather than take a chance a passing hobo would be injured when a roof collapsed.

Nowadays, the area only comes to life when the annual Tevis Cup, a 100-mile-equestrian endurance race, and the yearly marathon, brings runners, riders and their horses, using the wide spot in the road where the buildings of Last Chance once resided as a check point.

The bustling town site is almost totally obscured, and the encroaching forest hides the remnants of cellars. Careful searching revealed a number of 100-year-old fence posts with the original square headed nails, broken pieces of ancient glass, and a handful of tombstones accessed by walking a distance from the town. We may have found the location of the blacksmith shop, based on the square configuration of posts not far from the meadow and spring, and a building looked to have been close by. 

You can still see the spring and the nearby glade, but a few years ago vandals cut down the ancient apple trees that still bore fruit.

We researched the area and the history with our wonderful guide who gave us insight into some of the people buried in the small cemetery outside of the original town site. The reference in my book, Love Finds You in Last Chance, CA, to Ethan Allen Grosh, the man who originally discovered the Comstock Lode, is documented in history. His headstone is located in Last Chance where he died. 

He and his brother, Hosea, first discovered the Comstock Lode. Hosea died from an injury, and Ethan, along with a friend, set off across the mountains to California, hoping to raise money to develop his strike. They left Henry Comstock in charge of their cabin, their land, and a locked chest containing samples and documentation of the find.  
The two men got lost in an early snow storm while crossing the Sierras and wandered for days. Ethan died sometime after being brought to Last Chance, and his friend, barely alive, lost his leg from severe frost bite but survived, later leaving the area and never returning to Nevada or the mining claim. When news of the death of both brothers got back to Henry Comstock, he promptly laid claim to the cabin and land as his own.

One of the pictures  is of the Last Chance Hotel with horses tied to a rail in front. This hotel was  frequented by men, and they had to access the second-floor sleeping quarters using an outside ladder, as there was no interior stairs. The town had a barber shop, candy store, multiple saloons, a church, a hardware and general store, butcher shop, and more, all of which catered to the miners and townsfolk, as well the outlying residents.

I also discovered an old diary entry from the 1860s that referenced a large, treeless plateau a mile or so out of town that stretched for three miles. We located that plateau while there, but over the past 130 years trees have grown up and completely taken over. That section of land could have easily housed a horse ranch, even though deep canyons and steep hillsides cover much of the balance of the surrounding vicinity.

While Alexia and Justin’s story is purely fictional, the area, history and surrounding towns woven into the story are real. Foresthill, Deadwood Canyon, Auburn, Robinson Flat, and the rugged, deep canyons all exist. A small museum in nearby Foresthill contains pictures and remnants of that era. 

The old Wells Fargo station in Michigan Bluff, one of the stops for the mule trains headed into Last Chance, has been transformed into a private home, but you can still see much of the original building as it was over 100 years ago. 

The trail from Michigan Bluff to Last Chance is well marked and can be traversed by foot, horseback or mountain bike, and historical markers exist on many of the trails. It’s an area filled with fascinating history, and stories of tragedy and triumph, as well as likeable, friendly people. I hope you’ve enjoyed this small peek into yesteryear. You can see additional pictures from my research trips posted on the my website.

Miralee Ferrell and her husband, Allen, live on 11 acres in the Columbia River Gorge in Washington State. They have two grown children and recently their son and his wife presented them with a beautiful new granddaughter. Miralee loves interacting with people, ministering at her church, (she is a certified Lay Counselor with the American Association of Christian Counselors, riding her horse with her daughter, and playing with her dogs. She speaks at various women’s functions and has taught at writers’ conferences. Miralee, an award-winning author of Western fiction, has been writing since 2005, and her first book was published in 2007. Since then, she’s had 9 books release, both in women’s contemporary fiction and historical fiction, with another 5 under contract, including a four-book series of horse novels. for middle-grade girls. The first will release next March. Her newest release, Forget Me Not, is the second in the four book Love Blossoms in Oregon series set in Baker City, Oregon, 1880s. Miralee recently started a newsletter, and you can sign up for it on her blog.

Can a Lost Love be Redeemed? Baker City, Oregon, 1881 Seven years ago, Julia McKenzie rejected the man she loved, wanting to experience more of life. Now, at the age of twenty-four, she regrets that decision. What will Seth think of her, when they encounter one another hundreds of miles from home? Will the man she cared for understand the direction her life has taken and love her in spite of her choices? Pastor Seth Russell has never completely forgotten the girl he once courted. When she shows up in his new home of Baker City, all those feelings return. But why is she sneaking around town late at night? Even more important, will she reject him and break his heart again, or can God heal the breach between them?


  1. What a great post, Miralee. I thoroughly enjoyed it! Thank you for what you do.

    mauback55 at gmail dot com

  2. Hi, Miralee! I loved this visit to Last Chance, CA! Thank you for sharing your wonderful research findings and pictures.

    texaggs2000 at gmail dot com

  3. Very interesting article!! That's what I love about writing historical fiction. It's great to learn so many things while you enjoy reading or researching for a book.

  4. Hi Miralee, loved reading about Last Chance. Congratulations on your new book. Love the cover and title. Hope you sell tons!

  5. Last Chance, CA looks like it was a wild and short-lived town. This sounds like your HF Love Finds You in Last Chance, CA, which I would love to win and read. Thanks for your interesting post and I love the pink dress! I've started reading Forget Me Not and finished and finished Blowing On Dandelions. sharon, CA wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

  6. Hello Miralee. Love the pretty lady in the pretty pink dress. :) Love to read things like this about the past. I've got Blowing on Dandelions, something which I did many, many times. Be happy if I can ever get your other books. Don't think I will be disappointed in any of them. Maxie mac262(at)me(dot)com

  7. Thanks so much for stopping by, ladies! I LOVE doing research for my books that helps bring them to life, and I love sharing that research with readers.