In 2018, Brent Underwood bought the ghost town of Cerro Gordo for $1.4 million.
Cerro Gordo was founded in 1865 and was once the largest mining town in California, but it was left abandoned for almost 100 years after the silver mines dried up. According to Underwood, the town has a long and bloody history. At one point, there was an average of a murder a week, and miners used to line their bunks with sandbags to stop stray bullets in the night.
“There’s a story that 30 miners got trapped in one of the mines underneath the building I live in,” Underwood previously told Insider. “As grim as it is, they’re still down there.”
Underwood had planned to open the town for overnight visits and tours, but the opening was delayed due to the coronavirus.
In April, Underwood became trapped with dwindling supplies in the town for weeks — but that was just the beginning of his bad luck.
Underwood decided to social distance at the mining town so the primary caretaker, Robert Louis Desmarais, could be with his wife during the pandemic.
But after Underwood got there, a bad snowstorm covered the road heading from Cerro Gordo with several feet of snow. The nearest town was miles away. Underwood kept himself busy by working on renovations on some of the buildings, taking astrophotography of the night skies, and possibly being stalked by a bobcat.
While in the town, Underwood said he suffered an appendicitis, but the snow had cleared enough for him to seek medical attention two and half hours away.
With the snow melted, Underwood thought his fortune was finally changing …
Underwood was in good spirits when he returned to Cerro Gordo. It was bright, dry, and sunny rather than cold and snowy. The caretaker, Robert, had also returned to the town to visit, and Underwood invited one of his friends up to help him paint one of the buildings.
… but on June 15, a fire broke out and burned down three buildings in the town, including its historic hotel.
Underwood went to sleep in the nearby Belshaw House. He said he woke at 2:45 a.m. to what he thought was fireworks.
“I thought some kids had came up to pull a prank or something and had shot some fireworks in the middle of town,” Underwood said. “I went out and all I saw was 60 foot of flames, the hotel, the cabin next to it, and the ice house were all on fire.”
What Underwood thought had been fireworks had actually been the propane tanks in the hotel’s kitchen exploding from the heat of the fire. Underwood feared for the safety of the caretaker, whose cabin he couldn’t see through the flames.
Underwood found Robert moving his truck. The heat had been so intense it had melted the truck’s tail lights off. Underwood retrieved water they had stored for goats and began dousing the hill, trying to slow the spread of the fire. The Lone Pine Fire Department responded to the blaze, assisted by the Olancha Cartago Fire Department, according to their Facebook post.
Given the remoteness of the town, it took the fire department an hour and 15 minutes to get there, Underwood said.
“By then the hotel is pretty much to the ground as well as the cabin next to it and the ice house,” he said.
The hotel was Underwood’s favorite building and at the center of the town.
“The hotel was the heart of the town literally and metaphorically. It was right in the center of town. If you ever saw a picture of Cerro Gordo, the hotel is probably in the photo. It’s the first building you saw when you came to town,” Underwood said.
“It had the most history. It was the oldest building, and it was my favorite building by far on a personal level. I always got so excited about it. Whenever friends or family came to town, I would take them there first. That’s where we would entertain. That’s where we would have people sit around and swap stories.”
Despite the loss, Underwood said he had to remind himself that there were still 20 historic buildings standing in the town.
In strange twist of fate, the hotel burned down on the anniversary of the day it opened.
“The hotel opened June 15, 1871 and burned June 15, 2020,” Underwood said. “To the day that it opened, it burned down.”
Underwood finds the coincidence to be eerie. Earlier in the day, the caretaker, Robert, had given someone a tour of the hotel, and both thought they had seen something in the kitchen. The town had previously been featured on the paranormal show “Ghost Adventures.” Later in the day, a sensor that signals if someone is approaching the town went off twice, but no vehicle ever showed up.
Underwood guesses that it might have been a rabbit.
“Now I don’t want to make it seem like ghosts burned down our town,” Underwood said. “I wouldn’t have thought twice about it if what happened hadn’t of happened, but when something like this happens, I think your mind tries to jump to anything to rationalize it.”
Underwood believes if the fire had happened during the day, they would have been better prepared.
The fire was possibly caused by the town’s old electrical wiring but is under investigation.
“The electrical is over 100 years old, and over the years, they had just been tying into that,” Underwood said.
The miners had packed the walls with newspaper for insulation.
“They think a wire heated up, and 100-year-old newspaper doesn’t take much to ignite. If one little piece sparks, the whole place is going down pretty much,” he said.
According to the LA Times, the Lone Pine Fire Department said the cause of the fire remains under investigation.
Over the past 100 years, 90% of the town has been destroyed due to fire.
Originally the town had 500 buildings, but now only 20 remain, Underwood said.
“It’s dry up here and it’s hot, we’re in the desert,” Underwood said. “I think the mentality for miners was get in, get money, and get out. I don’t think when they build the hotel, they were thinking of the longevity of it. They were thinking this thing will stand for a decade, we’ll make our money and get out of here. It’s an unfortunate reality of these types of western ghost towns that fire happens in a lot of them. Fire has burned down Bodie, the other famous ghost town twice. It’s burned in Tombstone a bunch of times.”
The local communities have rallied behind Underwood to help him during this difficult time.
Dozens from the surrounding communities have volunteered to help Underwood and Cerro Gordo. The town’s previous owner also showed up to support Underwood in his time of need. People came from as far away as San Francisco and San Diego, with a master carpenter wanting to come from Canada to help rebuild.
“To see a bunch of people from a bunch of different backgrounds rally behind it and come up and literally drop what they’re doing to come help us out in a time of need, it’s been really heartwarming,” Underwood said.
Underwood plans to rebuild the hotel using its original plans.
Underwood plans to have an archaeological dig to search for artifacts where the hotel once stood. The ground hadn’t been disturbed in over 100 years. They found the original blueprints in the hotel, shortly before it burned down.
“The plan is to rebuild it as close as it used to look as possible, but obviously with modern safety and code things that would make it where another building never burns down at Cerro Gordo,” he said.
Underwood wants to incorporate some of the charred flooring from the hotel into the new building as a nod to its history.
“My goal is for 300 years from now Cerro Gordo to still exist,” Underwood said.
He plans to install fire prevention systems in all the buildings, and he said he has even looked into purchasing a firetruck for the town.
“My personal goal now is to make sure no buildings ever burn down at Cerro Gordo again,” Underwood said. “My goal is for 300 years from now Cerro Gordo to still exist. The hotel will be 300 years old. Yes, the other buildings will be 400 years old but they’re still all going to be really old buildings. I got to make sure that Cerro Gordo’s history lives on and it’s a place people continue to learn from. This is just a chapter within it.”