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Red Mountain, CA
The Owl Tavern, Red Mountain & The Kelly Silver Mine History
READ BELOW: Some of the awesome history of the Rand Mining District!
In the late 1800’s a rich vein of gold ore was discovered up the hill where the old town of Randsburg is. It was one of the richest in Southern California. As a result a booming town emerged as well as a second town called Johannesburg sprang up about a mile away. When the Yellow Aster Mine and others in the area were no longer as profitable to mine and the town began to die, Tungsten was discovered down the hill and the new little town of ‘Atolia’ popped up. Then, when Tungsten was no longer in demand (as a result of this mineral being imported for less from Asia for the war efforts), it also began to fade. And just as things were looking bleak for this area, a new mineral strike was discovered, and this time it was silver!
For a time it was the richest silver strike in the world! There were many silver mines in the area, but The Kelly Silver mine was the most famous. And so the little town of Red Mountain was formed – This is where the history of the old ‘Owl Tavern and Hotel’ come into play. In the 1920's, there wasn't Las Vegas or Palm Springs and many Hollywood elites, actors/Actresses, etc. came to Red Mountain and the The Owl because they could get away with things here that they could do in the city because of the area's remoteness. Historic Highway 395 was made because of mining!
The Owl Cafe & Hotel in Red Mountain
A well-known and well-liked individual by the name of ‘Slim Riffle’ (Calvin H. "Slim" Riffle Sept. 16. 1890 - Dec. 19. 1978. His tomb can be found in the Rand Desert Cemetery in Johannesburg up the road) built the ‘Owl Cafe and Hotel’ in 1921. Next to the hotel he built smaller houses of ill-repute called ‘cribs’ to service “customers” (These “customers” were also using the main hotel as well). They had a relatively sophisticated way of electronically notifying the people in the Owl "Cafe". When they wanted room service, they hit a certain button for what they wanted. It would light up at a panel inside the Owl Cafe. For many years the Owl ‘Café’ was an illegal booze making and gambling joint Up the road the old Silver Dollar Saloon still stands, originally built in 1919 (right after the Kelly Silver Mine was discovered.)
Calvin Harrison Riffle originally came to the area when he stepped off a train in Johannesburg, CA in 1912 with a penchant and building for business. The life of this tall, lean (He was a 6'6" tall!) man from Ohio, known as "Slim" is woven into the history of Red Mountain.
Slim worked the tungsten fields in Atolia until the easily mined, surface ore was exhausted about 1913, then left for McKay School of Mines in Reno, Nevada. By the time he returned in 1915 with the latest knowledge, The Great War was creating renewed demand for tungsten as an additive to harden steel. Tungsten Mining again boomed, this time aided by a processing mill which Slim constructed for the Atolia Mining Company.
After the war Slim turned to other enterprises, building the Owl Pool Hall #1 in Atolia, CA (Atolia, is a gold and tungsten Mining District that slim worked as a miner for a period of time) around 1921 but a fire destroyed it a few years later. Around the same time he built the Owl "Pool Hall" in Atolia, he built one in Red Mountain (which was a front for illegal booze making and gambling). He also built the Owl "Hotel" next door (which was a big brothel) which lasted for many years after.
Gambling and alcohol was illegal at the time so there would be periodic raids by the police but Slim always knew in advance when they were coming and sent the ladies and the customers down into a secret network of mines and tunnels which stretched out for miles under the town, making it extremely difficult to apprehend anyone! There is record of him (and one of his right hand men J.F. Carter) paying a $200 fine each for getting caught selling illegal booze to minors. He was considered by many to be the king of the bootleggers in the area! However, The Owl was one of the few places that never closed during Prohibition because he did "favors" for the local authorities. Many people in California heard of Slim Riffle during this period of time. When Prohibition was repealed, Slim made a legitimate saloon, and although liquor is no longer served here, the original bar is still here!
Slim also owned the corner house (the green house next to The Owl Tavern - just south of it) which is where he resided. There are many interesting stories regarding Slim and The Owl but what many people don’t know is that before Palm Springs became the place to go in the 1930’s and Las Vegas in the 40’s – Red Mountain was the talk of Southern California in the 20’s. Many people came here to gamble, drink, carouse, etc. Illegal activity was much more difficult to curtail because of the ‘out-of-the-way’ location. Wealthy and famous individuals also came here to dine or visit the café, like members of the Little Rascals, Rita Hayworth, etc. The Owl was later sold to a man named Cunningham - a famous movie producer who was good friends with Orson Welles and Howard Hughes (both of whom may have also dined at the Owl).
The Kelly Silver
At one point there was a fire and the place burned down in 1929. It was soon after rebuilt with two halves of a building (Slim bought from a federal judge in Los Angeles with local mining interests) that was moved from the tungsten and gold mining town of Atolia to Red Mountain and put together as one in 1929 for him and became the new Owl Cafe. It also quickly became the destination and gathering place for minors and other laborers from as far away as Nevada. The "Wild West" accurately described the Red Mountain atmosphere to which the Owl was a central attraction. Even during the Great Depression people came here to spend money and forget their troubles. During World War II in the 40’s, it was a favorite hangout for the local military personal. Alcohol, gambling and prostitution were the staple through prohibition and up to 1955. Slim's other holdings in Red Mountain included several houses , a barber shop, a gas station, and a garage which served as a Plymouth/Dodge dealership in the late 40's - all under the name of Owl. Now tamed, this surviving structure still echoes its rambunctious past.
The Owl Cafe had a barber shop, café and restaurant. A few different people have owned it over the years, like the famous Hollywood movie sound genius Lodge Cunningham and his wife Alida who purchased it in 1956 had a successful restaurant until 1966 then they settled down and some years later, they sold it and moved to Johannesburg up the road. Bill Reid owned it in the early 70’s, Lyle Gregory in the late 70's, Lynn and Genie Walker in the 80’s, and the Kelly’s around 2008. And the Stanton's in 2013. The new owners are determined to preserve the fascinating mining history here!
The original name of the town was officially called ‘Osdick’ after a miner named Pete Osdick, but other names like; Hampton, Inn City, and Sin City added to the confusion. But around 1929 the Postal Service once again changed the name (because of the confusion), to ‘Red Mountain’. (The old Kelly Silver mine is located directly behind The Owl - It's silver production was higher than Calico and the horn silver was so rich it didn't even need processing!) - - SEE PHOTOS OF SLIM RIFFLE AND FAMILY BELOW
Red Mountain and the Kelly Silver Mine
In 1918, Silver in large amounts found in what is now Red Mountain. A boom was on, and for a time the Kelly Silver mine (the head frames and large tailing piles are still visible behind the old Owl Cafe) was the biggest producer in the United States (some say ‘in the world’.) Mining once again creates another boom of people. The early workings were so high grade that no mill was needed for the first year.
Red Mountain, CA is located within the Rand Mining District in San Bernardino County. The town site is located directly along Route 395, roughly 26 miles from Kramer Junction. The mining ruins around Red Mountain are found in the mountains behind the town, and can be accessed via Osdick Road and Red Mountain Road.
As mentioned, before becoming Red Mountain, the town was known as Osdick (I will refer to the town as Osdick up until the name was changed). Osdick came to be in the summer of 1919, this was during the near-by town of Randsburg’s third big mining boom. Pete Osdick was one of the original miners in the area and he felt the town should be named after himself since he had lived in this area longer than anyone else. W.H. Williams, another miner in the area (discovered California Rand Silver Mine) contested that the town should be named Hampton, which was his middle name. Both parties would end up laying out a townsite, and both applied for a Post Office. Pete Osdick won the Post Office in February of 1922, and the area officially became known as Osdick.
The California Rand Silver Mine (also known as The Kelly Mine) would produce over $7 million in its first four years of production, it would be one of the richest mines in California. For many years it was also the largest producing silver mine in the United States. It was said by Charles Moroney (General Manager) regarding the mine, ”Drifts 104 feet, raises thirty-two, and cross cuts 111. Values across and along the vein for a distance of twenty feet or more will average about $2.40 in gold and 60 ounces of silver”. It would continue production until 1929 when the price of silver dropped significantly. It is estimated that the mine’s total production was over $12 million dollars. Other mines in the area included the Big Four, Silver Kings and Silver Glance. By 1929 Osdick had acquired many names, “Sin City”, “Inn City”, “Never In”, etc.. Finally the postal service decided to put an end to the naming dispute and dubbed the town Red Mountain, which it has remained ever since.
Despite having one of the most impressive silver mines in the country, some might say that Red Mountain was even more well-known for its “sins”. During prohibition you could get a drink at any business in town with the exception of the Post Office.
As well as the drinking Red Mountain became well known for its prostitution. It was said that the prostitutes that worked the many brothels were high-class and beautiful, kept themselves clean and made for good company. The Annex, Little Eva’s, The Monkey House, The Northern, The Owl, The Pacific, The Palace, The Red Onion and the Silver Dollar are just a few of the more well know houses of ill repute.
Gambling was another of the many past times celebrated at Red Mountain. Just about anywhere you could get a drink you could find a game as well. Overall the advertising slogan “Where every night is Saturday night and Saturday night is the 4th of July”, was pretty accurate. Today Red Mountain is a skeleton of its former self, the 2010 census lists Red Mountain with a population of 125 persons. All of the mines, bars, hotels, casinos, and of course brothels have all long ago closed their doors (A few of the old “cribs” can be seen on the property next to the Owl Tavern where the Owl Hotel is – They’re the smaller shacks). Most of the buildings and homes at the town site are original structures and make for an interesting walk through including the Silver Dollar Bar, church, school-house, market and many more. The California Rand Silver Mine sits above the town, fenced in to preserve its history. There are also many additional mining sites that are free to explore in the surrounding mountains, and if you do decide to explore please be aware that there are many dangerous unmarked shafts through the area.
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Red Mountain is a fascinating place to explore. Sadly everything from about 1933 to current that has happened or hasn’t happened here is extremely difficult to track down. Next time you’re driving 395, and find yourself driving through Red Mountain, slow down and imagine the once bustling streets.
Movies, TV Commercials and photographers still film in Randsburg and the surrounding areas today. A good website to visit for more detailed information is; RandDesertMuseum.com. For gold prospecting information, go to: crazyforgold007.com
THE OWL, MR. SECURITY & GOLDMINERS OUTPOST
701 Highway 395, Red Mountain, CA
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Slim Riffle and family members in front of THE OWL CAFÉ in 1940
Photos Courtesy of Deric English/MINING RELIC COLLECTOR 1-760-762-6208,
For a period, Slim Riffle turned over THE OWL to his nephew (Robert Molihan) who was the son of Betsy (Slim's sister). Later, Slim took it back over again. The same steps they're on are still here - Notice that Hwy 395 was still a dirt road. Photo: C. 1934
Red Mountain, CA - The Kelly Silver Mine
Desert Gold Mining near Barstow, CA 1919
* The old Owl Cafe now has a Gold Prospecting supply section, a Spy & Security section, gifts, Snacks, Cold Sodas, a Historical Section and more! (The coffee will be free!) Come on by and visit a historical 100 year old establishment!
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