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The Historic jail housed killers, claim-jumpers, bootleggers, lynchers, thieves, and drunks. / Laura Austin Photos

Randsburg City Jail, tales of a local historic landmark

By LAURA QUEZADA News Review Staff Writer–

Randsburg is situated in the mountains off Highway 395. Take the drive and go up a piece on the little mountain road and you will enter the Old West Mining Town of Randsburg. There you can step back in time through a Living Ghost Town. You will find original buildings, interesting shops, great food, great stories, a museum filled to the brim, and a saloon.

As you drive into town one of the first landmarks you encounter past the Rand Mining District sign is the City Jail. The door is wide open so you can check out the small structure. 

A cell inside the City Jail / Laura Austin Photo

Inside you find two jail cells that have a bed, a bucket, a toilet, a sink, a table, and a life-sized figure. The one on the right is a miner sleeping it off and on the left is a Dancehall gal standing next to a poem telling one of her stories.

Outside the cells, there are 8”x10” documents mounted on the walls. They tell about 1897 lynchers foiled in their attempts to seek justice for the murder of Emily Dickinson by her former husband. An article from 1922 about bootleggers.  Another from 1903 was about an arsonist from Bakersfield who was apprehended and held in the Randsburg Jail.

Inside the City Jail are two cells. / Laura Austin Photo

The story about the arsonist is memorable to Brad Myers, co-owner of Randsburg General Store up at the Vault. “There was at one time a real Freddy Krueger,” says Myers. “He lived in Bakersfield and he tried killing his family by burning the house down because his wife was divorcing him. He had gotten away from Bakersfield and made his way up to Randsburg. They caught him in Randsburg and put him in jail. So the real Freddy Krueger that attempted this murder was captured by the constable here in Randsburg.

“My favorite story about the jail was the last time it was used,” continues Myers, speaking from his store. “That was around 1969. There were two women that were up the street here at a bar and they decided to have a gunfight. So they both got out in the street. They were both so snockered that nobody hit anything. The constable took them down to the jail and put them in there and had them sleep off the liquor. The next morning just told him to go home.”   

Elliot (not his real name), a friend of Myers and his wife Carol Dyer, dropped by for a cup of coffee and to share his Randsburg insights. He says of the jail, “The only story I ever heard was from Olga.” Olga Guyette owned the popular watering hole, The Joint, from 1955 until her passing in 2012. Olga’s story was about Pancho Barnes, an aviator who owned Pancho Barnes’ Happy Bottom Riding Club dude ranch, located near Edwards Air Force Base and less than 30 miles from Randsburg.

Barnes’ ranch was a popular destination for Chuck Yeager and the pilots who were breaking the sound barrier who also frequented The Joint. The three friends, Myers, Dyer, and Elliott were trying to get the story straight. Myers thought all of the pilots went on to be astronauts, but Elliot said, “Yaeger and the pilots never wanted to be spam in a can. They weren’t going to get into a can and just shoot them up in space in a rocket. That wasn’t going to happen. They wanted to go fast. They wanted to be where they could look and see Randsburg.

“When Yeager broke the sound barrier he had a cracked rib because he fell off his horse” at Happy Bottom Riding Club. “He swore the technicians to secrecy. They knew something was wrong. They had to give him a broom handle to help him close the door tight so that when they dropped him it wouldn’t fly off when he went fast. But all those guys were down here with Poncho.”

For a long time, folks thought that The Joint was in Houston because those who did become shuttle astronauts were heard to say from outer space, “We’ll see you at The Joint.”

This is a long way around to telling you that one night Pancho Barnes spent the night in the Randsburg Jail “to sleep it off.”

There is a bit of uncertainty but some pretty good speculation about when the City Jail was built. Myers says, “Rand Camp started in 1895. When they got the Post Office in 1896 it became Randsburg.” It was a regular mining camp with housing being primarily tents. Today, “properties are based on those original tents. So for your house, you may have five parcels underneath your house because they were all laid out in tents. We know that there were over 4000 miners at the turn of the century in 1900. So I would assume that jail had to be active at that time because this was a rowdy town. The San Francisco newspaper called this town ‘one a day,’ because on average, one person a day would die in this town, whether it be from a gunfight, mine collapse, disease or a getting shot over a bad card game.”

Vigilante groups, or to be polite, citizens’ groups, crop up in stories. There was the before-mentioned group who were foiled by lynching in 1897. Dyer tells us, “The vigilante committee was formed in 1897 and a notice was placed to all those would-be criminals. Over the years, the jail has seen its fair share of killers, claim jumpers, thieves, and drunks.”

In more recent history, World War II veterans were involved. “The guy that I’m thinking about was a World War II veteran,” says Elliott. “Part of what I heard was, he didn’t go through all that (the war) to have this. People here acting like that. So he got with some of the other veterans and they took care of it. The 12 guys disappeared. They just went away and nobody ever asked and nobody ever knew. But two guys that went out to talk to them, didn’t have a lot to talk about when they got back here. All they said was that they were very agreeable to the solution.”

Elliott says of the early mining days, “The miners had rules. Number one was that there were no lawyers allowed because they just screw stuff up. If somebody was accused of claim jumping they closed the saloon and the senior miners would be the jury. This guy would say, ‘He jumped my claim,’ and that guy would make his defense. The older miners  would just say, ‘Okay, well, you owe him whatever’ or ‘No, he didn’t jump your claim.’ They would make the decision. And the decision usually took less than half an hour. You didn’t have a whole lot of ‘Blah Blah’ from lawyers. You just had two litigants talking to each other in front of the other miners. A decision would be made and everybody would agree. Because that was the way they kept people from shooting each other. And then the bar would open and be back in business.”

Randsburg, California  – an Old West Mining town just up the road from Ridgecrest.