In 1905, when the search for precious metals was the consuming interest of desert prospectors, and the slang expression “Twenty-three Skidoo” was a national fad, Harry Ramsey and One-Eye Thompson were camped in Emigrant Pass near the rim of Death Valley.
During the night their pack burro strayed, and the following morning—which happened to be the 23rd day of that month—the two men set off to find the animal. Its trail led to James Arnold’s mine camp, and Ramsey and Thompson were so impressed with the area’s potential that they staked claims adjoining Arnold’s. Noting the date of their good fortune and calling on the desert wanderers’ bottomless reservoir of humor, they named the place Skidoo.
There are other versions as to how Skidoo was named. Some say 23 men established the camp, others that the original site consisted of 23 mine claims. Still another version is that 23 was the number of miles from Skidoo to Birch Spring which later became the camp’s water source.
In 1908, three years after Ramsey and Thompson named the camp, the Skidoo Townsite and Mining Company was in full operation. This concern had issued one million shares of capital stock with a par value of $1 each. Robert Montgomery was developer and president of the company, and Matt Hoveck was vice president. In their speculative advertisements these promoters told of five ledges with surface outcroppings on the property, each of which, they felt, justified development.
Prospectors flocked in from all parts of Southern California. The Cheesebrough Lines, with the Skidoo Mercantile Company as local agents, ran a stage from Los Angeles to Skidoo by way of Johannesburg. A one-way ticket to the new boom town cost $22, express rates were four cents a pound. Kimball Brothers operated a passenger and express route linking Skidoo and Rhyolite. Clark and Revaldi ran another to Ballarat on the western flank of the Panamints.
James Arnold, the first claim holder in Skidoo, was a managing partner in the Skidoo Trading Company Store, under whose roof was located the prospering Bank of Southern California.
By the end of 1908 the Tucki Consolidated Telephone and Telegraph Company of Skidoo had strung wires across Death Valley to Rhyolite where they connected with the Western Union lines to the outside world. And with this advance in communications came the Skidoo News, published every Saturday at 10 cents a copy by M. R. MacLeod. The newspaper’s masthead carried this statement: “Chronicle of Skidoo Events, Its Happenings, Worked Over to Make a Newspaper.”
Water was piped to Skidoo from Telescope Peak over rough terrain—a tremendous undertaking. Most of the eight-inch pipeline was taken up for scrap during World War I. There was no jail at Skidoo. Offenders were handcuffed to a telegraph pole until they could be removed to the county jail in Independence.
As in most mining camps, even those of this century, life was rugged, and the saloon was the community recreation center. Records show Skidoo had at least three: The Club, The Palace and The Gold Seal. The latter saloon, which stood across from Arnold’s store, was owned by Fred Oakes and Joe “Hooch” Simpson, Hooch was the town’s “Bad Man” — an ill-tempered drunkard and gun fighter. There were the usual rooming and boarding houses, a hotel and numerous small shacks in which businessmen and miners and their families lived.
The murder of James Arnold by Hooch Simpson in 1908, and the lynching which followed, brought Skidoo before the general public in an unfavorable light. The trouble started on Sunday morning, April 19, when Hooch held up bank cashier Ralph Dobbs, demanding $20. The drunken saloonkeeper was overpowered and thrown out of the store. Before long he returned and this time picked a quarrel with Arnold. Sheriff Harry Sellars handcuffed Hooch to a pole, and then dispatched a messenger to Nemo Canyon where Judge Frank Thisse was prospecting, to secure a warrant for Hooch’s formal arrest.
Oakes and several of Hooch’s cronies insisted that he be released. They promised to stand guard over him until Judge Thisse returned. The sheriff agreed, and Hooch was put to bed. His friends hid his gun in the saloon’s oven.
But before the judge arrived. Hooch found the gun, crossed the street and shot Arnold. The founder of Skidoo died that evening. An inquest was held the next day and burial took place on Tuesday. In the absence of a minister, A. T. Hall, impressive with his flowing white hair, conducted the rites. It was said to be the first religious burial held in Skidoo.
Hooch was not among the mourners. Instead, he began bragging about the fight and gloating over Arnold’s death. This infuriated the Skidoo residents, and 50 masked men took Hooch from the one room shed where he was being held under guard and quietly hanged him from a nearby telephone pole.
In recent years there have been several attempts to reopen the Skidoo mines, but nothing came of them. Unlike most other Death Valley mining camps, the early exploitation of Skidoo was a paying venture and perhaps someday mining men again will return to this isolated locale.