Investor Buys a Ghost Town and Rides Out Quarantine There Alone!
Social distancing became the new normal in March of 2020. Billions of people around the globe grew accustomed to standing six feet apart, avoiding public places, and quarantining in their homes and apartments.
We all came up with our own version of a “COVID-19 lockdown project,” such as taking up origami, starting home gardens, or learning a new language or musical instrument.
This is the tale of one real estate investor who almost lost everything from his lockdown project.
The Ghost Town with a Single Resident
Miles and miles away from civilization and far up a steep dirt road is an old mining town called Cerro Gordo. Brent Underwood has been working on restoring this ghost town since 2018, and during the lockdown, he finally had time to make it his sole focus. The ghost town restoration project broke his bank account and spirit and nearly cost him his life.
As Underwood was moving into Cerro Gordo, a severe snowstorm blindsided his ghost town and did not subside until there were over five feet of snow. He was left completely stranded in the frozen wilderness. With no modern utilities such as running water and the nearest grocery store over 30 miles away, there was no choice but to rough it for the winter.
Surviving on rice, beans, and canned soup, he weathered the winter. By the time the snow melted, he had transformed from a young entrepreneur into a bonafide frontiersman. It was a baptism of fire, or in this case, ice.
Underwood learned to rely on his own resourcefulness to survive and create a life for himself in the ghost town where he now rebuilds Cerro Gordo. He spends his days exploring dangerous mines, foraging for artifacts, and sharing his adventures on YouTube.
His new neighbors only make the occasional appearance — it is always unsettling when they do because they have been dead for over 150 years.
How It All Began
Underwood had been searching for the perfect real estate investment. His experience backpacking through Central and South America had instilled in him a love for hospitality, and he had started two very successful hostels. His goal was to find a property that would allow him to indulge his passion for both hospitality and history.
Fortunately, fate was on his side. In 2018, in the middle of the night, Underwood received a text from a friend with a real estate listing for Cerro Gordo. We all have that one friend who sends us joking text messages at strange hours. This time, what was meant to be a joke turned out to be the fulfillment of destiny.
At three in the morning, Underwood knew exactly what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
The morning after receiving the joking text message, Underwood took action. He contacted the listing agent and was told there were many bidders on this unique property. Undaunted, he contacted friends and family, asking them, “Want to buy a ghost town?”
After organizing a group of investors, he and his friend Jon Bier outbid other buyers and purchased the property for $1.4 million in July, no less on a Friday the 13th. He spent every last dollar of his life savings on this property. He was all in.
Cerro Gordo Has a Long, Colorful History
Cerro Gordo got its name when a Mexican miner named Pablo Flores discovered veins of silver among the hills and valleys in 1865. He named it in Spanish, “Cerro Gordo.” In English, this translates to “fat hill,” and there’s no doubt Mr. Flores had visions of inevitable fat pocketbooks as he spread the word that riches were plentiful in this spectacular desert.
This was the first step in a journey that would include mining valuable ores, building a town, the economic creation of Los Angeles, many deaths, countless murders, brothels, hauntings, and eventual lengthy silence. The silence that Brent Underwood was about to break.
He felt a calling to preserve and showcase this town’s rich history and bring it back to life. Now that he had no outside distractions, he turned his attention to the historic structures.
There are many homes and buildings in Cerro Gordo in various conditions. There are old, dilapidated homes that are barely standing. There are also remarkably well-preserved structures.
In its glory days, Cerro Gordo was home to the American Hotel, a brothel called Lola’s Palace of Pleasure, a general store, and a bunkhouse, to name just a few of the landmarks. The American Hotel witnessed many murders and had a bullet hole in the wall and a bloodstain still on the floor. Sadly, the American Hotel burned down in an electrical fire. It is being rebuilt precisely like the original with the help of many volunteers and donations.
Cerro Gordo is said to be the reason that Los Angeles became a major US city. Los Angeles was the closest port city to Cerro Gordo, and the commerce between the two towns required Los Angeles to develop and thrive.
Artifacts found in Cerro Gordo shed light on local history. In Underwood’s YouTube videos, he often finds buried mining claims, old papers, and belongings of the former inhabitants. He has found old briefcases containing important documents and photographs of the former residents and their loved ones.
He is on a constant quest to find rare bottles and old Levi jeans. There are Levi jeans from specific years that, if found in one piece, are exceedingly valuable! Underwood points out that he wants them to display in Cerro Gordo’s museum and not to sell.
His YouTube videos often show him exploring the mines, being lowered down in the hoist cages sometimes to spend the night. He steps around an alarming amount of blast caps and dynamite. It is always fascinating to discover items left behind in investment properties, and Cerro Gordo seems to never run out of treasures. In one video, Underwood unearths a literal treasure map.
Cerro Gordo was known in its day for providing an abundance of silver, zinc, and lead. It was also known for hosting at least one murder per week. Most of the buildings that are still standing in this town are riddled with bullet holes.
Naturally, there was a demand for good doctors, but they struggled to keep them in the town. One doctor arrived and soon left after witnessing too much violence. On his way down the mountain, he is reported to have said, “My friend, I came here to buy a stock of drugs and practice medicine but damn me if I want an interest in a shooting gallery!”
Another doctor came and, during a house call, was disturbed to find that his first patient’s bed was lined with sandbags to shield himself from stray bullets. The doctor had to use a ladder to climb into the patient’s sleeping area.
This doctor later chose to visit the brothel with a friend. His friend wanted to know the name of one of the women working there. The doctor informed his friend that the lady’s name was “The Horned Toad.” The Horned Toad took great offense to this and was about to stab the doctor. She was apprehended from doing so, but then another woman attacked him.
A local man drew his revolver and shot the doctor, and then a group shooting rampage began. It was a common occurrence in that area for shootings to quickly get out of hand. For this reason, the social gathering places of the town had the potential to be almost as dangerous as the work itself.
The men who worked in Cerro Gordo’s mines worked over 12 hours per day and often for meager wages. Every day they risked their lives and operated under an impossible level of stress. It is no wonder that tempers flared and the saloons and brothels thrived.
Ghost Stories Galore
Between the copious amount of murders and the men who died tragically in the mines, it is not surprising that Cerro Gordo is believed to be haunted. There are likely enough ghost stories about Cerro Gordo to fill an entire book, but a few major ones center around a tragedy in the early 1870s.
The 200 level of the Union mine collapsed and killed over 30 Chinese miners. Their bodies were never recovered, and the newspapers did not even have a count of how many lives were lost. It is said that screams and the sound of chains being dragged can sometimes be heard in the Union mine.
Underwood explored the 200 level just once and then closed it off entirely as it is too dangerous to leave open. Underwood often mentions these miners in his videos and is acutely aware that their corpses still rest below the ground he walks. He seems to accept their remains as part of Cerro Gordo’s history. A history that he, too, is now a part of.
Underwood was not a believer in ghosts until one night, he saw a face in the bunkhouse window. The figure opened a curtain and peered at him through the glass. Underwood assumed that it was a contractor and did not think much of it. The next day, he asked the caretaker how long the contractors would be staying, and the caretaker replied that they had all left two weeks ago.
The following night, the light was on even though Underwood had placed a padlock on the door. Later, when Underwood entered the bunkhouse, he described feeling like he shouldn’t have been there. Since then, Underwood has avoided the bunkhouse when possible and given the apparition its space.
Another frequent sighting is a woman in a black dress with a striking similarity to the town’s most successful madam, Lola Travis. Not unlike Underwood, Lola was an entrepreneur and real estate investor — and a shrewd one, at that. Having traveled from Mexico at just 13 years old, Lola worked hard and eventually began to purchase property.
She would come to own and run many businesses, including Lola’s Palace of Pleasure, a successful brothel that is still standing today. Lola is said to have had a hot temper, and she liked things to be done her own way. She was known to whip out a gun during arguments!
Everyone in town knew she was not to be trifled with. Legend has it that she still roams the dirt roads at night, overseeing the progress and making sure that things are being done to her standards.
A Lifelong Mission
Over 20 of Cerro Gordo’s 400 original buildings are still standing. The restorations are being done using the original wood from around town and from the collapsed mines. In an interview with VICE magazine, Underwood made it clear that Cerro Gordo will never be done. This is a lifelong pursuit for him, and it is so much more than a project.
When the ghost town is completely restored, he wants to add on cabins and writers’ retreats and continue to expand. His goal is to share the history of this magnificent town with whoever wants to visit. It will be less of a tourist experience and more of an immersion into the past.
Underwood envisions visitors staying in the haunted bunkhouse and having a meal in the American Hotel. He meticulously preserves all the artifacts that he finds and keeps them in the General Store, which is now the museum. His collection will never be complete as there is over 150 years’ worth of artifacts to discover.
Every real estate investor must have an exit plan. Underwood says that his is simply death. His commitment to Cerro Gordo is lifelong. One day, people will once again flock to Cerro Gordo in droves. This time, they won’t be after silver but historical knowledge and appreciation of the town that helped build America.