I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite characters from the west. He’s a prospector from the Mojave Desert called Shorty Harris who lived a few years in the boom town of Ballarat.
Ballarat, California is a town on the edge of nowhere, a collection of mud huts and tin shanties in one of the most hostile places in the world. It’s on a dry patch of desert just west of Death Valley on the other side of the Panamint mountains. The town is next to a dry lake, perched on an alluvial fan at the base of the rugged Panamint mountains. The town was born to serve those fortune hunters known as Rainbow Chasers.
They called themselves single-blanket jackass prospectors, for their favorite mode of travel on the Mojave. But they were Rainbow Chasers, always off hunting for that one big strike. They looked for minerals of all kinds in Death Valley and the Mojave desert. Their heyday is the late 1800s and early 1900s. They’d missed out on all the big rushes – by the time they were prospecting, the California gold rush was over, and other areas like Colorado and Montana had been picked dry. The Mojave was their last chance to make a big strike. And they were still chasing the rainbow. Enough mineral wealth was found to keep their dreams alive.
The town of Ballarat is petty much gone to dust now, and perhaps the best mark Ballarat made is, it’s the town that supplied many a great story about the legendary prospector Shorty Harris.
Shorty Harris is a name that is known all over Death Valley. He was born as Frank Harris in Rhode Island in 1857, and was an orphan at the tender age of seven.
In the 1870’s he came west to make his fortune. He stood all of five feet, four inches tall; he had big ears, sparkling blue eyes and a bushy mustache. Desert Historian Richard Lingenfelter called him a gabby little man with a habit of spending too much time with a bottle of O, be Joyful.
It’s a well known fact that Shorty loved to talk, and he loved the conviviality of saloons much more than the hard labor of mucking ore. But\he was a very kind and giving person. Many old-timers had been fed or tanked up by Shorty when they were short of funds, and they’d return the favor to him anytime he needed it.
He was also an exceptionally good prospector who had made numerous gold strikes, some small but some very big. His most notable find was the Bullfrog district in Nevada, and from which the boom town of Rhyolite was borne.
As a popular man, and one who had an exceptional ability to find good prospects, there were always stories being told about Shorty. One of the best is the story of his first funeral. Is it true? Who knows,. But one Fourth of July Ballarat was celebrating. The party had gone on for two days, and Shorty finally passed out.
His friends gathered up some boards and threw together a coffin, then gently laid the snoring Shorty to rest. They placed the coffin on a pool table in Chris Wicht’s saloon.
When Shorty began to stir, the bartender spread the word. Soon votive candles were lit and the rainbow-chasers gathered around the pool table, speaking softly to each other of Shorty’s life. Shorty’s eyes opened, but he didn’t move, while his friends prayed over him and sang his praises.
Finally the candles were blown out and the boys picked up the coffin for the trek out to the graveyard. Then Shorty started yelling, and word has it that he jumped out of his coffin and ran out the door of the saloon, not returning till the shock finally wore off.
With friends like that, who needs enemies?
Shorty lived a long and full life, even saw the day when those trusty jackasses the prospectors used were replaced by a Model T. When he finally died for the last and final time, it was 1934 and he was living in Lone Pine. At his last request his remains were buried next to his friend Jim Dayton, in the heart of Death Valley they had both come to love. He wrote his own epitaph, and it says it all:
“Bury me beside Jim Dayton in the valley we loved. Above me write: Here lies Shorty Harris, a single-blanket-jackass prospector.”