As the coronavirus pandemic swept the United States, 32-year-old Brent Underwood became the sole resident of an abandoned mining town.
Far from his native Hillsborough County, Underwood’s version of lockdown life was waiting out a blizzard that stranded him in 5 feet of snow. His take on pandemic pet adoption was bringing five baby Boer goats and seven kittens up a rocky California mountain to keep him company. And instead of sourdough starters and DIY projects, he learned how to track mountain animals, photograph constellations and explore abandoned mine shafts.
It wasn’t the first time he’d been to Cerro Gordo. He’d visited multiple times since purchasing the ghost town in the summer of 2018, with big plans to make it a booming tourism destination. But this was the first time he’d be living there — alone.
As a child growing up in Brandon, Underwood loved to explore swamps and lakes. At 5, he wore cowboy boots every day, his dad Bill said. One of Underwood’s earliest obsessions was buying land. His grandfather retired to a beach house, and Underwood realized the power that came with owning a place of one’s own. When he was 12, he logged into eBay and purchased an acre of land in Kansas. He still owns it two decades later.
As a marketer and investor, Underwood continued acquiring interesting properties. After opening the HK Hostel in a Victorian mansion in Austin, Texas, he realized how much he liked combining the past with real estate investment — not just offering a cool place to stay, but a history lesson to each visitor.
Two years ago, a friend knew that he was looking for a bigger project and texted him a listing for Cerro Gordo.
With a name that means “fat hill,” the mining town sits at 8,500 feet high, tucked in the Inyo Mountains of California. On one side is Mount Whitney, the tallest point in the 48 contiguous states. On the other, Death Valley, the lowest.
In the mid-1800s, Cerro Gordo was a bustling mining town. The New York Times reported that it was the largest producer of silver and lead in California by 1869, and later would become the highest exporter of zinc carbonates in the country. It was a wild place of about 500 miners that, according to the Los Angeles Times, averaged a murder a week. But the mining booms slowed. Cerro Gordo was mostly abandoned by the 1950s.
Old homes dot the top of the mountain where the miners used to live. There was a cemetery, a general store and a brothel called “Lola’s Palace of Pleasure.” The American Hotel included a saloon with stained glass behind the bar, swinging double doors and bullet holes in the wall.
Before Cerro Gordo went on the market in 2018, the town had been owned by a family for decades. The previous owners lived on the property and had been working to restore the town for tourism purposes. After they died, their son wanted someone to take over.
Many had expressed interest in buying the town. Underwood, with business partner John Bier and a group of investors, pitched a plan to restore Cerro Gordo and honor its mining history. The bid: $1.4 million. It worked. They closed on Friday the 13th.
Since the 2018 sale, restoration has been slow. The nearest Home Depot is three hours away by desert highway, and the town is almost 30 miles from any kind of store. Getting there requires a treacherous drive up 7 miles of a narrow, unpaved mountain road covered in sharp rocks.
Then the pandemic hit. The town caretaker decided to stop giving history tours and return home to his wife. Underwood, who had mostly visited Cerro Gordo for work trips, saw it as an opportunity to enjoy the property for a few weeks.
“What better place to socially distance than a town that has no neighbors for dozens of miles?” he thought.
In March, Underwood left his home in Austin for Cerro Gordo. He moved into a bunkhouse named after Mortimer Belshaw, the man who built the first road up to the town. The bedroom where he slept was said to have been haunted by two children who died after getting trapped in a trunk.
He packed a sleeping bag, some nonperishables (the town has no running water) and a small suitcase of clothes. His warmest piece of clothing was a North Face jacket a friend had given him. The nights got so cold that he ended up sleeping in it.
The last owners left pictures on the walls, clothes in the closets and boots in front of the door. There were at least a thousand VHS tapes from the 1980s and ′90s.
Underwood’s original plan was to separate those belongings and those of the miners. The treasures he found 700 feet down in the mines — old coins, a century-old suitcase filled with letters, even guns and bullets — would be displayed in the town’s general store-turned-history museum. In the meantime, he documented his finds for over a million followers across YouTube and TikTok.
Soon after settling in, snow blocked the exits. For almost a month, he was trapped, alone, worried about running out of food.
As the snow melted in April, a new crisis set in: his first bout of appendicitis. It took him three hours to drive to the closest hospital. Every bump along the way felt like a knife in his side.
Underwood returned to Cerro Gordo with antibiotics. Later in the summer, he would have to fly to Austin for surgery since his insurance wouldn’t cover the procedure in California.
Before that would happen, there was a string of tragedies. He woke up early on the morning of June 15 to popping noises outside. The whole side of the mountain was red. As soon as he reached the window, he realized the American Hotel had been swallowed by flames.
He waited an hour and a half for the fire department to come, splashing buckets of water from the goat pen onto the flames, trying to stop them from destroying the rest of the town.
“An hour and a half feels like eternity when you’re watching your hopes and dreams and life savings go up in flames in front of you,” he said.
By the time firefighters arrived, the soles of his sneakers had melted. The centerpiece of Cerro Gordo was a pile of debris.
Later that week, an earthquake rattled the town, a hailstorm knocked out the power and a flash flood washed out the main road. Underwood was trapped — again. After he managed to escape via a perilous back road into Death Valley, Underwood heard word of more flames. A Jeep that had tried to enter the main route to town had caught on fire.
Exhausted, Underwood had lived in town far longer than the few weeks he had originally planned for. But more than ever, he was determined to stay and finish restoring Cerro Gordo.
He had fallen for the ghost town, and so had people around the world who were following his story.
Volunteers from nearby towns came to help clear the rubble. Social media followers, who get updates thanks to spotty AT&T service from a neighboring mountain, donated over $56,000 to a GoFundMe dedicated to hotel restoration.
With the original blueprints for the hotel, Underwood has been organizing the rebuild with an engineer, project manager and architect. At the end of the month, a public hearing will determine whether he can get a permit to build a replica of the hotel.
“We’re not going to be the last people that own Cerro Gordo or visit Cerro Gordo. And so I think it’s important for future generations to be able to learn from it,” he said.
“For better or worse now, the fire this year was part of Cerro Gordo’s history. It’s up to us to write the next part.”
Update: On Wednesday, Sept. 23, Underwood won approval to rebuild the American Hotel. Friends of Cerro Gordo is collecting donations to fund restoration efforts. Visit www.gofundme.com/f/cerro-gordo to donate. To learn more, visit cerrogordomines.com.