Historic California Posts, Camps, Stations and Airfields
Fort Nadeau
by Justin Ruhge
Fort Nadeau was a desert redoubt and corral that was established by a private business to provide a horse or mule team change station on the road and to protect the route from Native American attacks and bandits. This private fort was one of a number established for these commercial purposes around California. The development of gold and silver mines in the high desert territories on the east side of the Sierras was the reason for the development of a road by which to move ore and supplies. The road began in Independence and headed south to Los Angeles. The Cerro Gordo mine east of Owens Lake was the largest in the area and the main driver for such roads. The mines around Keeler, Darwin, Randsburg and Johannesburg, etc. were an added reason for a transportation service. The road was called the "Bullion Trail". A history of the "Bullion Trail" which spawned the Fort Nadeau story is provided by the Historical Society of the Upper Mojave Desert and is presented as follows: "Remi Nadeau, was a French Canadian born in Quebec Province in 1811. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1861 and soon established a freight team business in central and southern California. In 1869 he commenced hauling bullion and freight between the Cerro Gordo Mines in Inyo County and Los Angeles. The route from Cerro Gordo to Los Angeles was known as the "Bullion Trail." In 1873 Nadeau, together with the principal Cerro Gordo mine owners, formed the Cerro Gordo Freighting Company and greatly expanded the freight line to 80 teams, with over 1,000 mules, and many wagons, stages, drivers and way stations. The route ran from Independence south to Cerro Gordo in the Inyo Mountains down to the site of present Keeler on the shore of Owens Lake, around the north shore of Owens Lake, thence southward along the base of the Sierras past Haiwee Meadows, Little Lake, Indian Wells, Red Rock Canyon, across the Mojave Desert to Mojave and Willow Springs (east of present Rosamond), through the Antelope Valley, over the San Gabriel Mountains via Soledad Canyon and Fremont Pass, into the San Fernando Valley and thence to Los Angeles/San Pedro Harbor where the bullion was transferred to ships bound for the metal refineries located in San Francisco.
In 1874 Nadeau entered the freight trade for Panamint City, with the route going across Panamint Valley, crossing over the Slate Range near its junction with the Argus Range, through Searles Valley around Searles Lake and then westward up and across Indian Wells Valley to join the Bullion Trail at Indian Wells. Starting in 1875, Nadeau provided freight service in and out of Darwin, connecting with the Bullion Trail at Owens Lake. In addition to these principal mining camps, Nadeau also provided a portion of freight hauling services to the Minnietta, Modoc and Lookout mines located in the Argus Range overlooking Panamint Valley.
In April 1875, the Southern Pacific Railroad main line from San Francisco to Los Angeles had reached Caliente on the west side of the Sierras. Nadeau shifted the route of the Bullion Trail westward on a newly built road over the Tehachapi Mountains to reach the railhead at Caliente. A year later, in August 1876, the southern railhead reached Mojave. Nadeau than established Mojave as the southern terminus of the Bullion Trail and transshipped the bullion from the down-freight run onto the railroad for delivery to the San Francisco refineries. The up-freight was delivered by rail to Mojave, picked up by the Nadeau freighters and hauled up the Bullion Trail to the mines.
By 1880, the principal Inyo mines began to phase out. Darwin peaked in 1876, and then went into decline. Panamint City closed in 1877 and the last load of bullion left Cerro Gordo in 1879. Nadeau continued to haul Inyo freight until 1881 when he moved his teams and entire operation to Tombstone, Arizona. In 1882 Nadeau sold his entire business and returned to Los Angeles to pursue other business interests." The reader can learn more about this history by perusing City Makers and Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of California by Remi A. Nadeau, the great grandson of Remi Nadeau.
Remi Nadeau established stage and freight stops all through this vast desert area. Some stage stops were rest and food stations as well as horse or mule team change stations. The Fort Nadeau of this section was one of these stops that were fortified with a redoubt. It was also know by the name of Kelly's Station. The Fort Nadeau Station was located at the northwest end of the Indian Wells Valley in what is today the Naval Weapons Center at China Lake. The location was at the base of what was called the Taylor Grade, which climbed out of the valley to the Wild Horse Mesa area above. The Station was just to the west of the entrance to Mountain Springs Canyon and just south of Renegade Canyon. An idea of the Fort is obtained by an eyewitness in the person of Henry F. Schuettte, a native of the Indian Wells Valley. His story is also from the Historical Society of the Upper Mojave Desert, entitled The Nadeau Fort and Other Points of Interest on the Bullion Trail. "In 1927, when I was in seventh grade, the school at Inyokern organized a field trip to Kelly's Station at the mouth of Renegade Canyon. Our teacher Mr. Howard Coppock, and Mr. Vernon Carr, clerk of the school board, led the group as they often did on those Saturday excursions.
Equipped with lunches and water, we traveled the old mining road toward Mountain Springs Canyon. This section had been also on of the bullion trails. At the mouth of the canyon, the road turned to the left, following the route of the old pipeline that brought water to the station from Mountain Springs, maybe three quarters of a mile.
The "Fort" had thick adobe walls standing head high on three sides. There was still evidence of the corrals, and some sizable dumps of bottles and cans. The road onto 'the Junction' left the station to begin its zigzag ascent of the lava flow to what is now called Wild Horse Mesa.
Someone immediately found an old musket ball, so we all combed and sifted the dirt both inside and outside of the walls to find more. Most surprising was the number of balls that we
found along side of the walls. I wish that I could truthfully say that I saw bullet marks still visible in the adobe, but I don't remember. Still, most of the bullets were close to the walls, suggesting a siege. Old Alfred Giraud in his booklet "My First Years in California" tells of finding the imprint of a Wells Fargo box in manure of the corral at the station in the mouth of Mountain Springs Canyon many years after the date of that robbery."
During it heydays, there were a number of outlaws that prowled the mining country of the high desert. Vasquez, Chavez, Murietta, "Jack Spratt the Outlaw", and Mason and the Henry gang are some.
During the 1930s the California Auto Club published maps of the old desert mining districts and marked the unpaved roads with directional signs, many of which disappeared for collectors when the trails were no longer popular by the touring public.
In early 1940s the U.S. Navy acquired all of the land that included the Indian Wells Valley, Wild Horse Mesa and areas north to Coso Junction and the Argus Range, and this vast area became known as The Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS). Since then, the many roads, mines and Native American sites have been closed to the general public except for occasional announced guided tours. One of the contractors working for NOTS supposedly "cleaned up the desert" by bulldozing all of the remains of Fort Nadeau Station/ Kelly's Station into a nearby gulch.
This author was a research physicist at Michelson Laboratory at NOTS during the 1950s and early 1960s. As Navy employees we had access to the upper base. Many hours on weekends and holidays were spent exploring the many mines, Native American sites, hot springs and petroglyphs throughout the upper desert of the Bullion Trail. Many of the original Auto Club signs were still there at that time.
Kelly is shown on a number of maps but we have found only one map that lists the Fort Nadeau location on a 1948 map made by the Navy Department Bureau of Yards and Docks shown above. We did not visit the Fort because of the washed out roads.
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Updated 8 February 2016