By Len Wilcox
Ballarat, California, is a town on the edge of nowhere, a collection of mud huts and tin shanties in one of the most hostile deserts in the world. The town was born to serve those fortune hunters known as the Rainbow Chasers. The Rainbow Chasers hunted minerals all around the Mojave Desert. One of the least hospitable areas on the Mojave is the Panamint Valley, just west of Death Valley.
The town is pretty 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. 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. In the 1870s 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.
Shorty loved to talk, and he loved the conviviality of saloons much more than the hard labor of mucking ore. But he was an exceptionally good prospector, and 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.
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?