Death Valley National Park has more than its share of colorful historical characters and sites: ghosts towns, prospectors, Twenty Mule Teams and Scotty's Castle. One of those locations, the Barker Ranch, achieved notoriety through association with Charles Manson, the convicted leader of a group responsible for several murders in California.
The Barker Ranch was one of several remote hideouts used by Manson and his followers, and he was arrested here in 1969. The building burned earlier this week under mysterious circumstances.
The park learned about the fire through a chat room report on a local web page and sent a ranger to investigate. The time and cause of the fire is not yet known, but the park has determined that visitors were there on Sunday, May 3rd, that it was in good condition at that time (the park had a restoration crew on site about a month ago), and that other visitors found it burned out on Tuesday, May 5th. An investigation is being launched.
According to Terry Baldino, the park's Public Information Officer, the building's rock walls and tin roof were still standing, but the interior, including hand-hewn wooden interior beams and window and door frames were completely destroyed. An attached building used as a garage or workshop also burned.
While a report on an Internet chat room may seem a strange way for a park to learn that a building had burned, that's not unusual given the location involved.
The Barker Ranch is in a remote area of the huge desert park, factors which made it appealing to Manson and his gang. A description of the route to the site provides a bit of insight:
Barker Ranch Road - High clearance 4 Wheel Drive. Short dead-end dirt road off Goler Canyon Road in the southern Panamint Mountains. The Goler Canyon Road requires High clearance 4WD. Rough dirt road off Wingate Road south of Ballart.... Sometimes impassable at dry falls after flooding.
In 2008, the ranch was the site of additional forensic investigations by California authorities, who spent several days looking for evidence that additional bodies tied to Manson's group may have been buried there. None were apparently found.
It's unknown at this point if the fire was started accidentally by backcountry campers who were using the building, or if vandals were to blame. There is no water available at the site to fight a fire. The timing was especially unfortunate, since the park had recently completed some stabilization work on the structure.