Building with Notorious History in Death Valley National Park Burns in Mysterious Fire

Remains of the Barker Ranch.

The gutted remains of the Barker Ranch. NPS photo.

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.

Comments

It is truly sad when a site like this is lost whether by vandals or just a careless act. Everyone losses out, not only the place that is damaged but as time has proven other areas end up being closed to access also. At 51 years old, I know of hundreds of places my kids will never have the opportunity to experience nor will I ever be able to return to with them. That is the real loss for everyone as many times it leads to over protection of a remote area.

I don't understand the reasoning for even wanting to restore a place that has been connected to a mass murderer. Does it have any other significant historical value?

I had the same question as shicks49. Even if it hadn't been burnt I would never have chosen to go there, it seems like a pretty creepy place (They possibly thought there were more bodies there......) to me.

My friends and I visited the ranch just a few months ago and gathered olives from a tree in the front yard (a natural spring—a branch of Sourdough Springs—runs through the yard and keeps the tree watered). I brought the olives home and salt cured them. After giving each friend a jar, I have four jars left. Could we be the only people in the country possessing “Barker Ranch Olives?” Probably.

I’ve made many trips to the Barker/ Myers Ranch area and camped overnight on several occasions. Yes—as one commenter suggests—it is a creepy place. There are rattlesnakes and other bitey, stingy creatures living there, but that’s part of the fun. The drive up Goler Wash from the Panamint Valley side (make sure you have a high clearance, 4x4 vehicle) is a wild and beautiful ride but certainly not recommended for the diehard city slicker. Coming from the north through Warm Springs Canyon and Butte Valley is nice as well. But watch out for Mengel Pass! There are rusty car parts strewn among the boulders you must negotiate to get up and over.

I, for one, will dearly miss the Barker Ranch.

Come on People, it's not like Charlie built the place with his own two hands. I am sure this building was around long before Charlie. A cabin in death valley? That in itself should be enough reason... Historical value can't be judged by good or bad. By that thought process should we destroy all things having to do with bad people?

C. M. Baxter -

Thanks for some nice perspective on the place beyond the Manson connection. As Das Trekker notes, the cabin was there for years before Manson adopted it as an occasional hideout.

As far as the historical connection with Manson is concerned, perhaps it's greatest importance is as the place where he was captured, and his spree came to an end.

It has historical value on its own, the murders arent what gives it historic value.

Jim-

Although the Barker Ranch and other ranches in the area have plenty of history behind them (I could tell you many stories about them), the Manson episode certainly provides an interesting embellishment. Most people mistakenly assume that Manson, et. al., were arrested at the ranch for the Tate/LaBianca murders. In October of 1969, just after dark, officers of the Inyo county sheriff’s Dept., the California Highway Patrol and Death Valley Rangers raided the Barker Ranch and arrested Manson and members of his “family” for setting fire to a piece of earth moving equipment in the Racetrack area of Death Valley. Once Manson and his followers were rounded up, the lawmen marched them single file down Goler Wash to waiting vehicles and transported them to the jail at Independence CA. While they were in jail awaiting arraignment, family member, Susan Atkins, also in jail in Los Angeles but for an unrelated crime, bragged to her cellmate about her participation in the T/L murders in great detail. The justifiably frightened cellmate wasted no time in contacting the authorities just to get away from Atkins. Thus, the Tate/LaBianca murder case was cracked. But you’re right; the Barker Ranch arrest marked the end of Manson’s spree and for that very reason, I think the Barker Ranch should have long ago been designated an historic edifice.

I would have loved to have hiked in there just to see the cupboard that Charlie was hiding in (like the rat he was) when he was apprehended. I suppose it is now gone. I would not put it past Charlie to have sent someone out to torch the place after all the notoriety it got last year.

I have to agree. At least in my lifetime Barker Ranch will forever be associated with one of the most savage crimes in history--I've seen the crime scene photos. There will always be ghosts there even if no one goes "Boo" or sees a white wraith. It's just the pure savagery of the crimes. Nobody should have to die like that (except those who commit the crimes to begin with). Good riddance to Barker Ranch. Now they should salt the earth. It will forever be tainted with pure evil.

R Stefancik-

You don’t have to hike in to the ranch; you can drive right up to the front yard. The cupboard you refer to was a cabinet under the sink in the bathroom. While they herded the family members into the yard and stood guard with shotguns, one of the officers had to take a leak so, flashlight in hand, he returned to the house. As he was standing in the bathroom relieving himself, he glanced down and noticed a lock of hair protruding from the closed cabinet door. He ordered the person to, “come on out of there,” and out crawled Charles Manson with a sheepish grin on his face. Of course, the lawmen had no idea of the significance of their catch at that time.

I have seen the cabinet and it was very small. The space inside was even more confined because it housed the plumbing for the sink. Manson himself is a small person physically but still, it’s a wonder to me how he managed to squeeze into such a tiny space. As I remember, the cabinet disappeared sometime during the mid to late 80s.

LynnBerk: “Good riddance to Barker Ranch. Now they should salt the earth. It will forever be tainted with pure evil.”

Should we render similar treatment as well to Columbine High School, the Twin Towers and the Nazi death camps? We need to keep and maintain these monuments to human cruelty in order to preserve historic accuracy, to commemorate the victims and to remind ourselves that, should circumstances permit, monsters can and will rise among us.

The Barker Ranch should be preserved for its historical value.

It was originally built in the late 1930's by a retired police office, whose goal
of finding gold never really worked out.

It sure seems like a great little vacation home for those who owned the
property afterwards.

The Barker Ranch, like the Geologist Cabin, and a few other buildings in the
Southwest Corner of Death Valley National Park have existed for decades as
shelters for visitors to use. They have been places where in an emergency,
one could find water, shelter, and non-perishable food that has been donated
by previous visitors.

This is the culture of "desert people."

This is a culture where people do look out for one another. If one's vehicle is broken down,
you help them.

If people don't live like that...guess what might happen if your vehicle breaks down.

As for Manson, he hated what he called "desert people." He hated people in nearby towns.

He was a thief, troublemaker, and did everything he could to stand out like a sore thumb.
(guess who he was caught)

The Barker Ranch should be preserved.

The Barker Ranch is a historical place connected with the most vile crimes in US history, but
one with an interest in history, I believe historical sites should be preserved for future generations.

I believe the preservation of the Barker Ranch makes a statement.

This statement is that despite the evil of Manson and his goons, this is still a beautiful place.
The Barker Ranch is located in a beautiful little canyon, one that is full of life.

Preservation of the Barker Ranch, and its reclaiming by "Desert People," (prospectors, 4wd enthusiasts,
gutsy backpackers for example) is one way to punish Manson who once whined that "I'm not fit to live
in your desert!"

Right, "Charlie." I don't think Manson is fit to live anywhere, but when I camped out where his
buggys once roared, the only noise I heard was birds chirping.

Well you will find this hard to believe. But here goes- I am the one who built the cabinet he was found in which is now gone, and I am the one who supplied all lof the cyls. that we built the house out of when The Barkers went to Indian Ranch

"Good riddance to Barker Ranch. Now they should salt the earth. It will forever be tainted with pure evil."
Wow... are we going to scour the area for witches to burn too?

This kind of superstitious thinking is the very type of thinking that makes me enjoy getting away to the desert in the first place. I really need to escape the small minded city slickers who forgot what it means to be a free American. I want to see the Barker Ranch because Manson was there. I want to get a creepy skin crawl feeling when I see it. This is real history. It is a memorial to the wickedness and evil that people can do.

This comment was edited. -- Ed.