It’s kind of hard to believe that another amusement park has managed to thrive in more or less the next town over from Disneyland. I mean, Disney is Disney, after all. It’s the happiest place on earth!
But Disneyland has been evolving and modernizing. It’s been shifting its focus away from Frontierland in favor of Tomorrowland. And that means Knott’s Berry Farm will soon have the market cornered on amusement park depictions of American pioneers and frontier life in the Old American West.
Yes, Knott’s has a water park and some roller coasters in its main park. But for me, the main attraction is its Ghost Town.
Funny enough, the Ghost Town was built to keep people occupied while they were waiting (sometimes hours) in line to get into Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant.
You could pass the time by taking a look at the 19th century (G)old Trails Hotel, which Walter Knott had moved to Southern California from Prescott, Arizona. The ghost town was free back then—and Walter Knott didn’t start charging admission until 1968.
And thus began his large-scale assemblage art project, building his own “authentic” ghost town by relocating abandoned and neglected buildings and artifacts that he collected.
Unfortunately, some of them—like the Gold Trails—didn’t exactly stand the test of time, so what you see there now is a replica.
But other facades—like the “peek-in” storefronts—haven’t had to endure much wear and tear and have been relatively untouched over the years.
Of course, Walter would find certain anchor buildings for his ghost town, put them into place, and then fill the spaces in between with custom-built “fill-in” buildings that fit right in.
Walter had seen the blacksmith shop structure off the side of the road not far from where he’d started farming back in 1920. So 20 years later when he began building his ghost town, he moved it here—in one piece.
You can still pay the blacksmith a visit and watch him make real horseshoes.
Among the other artifacts that were “rescued” by Walter Knott include “Old Betsy,” an antique wood-burning engine that was a modern upgrade to the 20 Mule Team used in borax mining in the Death Valley area. Walter found this one in Trona.
The windmill by the livery stable is a replica, and together they mark the end of Main Street. Walter Knott didn’t expect his ghost town to grow beyond that.
But indeed, it grew as Walter continued to collect neglected farmhouses…
…and even a famous boxing venue from Burbank known as “Jeffries Barn” (named after heavyweight boxing champ Jim Jeffries).
There’s the one-room red schoolhouse, which looks like something out of Little House and the Prairie…
…even though it was actually relocated to Knott’s from the city of Pico Rivera (about 12 miles northwest of Buena Park) in 1959.
You can sit in the schoolchildren’s desks, but you might have to explain to your younger companions what a blackboard / chalkboard is.
And, of course, it’s not a real ghost town unless it’s got its own bottle house…
Except these bottles appeared to have crumbled bits of newspaper or currency stuffed inside of them.
In fact, the Knott’s ghost town draws from many other authentic towns of the Old West—not just Prescott, Calico, and Rhyolite, but also Tombstone, Arizona. Walter built his own version of the Bird Cage Theater…
…as well as Boothill Cemetery.
Some of the headstones (well, wooden slabs) are actually real.
Walter would find vintage grave markers that were badly damaged, buy them, and then pay to replace them.
Lester Moore isn’t actually buried in Buena Park…
…but if you stand on the grave of Hiram McTavish, you can feel his heart still beating through your shoe.
An expanded Knott’s Ghost Town afforded Walter the opportunity to build his own railroad, where he could store—and run—the vintage trains he’d also collected, like the No. 41 “Red Cliff” from the Rio Grande Southern line…
….or the historic locomotives from the Denver & Rio Grande line.
During peak holiday time and weekends, you can stand in line to catch a ride on the vintage steam train, but during the week when it’s a little quieter, it’s “The Galloping Goose” that will take you for a ride on the Ghost Town & Calico Railroad.
It’s a narrow gauge, lightweight machine—one of only seven ever built in the 1930s—that was used as a more economic alternative to the heavyweight steam engines. This one was in service in Colorado until 1953, and its transport costs were reportedly more than its purchase price.
Watch out for bandits.
I figure, if you’re going to take a ride on a train through the Knott’s Ghost Town, then you ought to also take a ride on an authentic, horse-drawn stagecoach.
The Holloday, part of the original Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach line, takes passengers on a scenic ride through Knott’s Berry Farm—either inside the coach or up top.
If you’re sitting up top, you’d better hold on—and buckle your seat belt.
Of course, if you’re going to ride a train and a stagecoach, you might as well partake of some of the more modern amusements as well. The Pony Express—a rollercoaster whose horses feel more like motorcycles—is a surprisingly rowdy ride (as evidenced by how tightly they strap you in).
For something a little more relaxing, there’s the Calico Mine Company ride, which takes you right to the “glory hole” of the Calico Mine in your own mining cart—without a seat belt. Beware of the blasting!
Sure, it’s all a bit silly, but there’s some real history at Knott’s Berry Farm. Walter Knott saved a lot of historic stuff from destruction, demolition, and neglect.
And while it amuses us, maybe we can learn something, too.