Cerro Gordo

Of late, I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole of having a certain YouTube channel on in the background in the days while I’m working from home in my attic. It’s a channel called Ghost Town Living, and I’ve found myself being oddly fascinated by it.

The location of the videos in the channel is a formerly abandonded silver mining town in the middle of nowhere near Death Valley, California, USA. The town has one caretaker/resident (more on him in a bit), and it has electricty, but little to no running water. There are numerous old derelict buildings, and one or two that remain in good, liveable condition. At the head of the town is an extremely old hoist that was built in the 1800’s, that still functions today, that grants access to the Union mine via a 900 foot shaft (although the levels themselves dip below over a thousand feet. There are are numerous other tunnels over the property, many accessible on foot and not requiring the rickety hoist and cage. Being from a former mining area myself, and with a deep interest in local industrial history, it’s the kind of place I’d absolutely love to have a poke around.

But it’s not just the locale that has seemed to make me binge watch this channel – I’m also intrigued by the channel’s owner. An American entrepenuer by the name of Brent Underwood, he’s a former investment banker who’s a partner in a company called Brass Check that offers marketing services to authors and publishers. A few years ago, he successfully started and ran one of the highest rated hostels in America with his business partner Jon Brier. A few years after that, with the help of some other investors, they stumped up almost 1.5 million bucks and bought Cerro Gordo.

WIth this hospitality background, I guess a derelict mining town that could be converted into some sort of high-end retreat for tourists would be quite attractive. One of the most notable buildings on the site was the American Hotel, built as a local watering hole for the miners, and a fantastic looking and well-preserved building that would be ideal for tourists to visit and even stay in. But it’s so remote and inaccessible, building and improving anything there seems like a massive logistical challenge, with what feels like very limited financial gain. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced us all into lockdowns back in March 2020, the town’s then current caretaker (who’d been kept on under the new ownership) went home to be with his family, and Brent moved from Austin, Texas to California, and took up residence in Cerro Gordo. He has remained there ever since – and most crucially, he started documenting his life there in a series of YouTube videos, starting in April of 2020.

When not attending to rebuilding parts of the town, Brent occasionally gets a few other people up there to help him operate the old hoist, and descends into the perilous old mining tunnels. He searches for old interesting artefacts, discarded Levi jeans, and alternative ways in and out of the tunnels. He hikes around the vast mountain area, getting to know the ins and outs of his new home. The videos show Brent develop as an outdoorsman, slowly buidling his skiils, but also show a somewhat clumsy and reckless attitude to safety, as he continuously risks life and limb on exploring the mines. But the videos are compelling. Even the earliest videos have an interesting narrative hook, and Brent’s manner of communicating is very honest but clearly well thought-out and free of the usual “uhms” and pauses most people inject into their speech. For a self-proclaimed amateur who had never produced a video before, he is really good at putting together a tightly edited and entertaining video package – and subsequent videos chart his development with ever-increasing polish and production value. The vids soon expand to include timelapses, and sweeping drone shots of his hikes with their staggering views, all accompanied by bespoke calming music and narration. Some of the mine exploration videos have an almost ASMR quality, with sounds of the footsteps crunching on the small stones in the mines being quite calming, if you can get past the sense of peril from a seemingly cavalier attitude to safety! Shot on GoPro’s and DSLR’s, the video quality is always excellent, and the audio usually pretty good too. The pet-loving side of YouTube is also catered for as Brent eventually takes in some kittens, then eventually goats and even alpacas. Brent’s passion for the history and mythos of the old town is infectious, and also informative.

Early on, tragedy strikes as the old American Hotel that sits on the property burns to the ground due to a fire caused by faulty old wiring. Brent is clearly affected by the loss of the hotel, and ressurecting it from the ashes becomes the driving force for most of his time at Cerro Gordo, providing a pseudo-ongoing narrative that underscores the videos. The channel has gained over a million subscribers, and garnered dedicated online communities. Volunteers and high profile YouTubers offer materials and services constantly to help rebuild the town, and in turn it generates more video content and exposure for the Ghost Town Living channel but also for the other YouTube collaborators. It’s win-win. People really connect with the idea of escaping the rat-race, and disappearing off into nowhere as Brent has. I can see why – he makes it seem appealing in spite of the hardships.

But then, this guy has a marketing background too. Brent is the partner in a marketing firm, and also pulled a famous stunt years ago to expose the riduculousness of the Amazon book-selling alogorithms that allowed authors to be displayed as ‘Best Selling’ with staggeringly few actual sales. He is quoted in an article in the Observer as saying:

“Just like a traditional book or anything really, the best “launch” starts before the product is finished. You try to “bake in” marketing and reasons why people would want to share with their friends. I knew by creating an interesting story with a hint of controversy within the article itself I wouldn’t need to use brute force or a huge Facebook spend to make it popular. Creating something that generates strong opinions is the best way to help something spread. I knew the “best seller” debate would resonate with all authors, that the low number of copies needed would be surprising to intrigue people who were not authors, and the fact I used my foot was funny or trollish enough to make bloggers laugh and write about it.”

Brent Underwood, talking about he pointed out the flaws in Amazon’s book seller system to gain a ‘best selling author’ claim about a book that was simply a picture of his foot.

Now, sure, that quote is not directly about Cerro Gordo, but a lot of it surely still applies. The budding and burgeoning online community around the channel is a level of marketing that money can’t buy (or at least, not buy cheaply). Viewers constantly have opinions about where to explore, what to focus on next, ways to get water up there, ways to entertain the cats, requests for ghost stories, criticism of the safety aspects… it’s a level of engagement that pushes ever-more engagement. The town is now known globally, it’s a brand unto itself, and once people adjust to post-pandemic travel, and the town has more amenities, it’s sure to have a constant influx of visitors. People will come to see Brent from all over the world, to try and get a taste of his lifestyle. The cynic in me notes the almost perfect timing of the destruction of the American Hotel, so soon after the start of the channel – and of course, the beautiful old hotel burning down allows for a replacement to be rebuilt that will look visually similar, but at the same time offer modern amenities to tourists, and last far longer than it’s predeccessor. It’s also a viable filming location, the surrounding area having already been used in films such as Iron Man. The temptation to say it’s all planned as a huge, clever marketing stunt is very strong. Shortly after completing the purchase of Cerro Gordo, Brent spoke to The Outline noting that his plan was to “establish a bustling lodging business in the town”. The Outline article notes that with some added infrastructure (e.g. a new water system) and some cleaning, the town can become a destination for history buffs, writers’ retreats, and company getaways.

Brent Underwood in 2018, fresh from purchasing the ghost town of Cerro Gordo

But then, Brent also seems genuinely into the town for the sake of saving the town, and as time goes on almost seems reluctant to give up the full reigns of his solitude. He notes that the town has cost him so much financially and personally, losing relationships and such. The toll on him physically is noticeable as the videos progress, and we see him lose weight and look more weathered from working so hard to maintain and rebuild the property. If this is all a marketing push, then he is certainly going all in on it.

Brent in 2021

I think in the end it’s not a story of a wholesome man finding himself in his own isolated town, or of a master marketeer drumming up enough buzz to launch a new hotel. I think it’s somewhere in the middle. I think the original plan was very much to turn Cerro Gordo into a tourist retreat, and capitalsing on it’s history – but I also think that along the way, that the history and the spectatcle of the surroundings has opened something in the town’s owner that has set him on a more spiritual journey instead.

And yet here I am, fresh from bingeing the videos, and blogging my own opinions on Brent Underwood and his ghost town, spreading the word about Cerro Gordo. And yeah, if I ever find myself in California, I’d be very tempted to check out Cerro Gordo. So, as Brent himself said… “the best “launch” starts before the product is finished”.

References and Links





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