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Dianne Hardisty/ Special to The Californian

J. Paul Corlew stands on the porch of a restored building in Bodfish's Silver City Ghost Town. The turn-of-the-century buildings have been frozen in time — a sort of state of "arrested decay."

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Photo courtesy of Dianne Hardisty

J. Paul Corlew believes the Apalatea/Burlando house, one of the restored buildings in the Silver City Ghost Town, is the oldest standing structure in the Kern Valley. Story has it that miner Francisco Apalatea, husband to three and father of 13, lived in the house, which is now haunted by his last wife, Mattie, who lifts shot glasses into the air and rocks in an "unoccupied" rocker.

Born out of the dust of Kern Valley's mines and the survivor "booms and busts," Silver City Ghost Town is enjoying a rebirth these days. And J. Paul Corlew, the town's owner, can thank the decades-old spirits who have refused to leave.

Located in Bodfish, the ghost town is the creation of Dave and Arvilla Mills, who in the 1960s snatched historic buildings from the path of demolition and moved them to a parcel of land along the main highway leading to Lake Isabella.

These buildings came from abandoned mining camps in Keyesville, Whiskey Flat, Old Isabella, Claraville, Miracle Hot Springs, Southfork and frontier settlements. Some had barely escaped a watery grave when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the dam in 1953 that created Lake Isabella.

The Mills family assembled this rag-tag collection of buildings into the imaginary Silver City Ghost Town to entertain the hundreds of thousands of people who drove by their gates on their way to fishing and boating on the new lake.

During its first decade, business boomed. Entertainment, such as Wild West shows, and the promise of a rip-roaring turn-of-the-century experience lured visitors to Silver City.

Then one day in the early 1970s, construction crews opened a new stretch of Highway 178, which bypassed Bodfish and Silver City. Once again the buildings were left in the dust.

"It happened overnight," recalled Corlew during a recent interview. "Visitors just stopped coming."

The Mills family turned some of the buildings into storage sheds and rented others out as retail and office space. Eventually they put the place up for sale.

Corlew, a tournament bass fisherman and Santa Barbara County businessman, was a frequent visitor to the Kern Valley and Lake Isabella.

"I had fallen in love with the place," Corlew said.

With one of his businesses being the manufacturing and distribution of custom fishing tackle, he and his wife, Cindy, decided to buy Silver City in 1992. Its location close to a lake seemed a natural spot for his tackle business.

The Corlews turned their attention to restoring Silver City's buildings and reopening the attraction to the public. Eventually, operating Silver City became a full-time job and they closed their tackle business.

Soon after it reopened, rumors began to circulate that Silver City was haunted. While Corlew said he initially doubted the rumors, he recognized their marketing benefits. He encouraged the belief by opening Silver City's doors to ghost hunters and television film crews. Silver City has been mentioned on such shows as the History Channel's "This Week in History" and "Haunted Discoveries." Corlew has been interviewed for the Biography Channel's "My Ghost Story."

Corlew said he had heard many stories about poltergeist activity in Silver City, but it was only after seven years of working on the site that he had his own sighting.

"When you and two other people (all sober!) see a heavy miner's lunch pail fly 12 feet across a room unaided, you become a believer real quick," he said. Before her death in 2000 from kidney disease, Cindy Corlew also reported having ghostly experiences.

Corlew has become more than just "a believer" in ghosts. He helped found GRIT Paranormal. GRIT stands for Ghost Research/Rescue Investigations/Intervention Team. The group, which includes members from the Kern Valley, Bakersfield and other cities, has participated in dozens of paranormal investigations since 2006 in Silver City and elsewhere.

With just a few of Silver City's storefronts facing Lake Isabella Boulevard, most of the ghost town's treasures stretch out on acreage behind locked gates. Silver City is open (generally) seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is best to check the schedule at www.facebook.com/silvercityghosttown or call Corlew at 760-379-5146 before beginning the nearly one-hour trip from Bakersfield up the canyon.

General admission to Silver City is $5.50 for visitors 13 years of age and older; $4.50 for children 6 to 12 years old; children 5 and younger are free.

Silver City will kick off its summer season with three spooky nighttime History/Mystery Lantern Light Tours and Live Paranormal Investigations on June 1, 15 and 29, from 8 to 10:30 p.m. Admission to the tours, which will be co-hosted by Pacific Paranormal Investigation Team's Deanne DeChellis, is $12 per person.

In addition to ghost tales and "live investigations," the lantern tours will feature local history stories and insights into the lives of the pioneers who helped build Kern County.

Additional lantern tours are expected to be scheduled later this summer and in the fall. Silver City Ghost Town also hosts private tours and events.