By Suzanne Sparrow Watson
A friend recently posted a picture of herself in the ghost town of Bodie, California, an abandoned mining town in the Eastern Sierras. I thought we were the only people crazy enough to take the three mile, pot-holed, kidney-damaging road back to see Bodie so it was good to know we weren’t alone. Assuming that most of our readers are not crazy (perhaps a rather large assumption) and therefore have not seen Bodie in person I thought I’d fill you in on this little piece of California history.
First of all, part of the reason Bodie is not well known is that it’s in a rather remote part of the country. It’s just off Highway 395, about 75 miles southeast of Lake Tahoe and 12 miles south of Bridgeport, a town so remote itself that it’s claim to fame is it’s high gas prices. (As a side note, my husband and I have been playing a game of “name the gas price” for 30 years whenever we approach Bridgeport and we always underestimate). The turnoff to Bodie is easy to miss – there is a small brown “State Park” marker but that’s it. Bodie is 13 miles east of the turnoff, 10 miles paved and the last three the teeth-jarring surface mentioned above. In fairness, there is a sign posted warning that the road is not paved the whole way, but given the condition of the road it should say “Turn Back Now if You Value Your Tires and Vertebrae”.
Once you arrive in Bodie you will be transported back in time. The Bodie Foundation, which now runs Bodie for the State Park system, makes a point in informing visitors that Bodie has not been restored, rather, it’s been preserved in a state of arrested decay. Walking down the main street in Bodie is the closest you might ever come to experiencing a real mining town. A town with a storied past and a short lifespan. In 1859, as the gold rush in the western Sierra slopes began to dry up, miners rushed to the high desert of the eastern slopes in hopes of making their fortunes. W.S. Bodey laid claim to the land around Bodie and then set out to Mono City to get supplies for the town. Unfortunately, the winter of 1859 was particularly harsh and Mr. Bodey froze to death in a snow storm on his way back to camp. Nevertheless, others carried on and named the town in his honor – although a sign painter spelled the name phonetically and that’s the spelling that endured. Some gold was discovered but the town struggled through the 1860’s and early 70’s; by 1868 only two mining companies had been established and that year they both closed. In 1876, the Standard Company decided to mine Bodie again and discovered a profitable deposit of gold. Suddenly Bodie was transformed from a has-been mining camp to a boomtown. More discoveries were made in an adjacent mine in 1878, causing more and more people to seek their fortunes in this remote wilderness. It’s estimated that in its heyday the population of Bodie was 5,000-7,000 people with more than 2,000 buildings in town.
Bodie had amenities not usually found in a mining camp – a Wells Fargo Bank, several daily newspapers, restaurants, a volunteer fire company and even a brass band. There was a Chinatown neighborhood with several hundred inhabitants who had been brought in to work the mines. And just like in “Gunsmoke”, there was a red light district with their own Miss Kitty – Rosa May. But what Bodie was best known for was it’s free-wheeling, downright dangerous culture. There were 65 (!) saloons along the one mile stretch of Main Street. The cry of miners as they left their hometowns was “Goodbye God, I’m Going to Bodie”. The town became known for murders, shootouts, barroom brawls, and stagecoach holdups.
The first signs of Bodie’s decline began in 1880 when silver and gold discoveries in Montana, Arizona and Utah lured the “get-rich-quick” miners to the new boomtowns. Most of the single men left town and Bodie turned into a family-oriented community. Despite the population decline, the mines flourished. A narrow-gauge railroad was built, the Bodie Railway & Lumber Company, bringing much needed lumber, cordwood, and mine timbers to town. But there was no going back to the boom times. By 1910 the population was down to 698 people. In 1912 the last newspaper, The Bodie Miner, shut down and in 1913 the Standard Mining Company finally closed its doors. In 1917, the Bodie Railway was abandoned and its iron tracks were scrapped. By 1920, the Census Bureau recorded Bodie’s population as 120 people. Despite the decline, Bodie had permanent residents through most of the 20th century, even after a fire ravaged much of the downtown business district in 1932. In fact, the post office operated until 1942, when the federal government required that all nonessential gold mines be shut down to support the war effort.
Bodie was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961 and became a California State Park in 1962 when it was named the state’s official gold rush town. Only a small part of the town has survived, with about 110 structures still standing, including one of the gold mills. You can peer in the windows of the commercial buildings and homes, many remain as they were left – stocked with goods and personal belongings. Dinner plates on are the tables, food is in the pantry (I’m guessing way past its “best by” date) and cars are abandoned by the roadside. I think these abandoned items are what most intrigued me. It’s one thing to decide to leave town, but why did so many leave all of their belongings? After all, when most of the remaining Bodie residents left it was the height of the Depression, when clothing, food and furniture were in short supply for most. I’ve read some speculation that most residents just wanted to start over fresh and gave their belongings to the their friends while some thought they would return for their belongings when things got better at the new gold strike over the next hill. I guess we’ll never know.
Bodie is an attraction not to be missed and if you’re at all interested, make a trip soon. The cash-strapped California Assembly has had Bodie on the chopping block for several years. The Bodie Foundation raises money to keep it open but it’s not known how long they can continue to do so. Just remember, if you go, bring a spare tire and make sure your kidneys are in good shape.