HOA LogoDestinationsTravel MallTravel LinksGlobal Travel

Bodie, California

A place inhabited by ghosts of the past


Panorama of Bodie, Calfornia

Few places genuinely breathe history. Too often, historic sites have been scrubbed up, sanitized and re-created in an attempt to capture moods of its past.

Not Bodie.

Bodie State Historical Park, located in the Sierra Nevadas just west of the California-Nevada border, is an intriguing, beguiling excursion into the past. When it became part of the California State Parks system in 1962 as a historic park, it was decided that its skeleton of structures would be maintained in a state of "arrested decay."

More than 170 buildings, only about 5 to 10 percent of those remaining from Bodie's glory years as an 1880s gold mining boom town, remain. Still, their "real" feeling gives a sense of what was. For several decades in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Bodie was was a town of more than 10,000 people. It was notorious for its killings, opium dens, brutally rough living and working conditions, miserable high desert weather and remoteness.

Once elegant, now braced against the wind.
A gold mine: production halted years ago.
A home, time-turned by the desert into a shack.

It's said that one little girl, on learning her family was moving there, wrote in her diary, "Goodbye God, I'm going to Bodie."

These days, going to Bodie is a pleasure. It begins on State Route 270, with a 13-mile road that winds and climbs from Highway 395 seven miles south of Bridgeport, California. The last three miles are unpaved, which helps create a sense of its ruggedness. Smartly, vehicle parking is restricted to an area away from the town's remaining structures. Be prepared to do some walking.

Streets that once bustled with miners, merchants and all types of hustlers are seasonally populated with tourists. More than 200,000 people visit yearly. The park is open year-round, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the summer and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. other seasons.

Bodie was founded by Waterman S. Body, also known as William S. Bodey, in 1859. Body discovered small amounts of gold in the hills north of Mono Lake. There's some debate on the spelling of the town. Some claim it was a mistake by an illiterate sign painter, others say it was done to ensure its proper pronunciation. Body or Bodie, ironically, never enjoyed the rewards of his discovery because he froze to death while carrying in winter supplies.

When the Standard Company found a rich strike of gold and silver ore in 1877, the sleepy town of 20 exploded into a boom town. At its peak, the town had more than 60 saloons and dance halls, and killings were a near daily occurrence. Bodie became legendary as the "most lawless, wildest and toughest mining camp the far west has ever known."

While Bodie was known for its riches over the years (ore mined in the hills near Bodie totaled more than $32 million in gold and more than $6 million in silver) it required businesses to support the workers. Wood to power the mills and warm houses was provided by Chinese "mule loads" until the Bodie-Benton Railroad transported lumber and firewood. General stores and saloons provided supplies and outlets for free time away from the mines, and the women on Bonanza Street were legendary for their hospitality.

Bodie's decline began in the 1880s, when the mines played out and businesses transferred to newly booming cities. Many homes were toasted during a fire in 1892. Although the use of electrical power to run the mill and the development of the cyanide process for working mill tailing aroused interest, efforts to revive the town were short-lived. In 1932, a child playing with matches lighted the fire that destroyed most of the declining town's buildings.
Tombstone Marks Time
Mileage Didn't Matter

Although only fragments of the town remain, there's much to see. A friend and I spent several hours peering in windows of vacant buildings and houses. While fires and old age claimed much of Bodie and its mills, what remains lends testimony to the town that was.

An informative park guide provides directions and, even better, fascinating background material. Using the guide, we strolled past decayed homes, machine shops, a church, Chinatown, jail, sawmill, livery stable, school, bank, assay office, saloon, firehouse, gas station, mercantiles and a morgue with caskets still inside.

The former Miner's Union Hall, built in 1878, which served as the focus of the town's social life, is now a low-key museum.

A short walk from downtown are four adjacent cemeteries, the final resting places for many of Bodie's old-timers, from business leaders to murderers to prostitutes to forgotten others. Some are ensconced under beautifully carved graves surrounded by lavish fences, others in unmarked sites shrouded by sagebrush and weeds.

Bodie is a place inhabited by ghosts of the past.
* * *
For information about Bodie visit the California State Parks Web site at www.parks.ca.gov; contact Bodie State Historic Park, P.O. Box 515, Bridgeport, CA 93517, telephone (760) 647-6445; or The Friends of Bodie, P.O. Box 515, Bridgeport, CA 93517. Go prepared as there are no services, camping, lodging, food vending or stores. A bathroom and museum are open during the summer. At an elevation of 8,400 feet, it is hot in the summer, very cold during the winter.

Photos by Lee Juillerat




HOA LogoDestinationsTravel MallTravel LinksGlobal Travel