Bodie, a California State Historic Park since 1962, is a ghost of the booming Gold Rush town it once was at the apex of the industrial revolution and the lawless Wild West. It’s easy to get pulled into the past when experiencing Bodie’s desolate ruins. The signs of Victorian life are abundant: steam-powered machinery, a bank safe from 1867, and cast iron wood stoves. Bodie’s story unfolds itself, the longer you wander its streets.
In its nascent summer of 1859, W.S. Bodey, an adventurous New Yorker who left his wife and two children behind to chase the gold rush, discovered gold north of Mono Lake in the eastern Sierras. Determined to winter at the site of his discovery, he set up camp with a Native American guide. Some months later, on a trip to Monoville for supplies, Bodey was caught in a blizzard, and when he could no longer continue on, his guide, in an act of self-preservation, had to leave him there to succumb to hypothermia. Bodey’s body was later found as the snow thawed, having been frozen in the mountains for months. Thankful for his discovery and sacrifice, the subsequent prospectors named the town after him.
Twenty years later, from 1879 to 1880, the population exploded from about 20 residents to over 10,000, as word spread of Bodie’s riches. Bodie’s Silver Hill and Taylor Gulch were flush with silver and gold, which drew hopeful miners from all over the world to take their chance at finding the Mother Lode.
California’s third largest city at its peak, Bodie’s harsh weather and the dangerous mining conditions took many lives. In the dead of winter, temperatures sank far below 0ºF; residents would have to stay up all night pacing in their living quarters, else freeze to death in their sleep. The next morning, they would collapse from fatigue in the heated local saloons when they opened for business.
Millworkers, while handsomely paid, were subject to perilous conditions and substances in the steam-powered stamp mill. On the upper level, millworkers handled mercury with their bare hands, using it to draw gold from pay dirt. Consequently, some would eventually sustain neurological damage. On the lower level of the mill, lethal chemicals like cyanide were used to extract the finer gold particles, and giant crucibles were used to melt metals.
The noise generated by the mill’s machinery, which could be heard loud and clear from miles away, was so integral to life in Bodie that children would cry if the noise ever came to a halt. Workers often plugged their ears with beeswax to protect their ears from the deafening sounds while working inside the mill. However, the wax would eventually melt from their own body heat and seep into the inner ear, causing problems later in life. Millworkers were essentially made to choose between ruining their hearing sooner or later.
Despite the dangers, the five-dollar-per-day salary attracted hopeful workers from all over the world. It drew such a large labor force, the Miner’s Union in Bodie had a long waiting list for employment in the mines and mills, and each person would have to pay an annual fee to remain on the list.
With the massive influx of single men seeking work in the mines, Bodie came to be known as a rough-and-tumble place that inspired many Wild West-themed dime novels. The infamous “Bad Man from Bodie” was a composite of several shady characters, indicative of Bodie’s sinful nature in the early 1880’s. Bodie’s reputation was owed to the men of the mines, who worked hard and played harder. Bodie had over 65 saloons, equally frequented by all classes and walks of life. Many of Bodie’s oases were fortified by the town’s three breweries: the Bodie, the Pioneer, and Pat Fahey’s. Miners looking to blow off steam also frequented gambling halls, Chinatown’s opium dens, and “virgin alley,” where “ladies of the night” practiced the oldest job in the world.
As time passed and the mines yielded less gold and silver, the population of Bodie changed; rowdy miners went to seek their fortune elsewhere, and the lop-sided man to woman ratio evened out. Bodie became a family-oriented community. With time, the town’s population decreased steadily, as its remote location overshadowed the ever decreasing mining profits. Finally, at the start of WWII, the US government shut down Bodie’s mines after being deemed non-essential to the war effort. Consequently, properties were either abandoned or sold to the wealthy Cain family, who locked each residence upon purchasing it, effectively preserving the buildings in the state they had been left.
Today, thinned out by fire and gravity, only five percent of the original structures still stand in a state of arrested decay, and at over 100 separate sites, it is still clear to this day how large Bodie once was. With names like “Dog-face George’s House,” “Sawdust Corner Saloon,” and “Bell’s Machine Shop,” each site is a haunting artifact of the lives that passed through it 150 years ago.
Visitors must drive 3 miles on a secluded dirt road through rolling hills to reach Bodie, which, by itself, makes it worth calling ahead if you’re planning to visit in the winter months. Having been ravaged by fire several times, there is broken glass on the ground almost everywhere, so it might be a good idea to skip the sandals and go with actual shoes. I would also recommend slathering on awkward amounts of sunscreen, since you get sunburned very quickly at Bodie’s 9,000 foot altitude.
At the Miner’s Union Hall, which has been converted to a museum, visitors can purchase a two dollar self-guided tour brochure and sign up for daily tours of the Stamp Mill and the entire town. The daily tours are definitely worth asking about at the museum; it gives visitors a detailed look into what life was like in Bodie’s heyday. Tours are guided by a handful of park rangers who live onsite year-round, all very knowledgeable and proud to convey the story of Bodie’s rise and fall to the 200,000 guests it receives every year.