Bodie, California: Dead but Not Forgotten

Updated on March 6, 2018
Scott Gese profile image

Born East of the Dakota's, raised in the American West. I'm a writer of books, blog posts, magazine articles and short stories.

It started out simple enough. The way many western towns did in the 1800's. A gold strike, a few tents and a lot of high hopes. The Bodie mining camp was no different.

The year was 1859. W.S. Body had discovered gold in California. It was in an area east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range along the California/Nevada border.

Bodie, California
Bodie, California | Source

Where the heck is Bodie?

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Bodie, CA, USA
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It was here that a gold mining camp was set up and named after Body. The camp continued to grow and before long a few permanent buildings were built. It was an eventual misspelling by a local sign painter that changed the name forever. It had soon become known as Bodie. It was about this same time, other gold camps around Bodie were also growing. As they became better known, this small mining camp struggled to maintain its foothold in their shadow.

There was enough gold coming out of Bodie to entice a couple of stamp mills to try their luck. But after several years of meager returns, both failed. It looked like this mining town was about to go the way of so many others. A flash in the pan and then gone, never to be heard of again.

The standard Stamp Mill in Bodie, California
The standard Stamp Mill in Bodie, California | Source

A Breath of New Life Inflates Bodie

As luck would have it, an accident at one of several mines operating in the area reversed the camp's dismal future. The year was 1876. A cave-in at the Bunker Hill mine uncovered a huge vein of gold bearing ore. The highly profitable ore put Bodie back in business. New speculators looking to make huge profits on the news opened large mining operations. It was a gamble that turned out to be a financial success. As word of this new strike traveled, fortune seekers from around the country descended on Bodie. The small town morphed into a boom town overnight. With several mining operations now in full swing, more rich veins were discovered. Within three years of the original find, Bodie was bursting at the seams.

New buildings were popping up faster than corn on a hot skillet. Newspapers began making wild predictions concerning future discoveries. This caused Bodie's population to swell. Almost overnight its population had increased to close to 8,000.

At one point Bodie consisted of no less than thirty mines, nine stamp mills, a railroad and over 2000 buildings. Including two banks, a fire company, five newspapers, close to 70 saloons, numerous dance houses and one jail. The town had a red light district and a Chinatown complete with opium dens.

Bodie Acquires a Reputation

Main street grew to a mile in length. Murders, robberies and barroom brawls gave Bodie the reputation of a wild west town like no other. It rivaled other western towns with similar reputations such as Tombstone and Dodge City. “Badman from Bodie” became a popular phrase of the times and only enhanced its wild reputation.

The Railroad Comes to Bodie

The booming town required lumber for building. More than a dozen operating mines required heavy timber to line the shafts. There were no less than nine stamp mills in full production and they all ran on steam power. As did the large pumps that kept water out of the deep mines. Both required cord wood, and a lot of it. The wood was supplied by the Bodie Railway and Lumber Company. The railway line was relatively short. It ran from the Sierra foothills to the town of Bodie and no further. It pulled no passengers, only cars filled with lumber and cord wood.

They come and they go. It's the way of the Old West.

Bodie...only the shells of its former glory remain.
Bodie...only the shells of its former glory remain. | Source

Bodie died the way many western towns did in the 1800's

For good and for bad, Bodie had certainly made a name for itself. The get-rich-quick mentality of the towns businesses ran only as deep as the men who worked the Bodie mines.

By 1880 many of these mines were showing little promise. With mining towns in nearby states beginning to boom, many of the original Bodie miners packed up and moved on to greener pastures. This caused most of the unproductive mines to close, leaving only a handful of the more lucrative mines to continue operating.

Methodist church
Methodist church | Source

By 1883 the town's population had dwindled to around 800. This quieted the town down to the point where it was more conducive to a family atmosphere. In fact, in 1882, a couple of churches were even built.

The remaining Bodie mines began to peter out and close down. Without steady work, many of these miners left to find other opportunities. By the late 1880's, Bodie's population was in steady decline. In 1892 a major fire broke out. It burned a large portion of the town. By 1910 a mere 700 people remained. In 1912 the one remaining Bodie newspaper printed its final edition. Five years later, the demand for cord wood and building supplies had diminished. The Bodie railway had become unprofitable and it too was finally abandoned.

In 1931 another disastrous fire destroyed much of what remained of the town.

The last mine closed in 1942 as World War II began to intensify. In total, at an average price of $20 an once, about $34 million in gold was produced from the Bodie mines.

The following year Bodie was designated an authentic western ghost town.

Of the 2000+ buildings at its peak, about 170 remain.

Wheaton and Hollis Hotel and Bodie Store
Wheaton and Hollis Hotel and Bodie Store | Source

Bodie is Reborn

Over the years, most abandoned western towns have been left to the elements. Fortunately for Bodie, the town was taken over by the California Dept. of Parks and Recreation. It was registered as a historic landmark in 1962. The town is now preserved in what is known as “arrested decay”. This means the buildings are only protected from further decay, but not restored. Bodie is now a National Historic Site and a California State Historic Park. It is administered by the Bodie Foundation. Bodie currently receives about 200,000 visitors a year from all over the world. Visitors can enjoy a leisurely stroll down its dusty main street. Their imaginations only guessing at what this once booming town must have been like 150 years ago.

Location and Directions

The Bodie National Historic Park is northeast of Yosemite, 13 miles east of Highway 395 on Bodie Road (Hwy 270).

The last three miles to Bodie are on a dirt road. They can at times be rough.

You might think twice before you drive your fathers Buick into town.

The road closes in winter due to heavy snowfall.

Bodie, California

© 2018 Scott Gese

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    • Scott Gese profile image
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      Scott Gese 2 months ago from Brownsville, Oregon

      Alexander James Guckenberger

      You should visit. It's a very interesting place. It holds a lot of history concerning the American west. The town has a story to tell.

    • Guckenberger profile image

      Alexander James Guckenberger 2 months ago from Maryland, United States of America

      This is very interesting. I need to visit. :)

    • Scott Gese profile image
      Author

      Scott Gese 2 months ago from Brownsville, Oregon

      Rochelle

      Thank you for your comment. It's an amazing piece of American history.

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 2 months ago from California Gold Country

      I'm glad I had a chance to visit there a few years ago. Though I knew something about it, I was amazed at how big it was-- a photographer's dream, for sure. The state has done a pretty good job of preserving it in it's state of arrested decay. A fascinating site, for sure.

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