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The ghosts of Bodie

The Eastern Sierra contains some of the most beautiful scenery in the United States.  The rugged towering  eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada near the California-Nevada border and the high desert below the mountains possess a desolate beauty that draw visitors from around the world.  Famous sites include Yosemite National Park, splendid Mono Lake, and Bodie State Historical Park, the site of California’s best preserved gold mining ghost town.

I had long heard of Bodie from my daughter Katie, a historic preservationist and museum curator for the California state park service and we finally got a chance to visit on a cold snowy day in late May 2010.  It is not an easy place to reach except during the warm months of summer.  Bodie, at an elevation of 8,375 feet, receives between ten to twenty feet of snow each winter and is only accessible by snowmobiles and snowcats from October to April or May.   We had no trouble getting there from Katie’s home in the western foothills of the Sierra, but we encountered a near-blizzard on our return over the mountains even though Memorial Day was only days away.

Photo Katie Métraux

Despite these difficulties, the trip to Bodie was very much worth it.  Many historians agree that Bodie is North America’s most extensive, best preserved mining camp.  According to one guide, “Bodie is absolutely unique.  No ghost town has as much remaining from its heyday, and no place is maintained like Bodie.  Now a state park, it is kept in a state of ‘arrested decay,’ which means that it is not being restored to itsa original condition but rather preserved in its present shape.”  When the state purchased the town in 1962, it agreed to leave everything exactly as it was for posterity.  Thus, when shingles, a window or part of a roof needs replacement, they are identical to the original as found in 1962.  When Katie had to do an inventory of the loosely scattered contents of one abandoned house, she had to take careful photographs and replace every loose object exactly where she found it.  Several buildings leaning badly in one direction or another are in fact especially braced from within by carpenters hired by the state park service.

During Bodie’s boom period in the late 1870s and early 1880s, Bodie boasted a population of over 10,000 people, making it the then third biggest city / town in California.  One of the first miners to work the area, W. S. Body (or Bodey) and his partner, E.S. Taylor, found gold in the area, but Body died in a snowstorm bringing supplies to his remote camp which in later years was named for him—though the spelling was changed.  Bodie had limited success in the 1860s and early 1870s, but a large strike of gold found in 1874 and an even larger one in 1878 brought thousands of eager prospectors to the site.

Building a city for 10,000 prospectors in a very short period was no easy task.  The Bodie region is cold, barren and desolate.  Wood had to be brought from a forest over 30 miles away—a task made easier by the construction of a narrow-guage from Bodie to the lumber site at Mono Mills in 1881.  Hundreds of houses as well as stores, churches, hotels and other types of buildings sprang up in this wilderness—and it is said that Bodie’s mines and mills consumed something like 45,000 cords of wood each year.

Bodie grew into a very boisterous western town with 65 saloons, seven breweries, and a busy red light district.  A minister in 1881 called Bodie a “sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion,” but other historians judge that life there was in general fairly peaceful.  One story has a little girl, knowing that she and her parents would soon move to Bodie, saying in her prayers, “Goodbye God, I’m going to Bodie.”  What she really said was, “Good!  By God, I’m going to Bodie!”

Bodie’s boom was short lived and by 1883 only a few hundred hearty-souls remained.  One of those remaining was Canadian Jim Cain, who after his arrival in 1875 made his initial fortune procuring and delivering the wood for the town and then investing in various profitable mines and leasing the new railroad.  When others left, Cain bought their properties as well as the town’s bank.  In 1890 Cain brought the new cyanide process to treat previously worthless tailings and later brought electricity to the town to power his plants where tailings were processed.  Cain’s operations kept the town profitable for the early decades of the twentieth century, but a fire in 1932 destroyed well over half of the now largely vacant town.  Cain moved to San Francisco where he died in 1939, but he hired watchmen to care for the town until the state purchased the area in 1962.

According to one source, Cain was also quite a practical joker.  His bank had one of the few phones in town – and when he heard that a naïve Chinese businessman was going to call his wholesaler requesting a shipment of sweet potatoes, he quietly hid 3 sweet potatoes in the phone’s battery box and called the wholesaler to play along.  When the Chinese man later made his call, the wholesaler assured the man that he could send the potatoes immediately by wire.  Cain then opened the box and the potatoes fell to the floor.  The stunned businessman then requested that his whole order be sent by wire.

Fortunately, much of the town that survived the 1932 fire still survives today.  Most of the nearly 170 buildings were private residences made of wind-battered and sub-bleached wood  — a lovely contrast to the brown soil on which they stand.  Some of the buildings are in excellent shape—and looking inside one can see bath tubs, decayed beds, pots and pans scattered here and there, and piles of old magazines.  Other buildings have fallen in roofs or just the shells of walls.  There are several public and commercial buildings as well including a Methodist church, hotel, store, firehouse, and a public meeting hall which houses the park’s main store and information center.  A wild and largely deserted cemetery on the outskirts of town is also well worth a visit

The authenticity of the site is enhanced by the lack of  any restaurants, vending machines, and concession stands – though the information center has a superb little book store.  One can walk freely through the town, though it is possible to enter only a tiny handful of the buildings—one must content oneself looking through windows of most buildings.  My favorite building is the old Methodist church which still maintains much of its old dignity.   There are tours of the town and the huge 1899 Standard Mill are given during the warmer months, but we were happier wandering around on our own

Our visit took three hours, but we did not have time to closely examine every building.  A thorough visit would take the whole day.  Bodie is a marvelous, wondrous place—a chance to have an authentic view of the Old West.

Visiting Mono Lake

We left Bodie at closing time and drove about ten miles on a rutted dirt road to nearby Mono Lake.  Mono is by modern definitions quite a large lake, but it is the small remnant of a large inland sea which long ago covered much of the region.  Its salt water supports a large ecosystem of birds and plants—and its stunningly blue waters are beautiful to view both close up and far away. I had first heard of the lake when reading Mark Twains early book, Roughing it (1872).  Twain rowed a boat across the lake and found it to be a “lifeless, treeless, hideous desert… the loneliest place on earth.”  It still retains much of its peaceful lonely beauty even today.  Sadly, the city of Los Angeles diverted much of its watersupply in 1941 causing the lake to shrink, but after 1994 the state ordered the restortation of the water to the lake which in a few years will return Mono to most of its original size.

Leaving Mono one can drive up to one of the main gates to Yosemite National Park, but since the gate was closed due to winter conditions in the area, we turned around and drove home.

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