Wednesday, December 29, 2010
When I rounded the bend and got my first look at the ghost town of Bodie, I felt like I’d been transported back in time. Over the past few weeks, that’s exactly how I’ve described it to people: “Walking through Bodie is the closest you’ll ever get to visiting the Old West. “
I’ve thought of Bodie quite a bit recently, imagining what the town must look like right now, buried under 15 to 20 feet of December snow. That gets me thinking about what Bodie must have been like a hundred years ago, when it was still thriving. The residents must have been tough as nails in order to survive the extreme cold, rampant illness and total isolation of winter in the Eastern Sierras. I can’t help comparing it to Barrow, Alaska – the setting of the vampire movie 30 DAYS OF NIGHT. While Bodie may not have to worry about demonic bloodsuckers, it’s not surprising that so many articles about the town inevitably echo the sentiments of a long-dead little girl who reluctantly settled there with her family: “Goodbye, God! We’re going to Bodie!”
The town of Bodie is named for one William S. Bodey, a prospector who discovered gold in them thar hills in the summer of 1859. Bodey didn’t survive his first subsequently winter in the mountains. Friends found his skeletal remains in the spring thaw, and helped to organize the Bodie mining district. The town started small, in the shadow of the nearby silver-mining town of Aurora. Then, in 1875, a cave-in exposed a particularly rich lode of gold ore in Bunker Hill, and Bodie became a boomtown overnight.
According to the Reno Gazette in February of 1878: “Bodie has a population of 1,500, about 600 of whom are out of employment, and of which the latter number, not 250 would work if they could find work to do. There are in town 17 saloons, 5 stores, 2 livery stables, 6 restaurants, 1 newspaper, 4 barbershops, 2 butcher shops, 1 fruit store, 4 lodging houses, 2 boot shops, 1 tin shop, 1 jewelry store, 1 saddle shop, 2 drug stores, 3 doctors, 4 lawyers, a post office, Express Office, 15 houses of ill fame, 1 bakery, 2 blacksmith shops, 2 lumber yards, 2 stage lines, the usual secret societies and a Miners’ Union… There are six good mines and about 700 locations… The average new arrivals per day is 10.”
The town continued to grow for the next few years – reaching a total of roughly 8,000 residents and necessitating the building of a schoolhouse – before it went into decline. By 1911, there were only about 700 residents left in Bodie. That same year, the town of Bodie finally got electricity… just in time for a typically miserable winter storm. According to James Watson and Doug Brodie, authors of the book BIG BAD BODIE: “That winter of 1910-1911 was not especially harsh by high country standards. A ‘normal’ winter in Bodie could often equal the worst winter elsewhere. The 8,396-foot altitude is more than a mile and a half up. Temperatures drop to 40 degrees below zero, and occasionally more. Blizzards can last for days. In fact, that’s just what this one did in 1911.”
In circumstances like this, it’s no wonder that many families routinely abandoned their homes for the winter… but this caused just as much hardship as weathering the storm. In 1915, the Saturday Evening Post ran an article on “Ghost Cities of the West,” suggesting that the entire town of Bodie had been completely abandoned. The announcement drew looters by the truckload. When some families returned to their homes, they found that most of their belongings had been pilfered. This pattern continued for decades. Marguerite Sprague, author of BODIE’S GOLD, offers another theory for brazen robberies: “When you talk to these former Bodie citizens, you hear a consensus that Bodie was a wonderful place to grow up. People felt safe and part of a community. Bodie was still a town where no one locked their doors and children roamed the hills at will, their parents free of worry about kidnappers and other atrocities.” Visitors, she suggests, took advantage of this “open door” policy.
With the population numbers on the decline, Hollywood also took advantage – filming the early western HELL’S HEROES (1929) in Bodie, just a few years before a massive fire wiped out three quarters of the town. The fire – blamed on a boy who lit the fateful match to protest the serving of Jell-O (instead of ice cream) at his birthday party – claimed most of Bonanza Street and erased the more disreputable section of town. The rest of the town emptied out after gold mining was outlawed in 1942. When the mines closed down, the Cain family took over and hired caretakers year-round to protect the surviving structures from vandals. One of those caretakers has become a subject of local legend – the current park rangers remember that he liked to patrol the grounds carrying a shotgun and a bottle of wine. His methods, apparently, were effective. While the neighboring town of Aurora was picked clean and erased from the map, Bodie remains intact.
Since 1962, the state of California has preserved Bodie in a state of “arrested decay.” Every winter, Mother Nature buries the town and tries to crush the buildings. Every spring, the town resurfaces and the state of California reinforces those buildings that are still standing. In recent years, private investors have also tried to destroy the town through extensive strip-mining, but the ghost town and surrounding land are now completely owned by the public, and protected for future time-travelers.
LONG LIVE BODIE!