EASTERN SIERRAS IN THE FALL #2 –
Bodie Historic Park
Map – Bridgeport to Bodie
On our trip to the Eastern side of the Sierra Mountain Range in September we decided to spend a day at the Bodie State Historic Park. We arrived at the park around 10:00 am on a gorgeous day with pleasant with temps in the mid to upper 60’s with clear azure blue skies. Quite lovely. Over the course of the day, clouds started drifting in making the photography much better. By mid afternoon the wind had picked up and the cloud cover became more solid as an unusual September weather system came in over the Sierra’s. We had planned to stay in the park till sunset – or at least near sunset. But around 3:30 pm the temperature dropped into the low 30’s and by 4:00 pm it had started snowing with the snow blowing sideways in the wind. Given that it was unlikely for there to be any golden light near sunset in a snow storm, we decided to leave the park.
Bodie State Historic Park Location
Bodie State Historic Park is geographically located 5 miles due north of Mono lake as the crow flies but being stuck to the ground, one approaches it from the west on CA-270 which tee’s off of US395 half way between Bridgeport and Lee Vining (Mono Lake). Once you turn off of US-395 it is a13 mile drive to the town the last 3 miles of which are on a dirt road. There is also an approach from the south departing from near the north shore of Mono Lake but it’s entirely on dirt roads and takes longer to drive.
This town is in a hilly section of high desert at an altitude of 8,375 feet. It’s what I call scrub desert. There are no trees and the ground is just sandy dirt with scraggly bushes eking out a living in the arid land. Given its location and altitude it tends to get pretty windy from time to time as we discovered. In the winter – yes it’s open in the winter but the road isn’t plowed so you may have trouble getting there – the high temperatures are in the 60’s but it usually drops below zero (f) at night. In the summers, it can be quite warm but typically it is in the 80’s.
Even though this is a desert they tend to get three to six feet of snow a year but with the high winds in the winter months this snow can pile up into drifts over 20 feet tall.
There is drinking water and flush toilets at the park but no food. So, if you plan to go it’s best to bring a picnic lunch.
As we know, the California gold rush happened in and around 1849 in the Western foothills of the Sierra Mountains. But the heyday didn’t last all that long. As the mining petered out in the gold country of the western Sierra’s many miners figured that if there was gold on the west flank of the range then there might also be gold on the east flank of the range. So, they trekked over the mountains and started prospecting in the high desert regions to the east of the mountains – and some gold and silver was found.
In 1859 a fellow named W.S. Bodey, from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., discovered gold at this location. But, as bad luck would have it, on the way to get supplies he died in a blizzard a few months later, well before any sort of town came to be. His bones were re-discovered in 1879 at which time he was given a burial, but then his bones went missing again. At this time no one really knows where he is but there is speculation that what remains of poor old Mr. Bodey is buried on a hill above what is now the cemetery. Out of respect for his discovery of gold here they named the town after him and in the process misspelled his name. So, we are left with the town of Bodie rather than Bodey. Some times you get no respect, even after you’ve died and your bones have been lost - twice.
Anyway, the mining and growth of Bodie was somewhat sluggish as most attention was being given to the Comstock load up in Virginia City and the silver strike at Aurora (then thought to be in California but is actually in NV). By 1868 only two mining companies had gone into Bodie with enough resources to actually extract ore and process it in a pair of stamp mills they had built in the town. Both failed to make a profit and closed down.
However, things changed in 1875 when a tunnel collapsed in one of the defunct mines revealing a rich body of gold ore. And the boom was on. Miners from all over the west as well as the east flocked to the area to try their luck. Although the peak population estimates have ranged from 8,000 to 10,000 the current thinking is that it topped out between 7,000 and 8,000 people. This was not a small hick town. It was a major urban center.
Several major companies came in and took over mines from the smaller operations and built stamp mills. Between 1887 and 1881 there were 30 different mines in operation and 9 stamp mills. As in most such cases such a thriving boom town attracted many people other than miners, many of which were of the less desirable sort. The town soon developed a reputation for bad men and wild times. During this period there were over 60 saloons, an entire quarter of the city was for houses of prostitution and there was also a decent supply of opium dens. It was a happening place.
But, all good things come to an end, and the end came rapidly as the ore petered out and mines closed. The decline actually started in 1880 when mining booms in Utah, Montana and Arizona lured the get-rich-quick lot to move on. This exodus of the rowdies turned Bodie into a more family oriented town. This is evidenced by the construction, in 1882, of both a Methodist Church (still there) and Roman Catholic Church (burned down in 1930).
Even though the population was declining, some of the mines were doing well. In 1881 Bodies’ production was $3.1 million – a record high for the town. In that same year a narrow gauge railroad was built from Mono Mills south of Mono Lake to Bodie. This line was used almost exclusively to bring in wood in support of the mining operation.
A short uptick in mining occurred in the early 1890s during which time the town saw many technological advancements in the mines. In 1890, a recently invented cyanide process came along and allowed them to recover gold and silver from discarded mill tailings and from low-grade ore that had been passed over. In 1892, the Standard Company built its own hydroelectric plant approximately 13 miles away at Dynamo Pond. The plant produced 130 horsepower (97 kW) and 3,530 volts alternating current (AC) to power the company's mill and its 20 stamps. This installation marked one of the country's first transmission of electricity over a long distance – when it worked – which it didn’t for the grand opening of the power line. All the press was invited as well as dignitaries from near and far. Well, they threw the switch and nothing happened. It seems that no one had bothered to test the whole thing before holding the grand opening party. At the time they thought electricity had a hard time going around bends in wires. So when they strung the cables they pulled them taught so they were straight rather than letting them dip between towers. Of course when the temperature changed overnight the wires contracted -- Snap. Oops.
By 1910 the population had eroded to 698 people. In 1912 the last newspaper closed down. In 1913 the Standard Consolidated Mine ceased operation. And in 1914 the total mining profits for the all the remaining mines was $6,821. Around this time James S. Cain started buying up everything he could in the town. He then re-opened the Standard Mine for prior employees who were still around to use more or less as a co-operative and they managed to turn a $100,000 profit in 1915. I guess big business wasn’t all that good at big business.
However this didn’t stop the downward spiral of the town. The railroad was abandoned in 1917 and the rails sold for scrap. The last mine closed in 1942. The family of Bodies’ last major land owner, the same Mr. Cain, hired caretakers to watch over the now deserted town and protect it from looters and vandals. In 1962, the state of California purchased the town to be used as a Historic State Park and to preserve the historic buildings and artifacts.
Remains of the Consolidated Mines Stamp Mill
Old trestle used for ore cars to dump their ore into chutes at the top of the stamp mill
Steele rails on the trestle long ago sold for scrap.
Machine Shop in the Consolidated Mines Stamp Mill
Ten of the fifteen remaining “Stamps” in the Consolidated Mines Stamp Mill
Bodie is a ghost town but unlike most ghost towns this one was inhabited until quite recently. As such you find things like electricity and rusted motor vehicles and even a gas station. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961, a year before it became a California State Park. It is also California’s official State Gold Rush Ghost Town.
Today, Bodie consists of around 170 buildings, of which around 110 are still standing. This is less than 5% of the number it had in its heyday. These buildings are being preserved in what is called “arrested decay”. Although buildings are being maintained so they don’t deteriorate any further, they are not being restored.
When residents abandoned Bodie there was no one else moving in and the cost of moving heavy furniture and other goods was quite high. So most people just locked the door on their home or business and literally walked (or drove) away with just a couple of suitcases of clothes and perhaps a few sentimental belongings.
As a visitor you can walk the surprisingly wide streets, and peer into the buildings through windows. The interiors are pretty much how the last resident or owner left it when they drove off into the sunset. For the most part you cannot go into buildings. However, there are a few buildings you can enter. The Methodist church is open as is the visitor center in the old Miners Union Hall – now mostly a museum of artifacts picked up from with the town. If you sign up for the Stamp Mill tour they will lead you through much of the mill interior – you can’t go in on your own.
Some of the interiors are startling. What we’re used to seeing in historic sites is either carefully restored or reconstructed museum quality structures that have been painstakingly returned to how they looked in their prime, or we’re used to seeing the remains of buildings that have been ravaged by looters, defaced by vandals, and decayed by the elements. But Bodie is different. Other than a thick coating of dust, and some weather damage in places, many of the interiors look like the people just left yesterday (if yesterday was in 1910). For example, the school room looks like the kids are just out for recess. Books, pencils and writing pads are on the desks and the black board has writing on it. Some houses still have the bed, dresser and dining room table and chairs in place. Yes the wallpaper may be peeling and the ceiling in the corner may have succumbed to a leak in the roof, but you can really imagine their life.
Outdoors, the areas between remaining buildings are littered with the detritus of semi modern living. Shards of china dishes, nails galore, old rusted cars and trucks, various pieces of equally rusted machinery. A flattened tin can here. A bottle there. And over here are the springs of an old mattress. Even though it’s illegal to remove any of these things, I’m sure much has found its way out of the park in the hands of tourists. If you go, please don’t be one of ‘those’ tourists.
Due to budget issues the park was scheduled to be closed in 2009 and then again in 2010. However in each case the state legislature was able to work out a way to keep the park open. Although it is a California State Historic Park, as of 2012 the administration of the park was taken over by the Bodie Foundation.
Bodie Ghost town from Burkham House
A well near the Morgue and Surrey Shed
Worm gear from some undetermined machine
Fancy woodwork over front door
Antique bottles in window of J. S. Cain house
Gas Station by Boon Store
Bodie Methodist Church
Bodie School room
Steering wheel and gear from old car or truck
Gregory family privy
Dechambeau Hotel & IOOF Miners Hall
Swasey (Swazey) hotel
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I hope you are enjoying reading the Fall in the Eastern Sierra’s travel log. The next installment will be Laws Railroad Museum near Bishop.
- Images of this trip can be found on my website at.
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Thanks for reading – Comments Appreciated -- Dan