I recently had the opportunity to visit another old western mining town that flourished during the same time period as Virginia City and the Comstock Lode. Imagine if you can, a deserted mining camp, just as old as Virginia City with no one living there but the ghosts said to haunt the 170 or more surviving deserted buildings.
Have you ever wondered what Virginia City would look like if the people who once lived here simply moved away and left their homes and businesses locked up, with all their furnishings and household goods still inside?
This is what you would see if you were to pay a visit to Bodie, the best-preserved western ghost town in the country. It is like a museum where you walk through the streets and look through the windows of the houses and businesses to see the antique furnishings, iron stoves, dishes and food containers still in the cupboards and childrens’ toys scattered about. This historic treasure is located just west of the California-Nevada State line about 12 miles southeast of Bridgeport. From a junction with US Highway 395, the road to Bodie is paved for 10 miles but has a 3 mile section of gravel road as you get near the town. It is now a California State Park and is a National Historic Landmark.
Like on the Comstock, rich ores were discovered at Bodie by prospectors in 1859. At about the same time, silver was discovered in the nearby diggings at Aurora, Nevada. The two towns flourished with typical boom and bust times with Bodie reaching a peak between 1877 and 1880. At that time, there were an estimated 2,000 buildings with approximately 10,000 people living and working there. Bodie soon boasted of several daily newspapers, telegraph, a narrow-gauge railroad and nine stamp mills sending gold bullion to the mint in Carson City.
The entire surrounding region became a bustling gold producer with Bodie at the center sporting two banks, a Chinatown, 65 saloons, a jail, Miners’ Union Hall, Catholic and Methodist churches and a Taoist temple. There was a thriving red light district where the miners went for recreation. One of the prostitutes there named Rosa May is credited with saving many lives during an epidemic with her life-saving skills. Upon her death, however, she was buried outside the cemetery fence.
During the declining years, a hydroelectric plant was developed near bridgeport and power from the plant was used to operate a 20-stamp mill in Bodie that still stands today. The California State Parks offers tours of the mill during the summer months. In the 1890’s the process for gold extraction became the recently invented cyanide process and there was a resurgence of activity working some of the less productive ores and the old discarded mill tailings. The Miners Union Hall still stands today and is the place where the State Parks service operates a museum where historical books about the region can be purchased.
The population of Bodie gradually declined during the late 1800s and early 1900s as people simply abandoned their homes and businesses to move on to more successful ventures. A few residents hung on to act as caretakers of the abandoned properties as other people left their belongings behind rather than trying to haul it away. A gentleman named James S. Cain bought up most of the buildings in town as people left and intended to use the property to develop future mining claims. His family continued acting as caretakers for many years to keep people from rummaging through the buildings and removing the furniture and other belongings.
A few permanent residents remained in Bodie through much of the 1930s and 1940s. A fire ravaged much of the business district in 1932. The U.S. Post Office finally closed down in 1942. The State of California realized what a historic treasure the site was and made it a State Park and has maintained it in a state of arrested decay. The 170 or so remaining buildings are all locked up with most of the original furnishings still intact. A few of the buildings can be entered just enough for people to see the contents. All the others are closed up but visitors are allowed to look through the windows to see the amazing artifacts just as they were left when the people abandoned them.
A few of the homes and businesses have had new roofs installed to protect the contents from damage from the leaking roofs. The only place where money changes hands is at the entrance gate and at the Miners Union Hall which is now a museum where people can purchase books about Bodie. There are no open saloons, candy stores or junk shops. Old rusty cars, wagons, and mining equipment are scattered around wherever they were abandoned when they had served their purpose. No metal detectors are allowed and don’t even think about bringing a shovel.
Bodie sits at an elevation of 8379 feet and is usually closed in the winter due to heavy snowfall. The best time to visit is summer when the roads are clear and the warm summer sun brings out the wildflowers. Bring your own drinking water and a picnic lunch, since there is no place in town to buy anything. Despite these inconveniences, Bodie is one place where you can see what an old western town really looked like without much modern intervention. As you walk down the main street, try to imagine what this place was like when murders, shootouts, barroom brawls and stagecoach holdups were regular occurrences.