Bodie, Virginia City’s southern rival

Bodie is one of the best-preserved ghost towns in the western USA.

Bodie is one of the best-preserved ghost towns in the western USA.

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?

Bodie 4

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 Bodie 2west 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.


Desert reclaims the town of Aurora

During the summer of 2012, I had the pleasure to work as a paving and concrete inspector in Hawthorne, Nevada and along the shores of Walker Lake. About 22 miles southwest of Hawthorne lies the ruins of the old ghost town of Aurora. This once thriving community was founded in 1860 when veins of extremely rich gold and silver were discovered. This was about the same time the Comstock boom was occurring in Virginia City and Gold Hill. Similar to the Comstock cities, Aurora’s population soared to over 5,000 people within three to four years.

When the Aurora mines were first developed, the residents of the young town were not sure if it was in California or Nevada. Surveyors later in September of 1863 determined the town was about three miles inside the Nevada border. Meanwhile, it became the County Seat of Esmeralda County Nevada in 1861 and simultaneously it was also the county seat of Mono County, California until the actual location was determined.

Like many other early Nevada mining camps, Aurora grew quickly to become a town with a mix of tents, wooden structures and substantial multi-story brick buildings. The mines produced over $30 million in ore produced from 17 stamp mills with a total of 175 stamps. There was no useable timber anywhere near Aurora and all building material was imported. Tons of timber and brick was imported and used to construct the buildings, mills and residences of the town. As the mines were excavated, water began to flow in faster than it could be pumped out. By 1869, Aurora was in a major decline.

Daily stage service to Carson City and Virginia City was discontinued as the population of Aurora dwindled and mining activity slowed to a standstill. Aspirations of becoming a major rival to the Comstock Lode faded away. Several devastating fires took their toll of the wooden structures around town. There was a temporary resurgence in activity between 1870 and 1882 but the population continued to decline. Unlike neighboring Bodie California just across the border, Aurora eventually became totally abandoned. There was no one to act as caretaker and vandals began to carry away the remains of the once thriving community. Only the cemetery of Aurora escaped total obliteration from the cruel actions of weather and vandalism that erased the traces of most of the town.

The desert has a way of reclaiming territory that had once been the domain of man when no one is around to save and protect the remains. Scavengers swarmed through the ruins of Aurora during the 1950’s and removed all the brick buildings and nearly all the former traces of human works or habitation. Nearby Bodie had a few permanent residents who ran off vandals and scavengers when they appeared in their town. The California State Park System took over protective custody of that town and as a result, it remains partly intact today.

In April, 1862 a young man named Samuel Clemens arrived in Aurora to try his hand at prospecting and mining. This was his first attempt at such bold ventures and his lack of experience soon caused him to seek other vocations more suited to his liking. He had arrived in Carson City with his brother, Orion, who had landed a comfortable job in the Nevada Territorial Government. Desiring to become his own man, Samuel had decided to try mining as an easy way to make his fortune.

After several disappointments with his mining claims and unfortunate stock manipulations, Sam took a job as a laborer in one of Aurora’s quartz mills shoveling ore. This work was not exactly to his liking so he began submitting humorous articles to the editor of the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City under his first pen name, “Josh.” Enterprise owners Joseph Goodman and Denis McCarthy were impressed with Sam’s “Josh” articles and offered him a job as a local reporter for $25.00 per week. Samuel Clemens walked the 100 miles from Aurora to Virginia City to accept the position, leaving his failed mining career behind.

Clemens soon bonded with local editor Dan DeQuille and began his new career producing the “audacious, pugnacious, uninhibited journalism” the residents of the rough and tumble mining town craved. It was here that he adopted his new pen name of Mark Twain. His time in Virginia City was cut short when several readers failed to see the humor in some of his articles. The boldness and stinging reporting from the pen of Mark Twain were insulting and devastating to some readers. After just twenty months at the Enterprise, Mark Twain knew he had outstayed his welcome as a newspaper writer. The rest is history. Mark Twain moved on to become America’s most beloved humorist, fiction writer and lecturer. He finally found the fortune he had sought years before in the desert hills of Aurora.