Bodie | Sandi Hemmerlein

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Bodie: The Ghostliest of Ghost Towns

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So much of what we encounter today in Southern California is an approximation of the Old West. After all, what we know about the saloon girls, gunfights and gold bonanzas comes from watching Hollywood’s recreations of them. No one alive today has seen a real standoff between "cowboys and Indians." And there’s no living person to tell the tales of living in the Wild, Wild West.

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Surely the movie studios based their set-building and screenwriting on written accounts, illustrations, and perhaps even blueprints or photographs. But the result has been re-creations — like Pioneertown, Paramount Ranch, Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch and Corriganville. Even Calico, which was once a true mining town, was transformed into a theme park — and still operates as one today.

To get a more authentic experience beyond the movie ranches, you’ve got to get out past the 30-mile zone. And there’s no ghost town that provides a more honest-to-goodness slice of life like Bodie.

Nestled in the Bodie Hills, about five and a half miles from the California-Nevada state line as the crow flies, the former Old West town of Bodie owes much of its authenticity to its remoteness. It’s a six-hour drive north from Downtown Los Angeles, a dozen or more miles off the 395 down a paved road that turns into dirt and is seasonally impassible. At nearly 8,400 feet of elevation, it’s above the tree line, and the air that whips about in the wind is thin. Bodie’s subarctic climate is too frosty for agriculture, and the winters can be so harsh that the snow piles up to at least one story high.

Those inhospitable conditions — and total isolation — kept Bodie from being razed and developed after it was abandoned as a mining camp in the 1940s. That allowed California to acquire it and designate it as a state historic park in the 1960s and preserve it in a state of arrested decay, circa 1962.

Since then, nothing has been rebuilt, and nothing ever will be rebuilt again. (Although a roof or two has been replaced as part of stabilization efforts.) If a building is falling down, it will be allowed to fall, although there is a budget to prop it up and keep it leaning, if not entirely standing. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

For now, the town is a time capsule that visitors from all over the world come to see. Through the clear glass windows, you can peer at tattered curtains and original furnishings and dishware.

But in a turn of bittersweet irony, what kept developers away from Bodie may be exactly what brings its ultimate demise. The snow, wind, rain and moisture chip away at the historic site piece-by-piece, winter after winter. And that’s what may eventually take this frozen-in-time town away from us entirely.

Unsafe ground at Bodie | Sandi Hemmerlein
Unsafe ground at Bodie | Sandi Hemmerlein
Remnants of a building at Bodie | Sandi Hemmerlein
Remnants of a building at Bodie | Sandi Hemmerlein

In the meantime, as we approach Bodie’s sesquicentennial (in the year 2026), there’s plenty of the town to behold. Though even now, it’s just a sliver of the original gold-mining town. After it was founded in 1876, Bodie was actually similar in size to Los Angeles, but it was a world away. It was the richest of boomtowns in California (though outperformed by Virginia City, Nevada in terms of lode), and it was also the wildest — earning its place as home to “The Bad Men of Bodie.”

Legend has it that the population of this so-called “Shooters Town” peaked at an estimated 10 to 12 thousand, nearly all men working in the gold and silver mines or in the stamp mill. They worked hard, with the mill running 24 hours a day, six days a week. During their time off, they drank hard.

The saloons are lost among the disembodied doorways, but there were probably plenty of spirits to swill at the now-askew Swazey Hotel (named after its proprietor, Nevada rancher Horace F. Swasey), which also served as a casino. There’s also the DeChambeau Hotel, a rare brick structure originally built as a post office, and the meeting hall for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows next door.

Outside the standard mill at Bodie | Sandi Hemmerlein
Outside the standard mill at Bodie | Sandi Hemmerlein
Bodie | Sandi Hemmerlein
Bodie | Sandi Hemmerlein

In fact, after fires burned down much of Bodie — two times; once in the 1890s and another in the 1930s — practically none of the business district remains. Among the 100-some-odd extant structures throughout the state park (reduced from nearly two thousand at full boom), there’s the Methodist Church (the sole survivor of the two that were built); a general store, schoolhouse, jail, livery stable, and barbershop; the Morticians' Building (with caskets still inside); and a few other odds and ends. There is one structure that was rebuilt by the California Conservation Corps after the 1932 fire: the firehouse.

In the residential section, which is untouched by fire, there are plenty of houses and outhouses that once belonged to such Bodie luminaries as former President of the Southern Consolidated Mining Co. James Stuart Cain (a banker whose family eventually owned most of Bodie), Miners Union Secretary A. E. McMillan, Deputy Sheriff Stewart Kirkwood, blacksmith Frank F. Quinville, cattle rancher Nathan Gregory, Dr. John A. Street, and attorney and former California Senator Patrick Reddy.”

Many, if not most, of those folks can now be found in the pioneer cemetery, reserved for those Bodie residents who lost their lives outside of any dastardly deeds. Most likely, they succumbed to the unforgiving cold and snow — particularly the children and babies. Even the town’s namesake, William Bodey of Poughkeepsie, New York, who first discovered gold there in 1859, perished in a snowstorm before he could witness his town hit the big time and really strike it rich to the tune of millions in gold and, to a lesser extent, silver.

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About 80 graves are marked, but more lie underfoot throughout the Miners Union and Masonic sections. At Foundry Hill Summit, there’s the gravesite for former stamp mill owner Warren Loose, who wanted to continue to look over the claim even from the afterlife.

Outlaws, prostitutes, bandits, and others of the sort are buried beyond the boundary of the proper graveyard in a “boot hill” (so named because the dead were usually buried in such a hurry, their boots were still on) known as the Bodie Outcast Cemetery.

The Methodist church at Bodie | Sandi Hemmerlein
The Methodist church at Bodie | Sandi Hemmerlein
Outside the standard mill at Bodie | Sandi Hemmerlein
Outside the standard mill at Bodie | Sandi Hemmerlein

At the other end of Bodie, nearly a mile across the ghost town lies a fenced-off hazardous area and the crème de la crème of any visit to Bodie: The Standard Mill. Built in 1899 (as fire destroyed its predecessor), The Standard Consolidated Mining Company’s old stamp mill survived Bodie's last fire relatively unscathed, thanks mostly to its metal exterior. Its equipment is still in place, functional and dangerous. The interior is dark, dusty, smelly, and shadowy, with water-warped floors, uneven stairs, low clearance doorways, and wires and belts hanging from the ceiling everywhere. It may only be entered with a guide at designated tour times for a fee.

Bodie’s heyday may have been short-lived, but its legacy persists. Perhaps we’ve lost more than we have now, and there’s surely more loss to come. Now that it’s under the stewardship of the Bodie Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, it’s somewhat protected — at least from vandals like those who picked the town apart in the 1940s and 1950s. Of course, there’s nothing to be done about the snow, the cold, and the wind.

 

 

 

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