At the end of a 13 mile dusty, bumpy gravel road that runs off Highway 395 in California’s Mono County region, lies the town of Bodie.
An old gold-mining town which once had a population of 10,000, Bodie today is a real-life ghost town. And one of my favourite places to visit and photograph.
You can wander through the deserted streets and buildings and imagine what life was like for those hardy (desperate?) souls who came here to seek their fortune. Unlike a lot of other historic towns, Bodie has been left in a state of “arrested decay” – the buildings are protected but not restored and the building interiors have been left as they were when the occupants departed.
Like all gold-mining towns, Bodie’s history is full of lively characters and stories, many involving bars and brothels, gambling halls and opium dens. It was reported that at one point there were at least 60 saloons and not one church. This really was the Wild West. It all began in 1859 when William S. Bodey (for whom the town is named) discovered gold in an area known as Bodie Bluff. In 1875 a mine cave-in exposed an ore body that eventually led to the Standard Company purchasing the mine and setting up industrial scale mining. The town soon grew from a few dozen people into a thriving boom town.
Like most boom towns though, Bodie’s glory only lasted a few years, with the first signs of decline beginning in 1880 with many of the single “get rich quick” miners leaving for other mining booms in Montana, Arizona and Utah. Although mining continued successfully for two decades, there was a steady decline in production. Two devastating fires – in 1892 and 1932 – and the abandonment of the Bodie Railway in 1917 sealed its fate. Prohibition and the Great Depression added pressure to the already dying town and the last mine was closed in 1942. People packed whatever they could fit onto one wagon or truck and left everything else behind.
The town became a State Historic Park in 1962 and was dedicated as a California Historic Site in 1964. It is now also listed as a National Historic Site. Although the park is open year round, in winter it’s only accessible on skis, snowshoes or snowmobile. In summer it can get quite busy.
Bodie has about 100 structures still standing (most were destroyed in the fires) and you’ll be provided with a map at the entrance. If you want to really explore the place I suggest you plan to spend the whole day there.
The surrounding area is treeless and windswept and for me it’s that stark landscape which gives Bodie much of its character. It adds to the eerie feeling – the sense of aloneness and isolation that must have informed life in such a remote place.
Do the ghosts of long dead miners haunt these abandoned streets? There is a rumor that ghosts guard against thieves…anyone who takes an artifact will suffer the “curse of Bodie” – bad luck and misfortune until the removed articles are returned. Well, I’ve never seen one myself, but let’s just say it isn’t somewhere I’d like to find myself alone at night.