Buried in a huge hillside are hundreds, if not thousands, of unmarked graves. All signs of disturbed ground have long disappeared with rain, wind and erosion. There is a small graveyard nearby belonging to those few who had the means to have a headstone. Several hundred feet below this hillside, nestled in a valley in Mono County of California, is a town that was abandoned by its residents decades ago. This is "Bodie."
What is left of this once bustling town of several thousands are the weathered skeletal remains of buildings, streets and abandoned gold mines. Yes, gold mines- gold was what brought the hopeful crowds to this town, and some might speculate, brought it to its knees and its ultimate demise. For anyone who has seen the movie "Paint Your Wagon," the movie could have very well been about Bodie. The busy streets, saloons, whorehouses, gunfights and outright murders were all a way of life in Bodie. This is a town where dreams of rags to riches were realized and lost and gold was always central to everything.
A very brief history helps shed light on the legacy of Bodie. The first gold nuggets in California were discovered in 1848 in the foothills of the Western Sierras. The population of California soared and within ten years the prospectors were searching for new sources for gold mining. The search led to the east side of the Sierra Nevada Range, and eventually to the location that became Bodie. The town is named after William S. Bodey, the first man to find gold in the area in 1859. The town's name took on a different spelling to ensure correct pronunciation.
Even to this day with modern roads, it is hard to believe the perilous distances men were willing to venture to find this rare metal. But, the great distances on horseback or by foot did not keep the secret for very long. Within ten years, the tiny settlement of Bodie had grown to a bustling town of 10,000. With all the riches came all the corruption, wickedness and crimes. With the building of some thirty plants and a railroad, for a period of time Bodie seemed to be heading in the right direction to becoming a viable industrial city. Even President Herbert Hoover's visit to his brother, Theodor Hoover, who lived in one of the most lavish houses and oversaw the operations at the largest plant, Standard Consolidated Mining Company, could not guarantee the downfall of Bodie. In 1932 there was a massive fire that devastated the entire town. Considering the back-breaking effort that had gone into building this town, it's easy to see why the residents did not find it in the heart to rebuild it. It is said that many families left thinking that they would come back, but they never did. At present, however, Bodie is a state historical park with only a handful of rangers to keep this town in a state of "arrested decay." No permanent residents here; Bodie is a true ghost town.
Life in Bodie during its heyday could not have been all that unbearable, at least for a fraction of its population. There were hundreds of store fronts lining the main street. There were expensive residential buildings, school houses, hotels, banks, restaurants, saddleries, a fire department, sheriff's office, barber shops, and even saloons and churches, which more often than not, were not very far from each other. Just as if working in the mines and the plant wasn't enough for the rugged men of Bodie, there was at least one athletic club. The punching bags, chin-up bars and the hanging rings for gymnastics are preserved and can be viewed from behind the window. The original sign is set on the floor reading "Bodie Club, Cold Beer." Yes, in Bodie you could exercise, drink cold beer and listen to piano music all in one big room. I would not be surprised if guitar playing, singing and dancing girls paid visits to this club as well, never mind the fact that this building was also used to run an undertaking business. Strange and interesting things happened in Bodie.
It is obvious that religion also played a big part in the lives of the people of Bodie. The Methodist Church is the most well-kept structure even to this day. There were families with children who needed schooling. There is also a school house that is well-preserved and can be viewed from behind the window. Visiting the cemetery, small as it is for a town of 10,000, makes it clear that even to this day some of the descendants of the original residents of Bodie still pay regular visits to this town. Some of the graves are well-kept and a few are adorned with flowers. Reading the headstones brings you to some very sad conclusions. It seems that many children perished before the age of five. It's obvious that life, even for the more privileged residents, must have been very harsh in this town.
Walking down main street brings back a feeling of nostalgia for the days when thousands of people went about their business, horses pulled wagons, and children ran home from school, if not on their daily mischief. At night, however, the mood in the street was different. With some 65 saloons and a number of whorehouses, night life must have been right out of what we have seen in western movies. After dark not many walked with a pocket full of gold, unless they were wearing a gun. And a gun certainly didn't keep anyone safe. Killings occurred with frightening regularity. As it were, daytime was hardly less violent or more safe. Travelers were easy targets for robbers and murders. It's easy to imagine that many bodies were never found.
In the movie "Paint Your Wagon" the gold town collapsed into its tunnels that crisscrossed underneath the town. Movie dramatizations aside, it is said that gold mine tunnels around Bodie extend more than fifty miles. The hillsides are pock marked by the entrances to the mines. The dirt removed from the tunnels looks yellow and contaminated. Bodie didn't need to collapse into its own tunnels to die. Its demise was mostly due to harsh winter conditions, an elevation exceeding 8000 feet, devastating fires that burnt and destroyed most of the town, and of course, running out of gold. It is, however, estimated to still have some 20 million dollars in gold left within its bowels.
At the entrance to Bodie there is a rock tower with three plaques giving a short history of how this town came to be a state historical landmark. The bottom plaque, "Return to Bodie" recognizes the men and organization that dedicated themselves to preserving the living history of Bodie. It is worthwhile to take a few minutes to read and appreciate the efforts that went into preserving this chapter of California's history.