Bygone Bodie

Bodie State Historic Park Entrance

Bodie State Historic Park Entrance

The lore of Bodie has intrigued me (and J) for years, especially as we’ve explored the Eastern Sierra together since the year 2000. On numerous trips up and down Highway 395, we’ve wanted to turn east and visit this mysterious little town but we’ve never made the time. Finally, on a spring afternoon in May 2019, we’re nearing the end of the dirt road that leads to Bodie State Historic Park. Billowy clouds hang over the shallow basin where Bodie’s weathered buildings have stood for more than a century.

Bodie Park Entrance

Bodie Park Entrance

Initially, the gold rush of 1849 attracted people to this region. Mining continued into the late 1800s, during which Bodie grew to be a thriving community of more than 8,000 people. The town is named after W.S. Bodey, a New Yorker who struck gold here in 1859. He died in a blizzard just a few months later. Viewing the terrain now, at an elevation of more than 8,300 feet (2,500 meters), I imagine the plight of winter in Bodie. Surely this was a wind-whipped landscape prone to deep snowfall and freezing temperatures ~ a location tolerable only for its promise of riches.

In its heyday, 30 mines operated in Bodie but the industry steadily declined into the early 1900s as fewer mines were successful. Saloons, brothels and opium dens attracted a lawless population so the unfortunate mix of depression and debauchery led to Bodie’s abandonment by the 1940s.

What remains today is a captivating portrayal of American lifestyle more than one hundred years ago. Homes and businesses still stand, many of which feel suspended in time with the transiency of the era visible in the scenes left behind. It is as if someone just walked out the door – out every door of every building in Bodie – leaving it all behind to be discovered and appreciated later. And that is pretty much what happened. According to state park’s history, “The family of Bodie’s last major landowner, James S. Cain, hired caretakers to watch over the town and protect it from looters and vandals.” California State Parks purchased the town in 1962 and has been maintaining it ever since, in what they call a state of “arrested decay.”

Bodie Methodist Church

Bodie Methodist Church

It may be in decay, but much of Bodie is still beautiful. Walking down Green Street, I come to the town’s Methodist church. It is as picture-perfect as a set design from Little House and the Prairie, both inside and out. The siding shows its age but the architecture and window pattern have a timeless style that endures.

Bodie Bathtub

Bodie Bathtub

Mystery pervades Bodie. As we walk, we wonder how and when things came to rest – like this old bathtub in the middle of the road and wagons in various states of disrepair. What’s especially cool about Bodie is that it’s so accessible. Except for the Standard Mill (deemed hazardous) and some of the housing occupied by park rangers, visitors can meander the streets, walk up to the storefronts and look in the windows.

The Standard Mill, Bodie

The Standard Mill, Bodie

By my estimation, the current “town” covers about 120 acres of the larger 1,000-acre state park. Bodie had a cemetery, jail, bank, blacksmith shop, doctor’s office, bachelor’s boarding house, numerous hotels and many private homes – all totaling more than 2,000 structures at one point in time. An area known as Chinatown housed more than 250 Chinese residents. Other settlers came from across America as well as countries including Canada, Mexico, Ireland and England. Members of the Native American Paiute tribe also worked in the town.

Just over 100 buildings are still standing. On Main Street, the De Chambeau Hotel & Post Office and the I.O.O.F. Hall lean into each other like old friends. The hall was the gathering place of a “fraternal society” called the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. (Bodie does seem like the kind of town where you might have found a few odd fellows.) Looking in the hotel windows, we see a long bar with bottles still on the counter top and a wooden kiosk that probably held room keys or maybe letters delivered by Wells Fargo after they took over the Pony Express.

Swazey Hotel

Swazey Hotel

Across the street, the Swazey Hotel (1894) fights to stay upright with one eye open and a brace on the north side. The abandoned truck on the south side is only about a block from the petrol pumps outside the general store.

The interior of Boone Store & Warehouse is a time capsule of the household items of the day: holeproof hosiery in “Paris colors,” Kellogg’s Tasteless Castor Oil, aspirin, razors, sauerkraut, Vita Oil, Mozart Magics cigars, coffee, Ghirardelli’s ground chocolate, Taylor’s concentrated vanilla and even Bay Rum natural deodorant. According to Bay Rum history spanning 175 years, their product was made by steeping bay leaves in rum which created a scented “aftershave” for men, who bathed less frequently back then.

Spices at the general store

Spices at the general store

High-quality spices must have been in demand judging from the store’s large elaborate tins of allspice, Borneo ginger, Batavia cinnamon (from present-day Jakarta, Indonesia) and Amboyna cloves (from present-day Maluku, Indonesia). Ground mustard occupies an entire shelf, packaged in one-, two- and three-pound canisters produced by G. Venard’s spice company in San Francisco.

Wheaton & Luhrs Store

Wheaton & Luhrs Store

Across the street, Wheaton & Luhrs has been standing since 1880. It’s one of my favorite buildings with its paned windows and double doors letting in so much light. With a few repairs and a new coat of wood stain, the place would look just as welcoming now as it must have looked back in the day.

The tiny firehouse was rebuilt in the 1930s. In addition to a couple buggies, it holds a mobile water supply and hose. It all feels a little inadequate considering nearly all of Bodie’s buildings are wood. There were two major fires in 1892 and 1932.

Bodie Schoolhouse

Bodie Schoolhouse

The schoolhouse was in operation until 1942. With a quick peek through the windows we see a room full of desks covered in a thick layer of dust. Each desk has at least one book on it. The day’s lesson still lingers on the chalkboard, with fractions and cursive writing (sorry – too much light at the window to get a good photo but google has lots!).

It’s fun to wander Bodie’s streets imagining life 140 years ago while looking for ghosts and picking out the perfect little house:

Little Bodie House

Little Bodie House

And there you have it, folks. The American single family home of the late 1800s. My, how things have changed.

If you’re ever in the neighborhood, Bodie is located between Bridgeport and Yosemite, about 13 miles east of Highway 395. It’s best to visit in the spring, summer or fall when the roads are clear. The park is open daily and admission (cash or check) is $8 for adults and $5 for kids 4-17. The site is accessible by foot or wheelchair on the town’s dirt roads. Occasionally the park stays open into the evening, giving photographers a chance to capture the scene at dusk and giving ghost hunters a chance to encounter … the lingering spirit of Bodie.

21 comments

  • I think I know a few from the Independent Order of Odd Fellows 🙂

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    • T! Ah, thanks for the laugh. 🙂 I think I know a few as well! And apparently, the “Order” still exists today, two hundred years after its founding. Who knew? Thanks for reading. Hope you and the fam are doing well. xo, K.

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  • Ghost towns like this both fascinate me and creep me out a little. The allure is the ability to see a time and place enjoyed on the pages of books (I was thinking Little House on the Prairie even before you mentioned it!), but the disconcerting part is the arrested nature of it all. Seeing the schoolbooks and spices and other goods all in their places suggest that someone fled hastily, and that makes me feel curious and kind of sad at the same time. I love the last little house!

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    • I love that little house, too! And I agree — there is a sadness to seeing this town now, that at one point was thriving and had a strong spirit of adventure. The way of life back then — following the gold rush and the promise of prosperity — must have been so challenging on so many levels. But in some ways I get it since I, too, have that gypsy yearning to see new places. The desire to move ahead and the curiosity to see what was over the next mountain must have been irresistible in such a time of discovery. Always great to hear from you! Hope you’re enjoying the weekend. 🙂

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  • I also had the impression people fled hastily. As if one final event was just the last straw for the few who had remained. Great stuff!!! 🙂

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  • It is interesting that folks left so much stuff, but if they were just scraping by maybe they walked out, or only what would fit in the back seat. Fascinating, and relatively well preserved.

    And for what it’s worth, we have a bay tree with smelly leaves in the backyard, and a bottle of rum lying around somewhere…

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    • Oooh, you can make your own Bay Rum concoction! Do report back if you try it, ha ha! Very good point about taking what could fit in the back seat. I hadn’t thought of that and it’s a logical explanation as to why so many things are left in Bodie. Thanks for your comment, Dave! 🙂

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  • You just have to love Bodie, Kelly. It is such a unique place that captures history in a way that few other placed do. And then there is its setting, which is about as wild as it gets. Were the cattle occupying the town when you were there? 🙂 Thanks for the visit. –Curt

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  • Kelly, I just want to tell you how fantastic it is to have you back! We’ve missed you so much, and love seeing your great writing and gorgeous photos once again. And you’ve certainly captured the essence and nostalgia of Bodie – obviously a place we need to put on our must-see list. Thanks for the inspiration, and welcome back! 🙂 ~Terri

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    • Oh, Terri, thank you so much! The blogging community, you and James, and my other friends here are just such a pleasure to be connected with. In this crazy time, it’s just a pleasure to hear from a kind soul like you. Thank you. Looking forward to writing more, as well as the blogging renaissance that is surely ahead as people spend quiet time at home reading and writing. Stay healthy. ~Kelly

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  • In a way, Bodie reminds me a little bit of this abandoned village in Hong Kong’s New Territories. There were small houses with furniture and some other stuff inside, as if the former occupants of these properties left in a hurry. I had this strange feeling peeking into those houses, thinking that in the not-too-distant-past there were actually people inside. Those old tins you saw are a testament to the lucrative spice trade that helped propelled an era of European colonialism; it’s quite fascinating to think that more than four years ago I went to the islands where nutmeg and cloves originated from and made their way across the globe, including to Bodie.

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    • Hi, Bama! I knew those spice canisters would resonate with you of all people, having been to the islands and knowing the history and locations where they’re from. So great to read your comment! Interesting parallels with Hong Kong, too. Hope you’re staying healthy amidst this crazy time. Life here is shut down. Looking forward to reading and writing more over the coming weeks. Be well! We need to meet someday soon! ~Kelly

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      • I’ve been working from home since Tuesday. This is certainly an extraordinary time, but so far I’ve managed to stay productive at work. Stay safe and healthy to you and J! We really really need to meet one day!

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  • I’ve always wanted to visit a ghost town. Never heard of this one before though. There’s one down in southern Arizona in Yuma County that also caught my eye.

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