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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.