Drive across the Sierra Nevada today and it’s an endless gallery of exquisite vistas and monumental views, showcasing the beauty of Yosemite National Park. This though is a brutal land of snow and wind. Even today it’s filled with dangers for the unwary, and inaccessible for months at a time. A hundred and fifty years ago though, thousands of people made this epic and dangerous journey on foot or horse, all for one reason: to reach the gold mining town of Bodie.
A “sea of sin, lashed by tempests of lust and passion”. So said the Reverend F.M. Warrington of Bodie in 1881. A Methodist Minister at the peak of the town’s prosperity, Warrington must have felt like a man trying to hold back a tidal wave of immorality. Bodie’s ‘anything goes provided you can pay’ reputation was legend and, while the hills surrounding the town had gold in them, money wasn’t a problem.
Bodie gives little hint of its former infamy, but make no doubt about it, this was once a town of unsurpassed iniquity and violence. Over sixty saloons and dance halls, as well as numerous brothels, opium houses and gambling dens, fed the desires of the ten thousand or so men and women who briefly called Bodie home. The town was virtually lawless, the gun held sway and a simple dispute would likely end in death.
It’s an extraordinarily evocative and atmospheric place, that transports you back a century and a half as you walk its dusty, once crowded streets. We arrived late in the afternoon, the sun low in the sky, and in this bleached landscape the town was hard to spot. As we drove down the rough, 13 miles of unpaved road, the wooden buildings and old mine workings magically started to emerge amongst the hills. It was quite exciting.
It’s hard to imagine that in this windswept landscape there was once a thriving town. Bodie only boomed for a short time though and once the gold ran out people abandoned it en mass. There are dozens of buildings left, quite literally frozen in time. People seem to have just walked away from their former homes and workplaces, leaving behind many of their belongings.
Look through house windows and there are cups and plates on tables, pots and pans on oven tops. In a bar, bottles sit waiting for their owners to return, balls and cues lay on a dusty billiard table. Canned goods sit on the shelves in stores. School books lay on desks in the old school house. Outside the area is littered with the remains of mining equipment and daily life, several cars slowly rust. It’s an incredible place.
Although small amounts of gold had been found in Bodie as early as 1859, it attracted little attention. Situated on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada this area only started to be exploited after opportunities started to dry up further west. Perhaps as few as twenty miners lived there in 1861, their lives hard and uncompromising. The town’s founder, one W.S. Body, froze to death bringing supplies across the mountains.
This all changed in 1875, when a rich vein of gold was found transforming Bodies’ fortunes and attracting thousands seeking their own fortunes. Most people would leave with little more than they arrived with, but the prospect of striking it big was a powerful lure. Early finds in Bodie were so impressive that they sent shockwaves through the country, and sparked a huge investment bonanza.
The influx of people was matched only by the influx of state-of-the-art steam powered equipment, much of which still remains scattered around the town. A 32-mile railway line was constructed. Bodies’ wealth though had been hugely overestimated, as quickly as the boom started it ended. By 1882, many of the thirty mines were closing and people were draining away. Without gold, Bodie was nothing.
What remains preserved today is less than 10% of Bodie’s original size. Much of the town was burned to the ground in 1932, legend has it by a two-year old playing with matches. That was almost the final death knell for Bodie, but a handful of people continued to squeeze a small living from the rock until the Second World War. After which it was completely abandoned, becoming a State Park in 1962.
Despite his despair at people’s morals, the Reverend Warrington has left a legacy here. His Methodist chapel survived the fire and remains standing today.
A good history of Bodie, including busting some myths, can be found at www.bodiehistory.com