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Bodie – ghost town trapped in time
By Claudia Newcorn

East of Tioga Pass, in the high desert’s glaring sun, there huddles a jumble of sun-bleached wooden buildings edging a ramble of dirt roads, over which an old stamp mill stands sentinel. Bodie State Historic Park. A piece of California history that once inspired a child to write, “Goodbye God. I’m going to Bodie.”

An “Arrested” Ghost Town

As with most towns in the Sierra, Bodie began as a gold mining town. William S. Body discovered gold in 1859, and by 1861 the stamp mill opened and a 20-person town formed.

A true “boom town,” by 1879, it boasted 10,000 residents, earning a reputation “second to none for wickedness, badmen, and the worst climate out of doors.” It was the real Wild West. Robberies, stagecoach hold ups, and street fights were the local entertainment. There were nearly 70 saloons for “relaxation” after hard work in the mines. But in 1886, as the gold vein petered out and the town withered to 1,500 people.

Convinced that gold would be rediscovered, one Bodie resident diligently bought up the remaining properties, effectively preserving the old ramshackle town. Designated as a National Historic Site and a State Historic Park in 1962, this genuine ghost town is preserved in a state of “arrested decay.”

History in Time

Bodie hides in tree-less Bodie Creek Canyon some 40 minutes from Lee Vining. Temperatures swing wildly. Yet in the midst of all this, a thriving town grew, complete with picket fences, women’s tea clubs, unions, a railway, and a firehouse.

About 200 structures remain. Some lean at crazy angles. Many look as if their owners simply closed the door and walked away, leaving behind a surprising number of artifacts. Some you can enter. Others’ entries are wire-meshed to protect the contents; you may peer but not touch.

I found the school house the most poignant. Tired wooden desks face the blackboard. A globe perches nearby, its countries long outdated. A wrinkled leather jack-o-lantern sits in the windowsill, its lopsided grin a reminder of children’s games over three-quarters of a century ago.

Mining Mania

In its heyday, Bodie had 30 operating mines. Today, the Standard Mine & Stamp Mill on Bodie Bluff is open for tours, lead by docents who adopt the personalities of locals from the late 1800s. It’s worth the visit—but bring a pack of tissues, and be ready to go up and down stairs. Dust is everywhere.

The interior is a study of man’s creativity, and his callous disregard for life. Much of the equipment was innovative for its time, invented by the mine’s engineers. The owners were always looking for ways maximize production to making things run better. But employees weren’t a concern.

Boys as young as 12 helped maintain the heavy equipment that crushed the ore, and as they scrambled among the pounding stamps, the loss of fingers, hands and arms was common. Cyanide was later used to leach ore from crushed stone, and many died from poisoning or succumbed in the winter to pneumonia, their lungs weakened by the toxic fumes.

Yet the mine never stopped running. The docent said that jobs in the mine were in such demand, that if someone died or didn’t show, there were always 10 waiting to take his place. At earnings ranging from 10 to 25 cents a day, the pay was excellent.

Prowling the Town

Bodie is open year ‘round, but late spring through early fall make the best times to visit. There are motels in Lee Vining. Note that there is no gasoline at the park, so tank up before you go. Heads up - the last part of the drive is over washboard dirt roads which are guaranteed to rattle your teeth.

Plan to spend the day prowling about. Make the Old Miners Union Hall, Museum & Visitors Center at the town’s heart your first stop, to pick up a map. And make your reservations for the Stamp Mill Tour, which fills quickly. Arm yourself with water, sunscreen, walking shoes and a wide-brimmed hat. Many people bring coolers for a tailgate picnic. Carry extra water in the car; Bodie is not within walking distance to any towns.

Even in the summer, with several hundred people exploring, there remains an overarching blanket of silence. Wander out to the edge of town. The hiss of wind whines around abandoned mine cables. Sun and shadow scud over the distant russet hills where eager miners once delved for precious metals.

Shhh! Was that tapping a miner’s pick I heard?

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