Up The Road: To Big, Bad Bodie

Oct 4, 2017

We head up the road this week to visit Bodie, California’s official gold-mining ghost town and a very remote state historic park well worth the visit.

Still evocative today is the published 19th-century response of a young girl who had been told that her family was moving to this bad, brawling, desolate frontier town. “Goodbye, God,” she reportedly said. “We are going to Bodie.” In defense of this godless Gomorrah, in its heyday a gold mining town with a population of more than 10,000 employed at some 30 mines, a Bodie newspaper editor claimed the child had been misquoted—that what she’d actually said was: “Good, by God. We are going to Bodie!” Which certainly underlines the importance of spelling and punctuation. Yes, you can visit Bodie in the winter. When it's really snowed in, you'll have to ski in. 

People who knew Bodie probably raised an eyebrow (at least) at the editor’s version of events. After all, the town’s own citizenry boasted that Bodie had the widest streets, wickedest men, and worst climate and whiskey in the West. Fisticuffs and murders were daily events. (Another local newspaper editor observed: “There is some irresistible power that impels us to cut and shoot each other to pieces.”) Virgin Alley and Maiden Lane in Bodie’s red-light district boasted neither, and a local minister described the community as “a sea of sin lashed by tempests of lust and passion.” Colorful images indeed. What remains of the busted boomtown of Bodie—California’s largest ghost town, which actually survived as a town until 1942—is now protected as part of Bodie State Historic Park. A strangely silent place still standing (more or less) in the shadow of the old Standard Mine, Bodie still evokes the truly wild Wild West.

Preserved in its entirety in a state of arrested decay, no thanks to occasional earthquakes and brutal sagebrush winds, this ghost town is well worth a half-day’s exploration. Only about five percent of Bodie’s weatherbeaten 1860s and 1870s wood-frames still stand, the rest destroyed over the decades by fire and the elements. Pick up the self-guided tour brochure at the small museum (in the old Miner’s Union Hall) or download the PDF online.

Visitors are free to wander at will through godless, lawless, treeless Bodie. Peek through tattered lace curtains into the Boone Store and Warehouse, Wheaton & Hollis Hotel and Bodie Store, Sam Leon’s bar, and other restaurants, saloons, livery stables, and miners’ shacks abandoned for more than a century. Peer into dusty rooms furnished with cracked and peeling wallpaper, rusted woodstoves, sprung bedframes, banged-up wash basins, even battered old shoes and clothing. Inside the Henry Metzger and Lester E. Bell homes are wicker baby carriages; the morgue features three child-sized coffins. Still more poignant is the time-twisted child’s wagon rusting in the middle of the street.

Done with town, head for the hillside cemeteries to meet some of Bodie’s colorfully memorialized former residents. Fenced-in cemetery areas were set aside for decent folk; most bad Bodie boys were buried on Boot Hill. In recent years, conservators have been repairing and correctly locating grave markers as well as cemeteries, including the lost Chinatown graveyard. Four-legged trainees from the Institute for Canine Forensics (ICF) have helped, working with park and Bodie Foundation volunteers to find and identify unmarked graves.

Services at Bodie are always limited, but more limited now than usual due to December 2016 earthquake damage; assessments and repairs are underway. So bring everything you’ll need—food, yes, but especially water—because there are no services here beyond picnic tables (no shade) and pit toilets. Dogs on leashes are allowed. Come for special walks and tours—advance reservations required—and wonderful members-only events fundraisers including Ghost Walks and Bodie Day on August 12, to help support ongoing Bodie restoration.

Until next time this is Kim Weir for Up and North State Public Radio, hoping that you, too will soon say: “Good, by God. We’re going to Bodie.”