Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Ghost Town Of Bodie, California

I've been dreading the day when I would write about Bodie, California. While it is an impressively preserved ghost town, it is heavily visited and a California state park in the bargain. The things I love about "real" ghost towns-----the challenge of getting there, the isolation in them, the total lack of anything "touristy"-----are all missing in Bodie. It has an admission fee, is only open for a few hours a day, and has hordes of tourists driving up from Yosemite to see a bit of the Old West. But at least it's an authentic ghost town-----nothing has been restored-----and the park rangers do a good job of protecting the remaining structures. If you don't mind sharing Bodie with a horde of overweight parents and their snot-nosed kids, this ghost town has a lot to recommend it. At least Bodie looks like what most people think a ghost town should look like:

Bodie is located east of Highway 395 between Yosemite National Park and the town of Bridgeport, CA; it is seven miles south of Bridgeport on 395, and the exit to the east is clearly marked. The first ten miles or so of the road to Bodie is paved, but the last three miles are gravel. The road is no problem for most passenger cars in dry weather during the summer, but mud and snow can be a problem the rest of the year------June through September is the best time to visit. The park is open all year, however, and some visit by snowmobile in the winter. The elevation here is about 8300 feet, and temperatures even in the summer can be cold, especially early or late in the day. No services other than flush toliets are available in Bodie, so be sure to have a full tank of gas and everything else you need before heading out. Drinking water is something you should definitely take, as the altitude and dry air can quickly dehydrate you as you walk around the town.

Bodie was named for Waterman Body, who discovered gold in the hills around the town site in 1859. In 1877, a major strike in the area created the second biggest gold rush in California's history, and by 1880 Bodie had grown to over 10,000 people. The shot below shows the remnants of the mining operations-----they are the gray buildings toward the left. This is where gold was extracted from the mined ore:

Bodie was a wild, lawless town. There were supposedly 65 saloons in operation, gunfights to the death were frequent (as were lynchings and other forms of vigillante justice), and even a Chinatown with opium dens. But by 1900 it also had some surprising amenities, including an opera house,
a fire department and a limited fire hydrant system, a railroad line, two newspapers, locally generated electricity, and even a semi-pro baseball team that scheduled games with teams from Reno and Aurora, Nevada.

By the late 1910s, however, the gold veins began to play out and the mines closed. People began leaving Bodie as rapidly as they arrived three decades earlier. During the 1920s and Prohibition, Bodie made a virtue of its isolation and became a center for illegal whiskey and gambling. But fate dealt Bodie a fatal blow on June 23, 1932, when a major fire, fanned by high winds, swept through the town and destroyed most of its buildings. The result is a town site today that has large empty spaces between the remaining structures, as you can see below:

The 1932 fire was the killing blow to Bodie as a living town. Basic services, like electricity and fire protection, were not restored after the fire. The post office and school closed, and all but a handful of residents moved on. By the early 1950s, Bodie was completely deserted and scavengers began to tear down the surviving buildings for their lumber and brick. Fortunately, the state of California purchased the site in 1961 and added it to the state park system in 1964.

Bodie is maintained in what is called a "state of arrested decay." This means no effort has been made to restore the buildings, but steps are taken to prevent further damage to them. The photo below illustrates what is meant by "arrested decay"; the building is leaning badly, but is kept propped up so it doesn't collapse:

Perhaps the most impressive building left in Bodie is the old schoolhouse. Below is a photo I took of it on my last visit back in June, 2004. If you look carefully at the right, you can see Di and our dog Bahrnee:

Another pair of impressive structures is the post office building and an adjoining general store. In the photo below, Di, accompanied by Bahrnee, is looking into the windows of the old store; the brick building at left is the post office:

The photo below shows what was once Main Street in Bodie. All those empty spaces represent where buildings were lost in the 1932 fire.

The scavengers who descended upon Bodie in the 1950s managed to take away most of a bank building, but they couldn't take away the vault. It still stands amid the ruins:

The remaining houses in Bodie were generally owned by the last people to live in the town and were probably occupied until at least the late 1940s:

This final photo is another example of the "arrested decay" theory in action. Yes, it's an outhouse. And there's no other structure within a hundred feet of it; I guess it survived the 1932 fire while the home it was built to serve must have been destroyed. It is now lovingly preserved by the taxpayers of California. There must be some sort of lesson in that: