100 miles southeast of Lake Tahoe lies Bodie State Historic Park. Once a booming gold rush town, it is now a national historic site and a popular stop for visitors traveling along US Highway 395 in Eastern California.
The town was named for its founder, William Bodey, who, in 1859, discovered gold nearby. Sadly, on a return trip a few months later, Mr. Bodey froze to death in a snowstorm, never benefitting from the riches he’d discovered. (Then, just to add insult to injury, they misspelled his name when naming the town.)
But riches there were! While mining was initially slow, in 1875, a mine collapse revealed a huge vein of gold ore. Within months, the town’s population boomed and, by 1880, there were between 7,000 and 10,000 people working in 30 different mines and 9 different stamp mills.
Bodie was known for its rough reputation. There were over 60 saloons, numerous opium dens, and countless “houses of ill repute.” Gunfights were common and the park even placed a commemorative marker at the location where one resident murdered his girlfriend’s husband as he left a dance at the Union Hall. The boyfriend/murderer was arrested and jailed but escaped, only to be caught by a posse, re-jailed, and then kidnapped by vigilantes who hanged him nearby.
Not exactly Mayberry.
For as much chaos as there was, the boom didn’t last long, and, as the mines dried up and closed, thousands of workers decamped and headed for greener pastures. Mining did continue on a smaller scale all the way up until 1942, but by then, there were only a handful of people around (The main boom years were from 1877-1881.) The town continued to decline until 1962 when the state of California stepped in to preserve what was left.
The really cool thing about Bodie is the remnants of the town are maintained in a state of “arrested decay” – meaning, staff protects and maintains what’s there, but they don’t restore or improve it. If a roof is damaged or a window breaks, they replace it using equivalent materials to what was originally used, but they don’t move, paint, or clean anything, nor do they remove dust or debris.
What that means for visitors is they will see structures that, had gravity had its way, would no longer be standing (click on any photo for full version):
and when they peer into the windows of old abandoned houses, they will see the stuff of horror films:
And that is exactly what visitors are invited to do: wander the town, peer into the windows, and imagine what life was like 140 years ago in a western boom town.
Because Bodie wasn’t turned into a protected state park until years after its heyday, the vast majority of the structures were lost – to fire, weather, and time. But the 5% that remains today is full of clues about how people lived and what life was like.
Additionally, because the town survived well into the 20th century, there are plenty of interesting artifacts from more recent times, like this 1920’s gas station:
Of the structures that remain (there are almost 200 of them!), there are a good variety of private homes, commercial businesses, and community facilities.
Adding to the overwhelming eeriness of the place, many of the houses seemed to have been abandoned in the middle of an afternoon…
Many buildings have fared well over time, like this Methodist church built in 1882. (A catholic church built the same year burned in 1928):
The Bodie schoolhouse was used all the way up to 1942. Its highest enrollment, in 1879, was 615 students.
The firehouse was essential, but infrastructure issues at a local reservoir meant firefighters repeatedly lost battles with enormous fires in the town – one in 1892 and another in 1932:
The jail had to be well maintained because it was always so busy:
Other structures are just a shell of their former selves. Like the bank – all of which was destroyed by the 1932 fire, with the exception of its brick enclosed vault:
Several buildings have deteriorated completely, offering visitors a glimpse of what the town would look like absent the state’s intervention:
Speaking of which, preserving the town today means a steady workload of shoring up structures, repairing foundations, and replacing broken windows. Additionally, and probably more importantly, it means making sure the contents of the park doesn’t end up on Antiques Roadshow.
This means the park is staffed with armed rangers and other state employees 24/7/365. About five of these hardy individuals stay through the region’s brutal winter, where snowstorms routinely dump upwards of five feet of snow on the town.
Speaking of which, as we were walking along the street, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something move.
A window shade in one of the old homes moved.
A window shade in a placed called Bodie GHOST TOWN moved.
While instantaneously reconsidering all my prior beliefs about what happens when people die, I noticed the shade move again.
“Holy crap, this place is really haunted!” I thought.
Upon closer examination, I noticed a dog in the window.
“Holy crap!! This place is haunted by DOGS! I love dogs! Dogs come back as ghosts??? This is AMAZING!!”
Alas…not so much.
As we came around the front of the house, we saw a sign that said “Employee’s Residence.”
Turns out, staff members who live onsite live in a couple of the old abandoned buildings. They’ve been retrofitted for modern use, but they are the original structures – which was completely shocking to us. Park rangers often live inside the parks they work at, but it’s usually in modern employee housing set away from the main scenic or historic areas. Never in a million years would I expect the state to allow these historic structures to be re-purposed for modern use.
More to the point, never would I expect anyone in their right mind to actually want to live in one of them.
We spoke with a seasonal staffer who was living and working there for the summer and he said it was incredibly unnerving at night. The park is located about 60 minutes from the nearest decent sized town, so once the park closes, there’s no one around, nowhere to go, and nothing to do. Making matters worse, they have minimal connectivity. He explained that because it’s located in the mountains, it often gets windy. This makes the old structures creak and groan, and causes the pieces of metal on the buildings and those that are strewn around the grounds to clang and scrape. He said it was very creepy and there was at least one long time caretaker who was convinced the whole place was haunted (but not by a chihuahua.) He told us that while he was enjoying his summer job, he was not planning to return next year.
All I could think of when talking to that guy was:
Visiting Bodie State Historic Park
If it’s not obvious, we really enjoyed visiting this place. It was fascinating to imagine the history here and to see these structures as they were when they were abandoned. And we honestly have the highest respect for the tough-as-nails individuals who call the town home.
Absent Covid, there are usually two homes that tourists can enter and look around as well as a museum that contains other artifacts. Additionally, staff members provide guided tours of the stamp mill. The mill cannot be entered without a staffer because of the dangerous materials and conditions inside.
Bodie is located about 13 miles off 395, but the last several miles are on unpaved road. Regular vehicles will have no problem (absent bad weather), but it does take a while to get there. Fortunately, the views along the way are not too shabby.
One last post about California. And yes, I know I said that last time. But this time, I mean it.