More than 8000 feet above sea level, off a winding, dusty dirt road east of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, is a ghost town that might be the closest you’ll get to traveling back to the old West. Bodie, California, was once home to one of the richest gold deposits in the state. The first mill was established there in 1861, and by its peak in 1880, the town boasted a population of 8000. As mines dried up, residents left, and the town fell into disrepair. The town was fully abandoned in the 1960s, and today, only 5 percent of the original buildings remain. They’re kept in a state of “arrested decay” by the California State Parks system. While it’s not the bustling community it once was, Bodie is one of the best-preserved ghost towns left over from the California Gold Rush. Before you go, read up on the town’s history, and find out what you’ll see when you’re there. (But check the Park Service website before you hop in your car—depending on the weather and the time of year, the roads might be closed.)
Originally known as the Bunker Hill and then the Bullion Mine, the Standard Mine helped spur the gold rush to Bodie. In 1875, 16 years after a prospector named W.S. Bodey first discovered gold in the area, part of the mine collapsed and unearthed a rich ore deposit. Soon there were 30 mining companies operating in Bodie, but the Standard Company remained the most prosperous of the bunch. Once rocks were extracted from the hills, they were sent to the Standard Stamp Mill, where iron rods broke them up and mercury separated gold and silver from the rock fragments. In 25 years, the Standard Mill processed $14 million worth of precious metals. Most of the original mill burned down in 1898, but it was reconstructed the following year. Because it’s considered unsafe today, the only way for members of the public to access the mill is to pay for a guided tour.
As Bodie grew, it acquired a reputation for being a godless boomtown: When the town went one week without a murder in 1881, newspapers jokingly declared it a “quiet summer resort.” A journalist who passed through the community noted, “A general improvement of morals would not be out of place.” Bodie had 65 saloons at one point, but it was late to open a church. Chinese residents converted an old building into a temple in 1880, and Christian residents either held services in private homes or at the Miner’s Union Hall until 1882, when two churches—one Methodist, built by Reverend F.M. Warrington, and one Catholic—were erected. By the late 1920s, the Methodist church was dilapidated, and E.J. Clinton, the head of a local mining company, used his own money to restore it. The Catholic Church burned down in 1928; today, the Methodist church is the last church standing in Bodie.
The Bank of Bodie opened on North Main Street in 1878. In 1888, Bodie business mogul J.S. Cain bought half interest in the bank, and, using the fortune he made from mining, completed the purchase a few years later. Cain was a leader in several local industries, including mining and timber, so the Bank of Bodie likely became a center for business dealings when he took it over. Even though Bodie had a reputation for lawlessness, the bank was surprisingly secure. It was never robbed in broad daylight, though in 1916, $2000 worth of cash, bullion, and valuables were stolen in the night. The structure burned down in the 1932 fire that consumed most of the town. When the building caught fire, a few men rushed to salvage the bank’s valuable walnut counter, only to get it stuck in the door and block themselves from saving anything else. All that remains of the Bank of Bodie is the brick vault pictured above.
On December 22, 1877, a miner’s union organized in Bodie. The Miner’s Union Hall, where the group met, quickly grew into a gathering place for all the town’s residents. In addition to being a place for religious services before the town’s churches were built, the hall hosted parties like Independence Day balls, masquerade dances, and Christmas celebrations. When Bodie’s four fire companies needed to raise money for equipment and uniforms, they threw a “Fireman’s Ball” in the building. The cheery social spot was also connected to a murder: At a ball held there in 1881, Joseph DeRoche danced with Thomas Treloar’s wife. Treloar waited for DeRoche to emerge from the hall and shot him dead in the street. The murderer escaped from prison soon after his arrest, only to be captured and hanged by a gang of vigilantes.
Today the Miner’s Union Hall houses a small bookstore and museum for Bodie’s visitors.
Down the street from the Miner’s Union Hall was the I.O.O.F. (Independent Order of Odd Fellows) building, a meeting hall and health club with barbells and turn-of-the-century workout machines. Next to that was the DeChambeau Hotel, which was a bar and cafe in the town’s later years.
The California State Park department keeps Bodie in a state of “arrested decay.” That means instead of restoring dilapidated buildings, the park repairs and stabilizes roofs, windows, and foundations in order to maintain Bodie’s decrepit, ghost town atmosphere for as long as possible. The Swazey Hotel is a great example of this approach. Purchased by a Nevada rancher named Horace F. Swasey in 1894, it was a place for visitors passing through Bodie to stay in the late 19th century. Later in the town’s history, it also functioned as a clothing store and casino. A large wooden beam has been added to what remains of the structure to keep it from falling over. The old hotel’s lopsided orientation makes it one of the more popular sites in the state park.
This building wasn’t intended to be a schoolhouse. Bodie’s first school burned down after a young boy was kicked out of class for bad behavior. Instead of heading straight home, the trouble-maker allegedly snuck behind the school and began setting fire to some dry brush. The blaze spread to the building, and Bodie’s only schoolhouse was destroyed. Shortly after, the Bon Ton Lodging House was converted into a place of learning, and in the 1879-1880 school year, 615 students attended—its highest enrollment ever. Not all school-aged kids in Bodie went to school—many stayed home to help their mothers with housework, and some of the boys worked on horse or mule teams—so this only represented part of the town’s child population. The schoolhouse was still in use when many of the buildings in Bodie had been abandoned, and it finally held its last class in 1942.
Dusty desks inside Bodie’s schoolhouse.
In the early 1880s, business partners George H. Wheaton and Nicholas C. Luhrs built a store on the corner of Main Street and Green Street in Bodie. In addition to the general store portion, the building contained offices, hotel rooms, a kitchen, and a dining room. The space briefly served as the United States Land Office, the place where frontiersmen could go to purchase western land from the government, but after just a year, the U.S. government moved the Land Office’s location from Bodie to Independence, California. At different points in Bodie’s history, the building was a store, a hotel, and the office of a hydroelectric company that provided the town electricity from a nearby river. As a result of years’ worth of different signs being painted over each other, the business eventually adopted the name “Wheaton and Hollis,” even though no one named Hollis was ever involved with it.
Scattered throughout Bodie are the wooden houses where townsfolk lived. Visitors can tour the former homes of famous residents, such as business mogul J.S. Cain, as well as those of less affluent citizens, like miners, teamsters, and schoolteachers. Many buildings are furnished just as they were when they were abandoned, and park rangers are told not to change the interiors.