Start all over again - what would it be like? The spirit of adventure and enthusiasm brought many men to the Bodie Hills east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Mono County. For over 50 years, adventurers chased a dream of instant wealth during the California Gold Rush. They moved from town to town as the gold ran out. The promise of new richness was just behind the next mountain.
Gold seeker W.S. Bodey discovered one of the richest gold strikes in 1859. He perished several months later in a blizzard while making a supply trip, never getting to see the rise of the town that was named after him. Bodie became a thriving mining town in 1877, after the standard company discovered a profitable deposit of gold-bearing ore. From 1877 to 1888, the community grew to nearly 10,000 residents and produced over $35 million in gold and silver. At its peak, Bodie had more than 2,000 buildings and more than 60 saloons and gambling halls lined the Main Street. Bodie claimed 18 lodging houses and hotels, three breweries, more than half-dozen markets, restaurants, two banks, newspapers, a school, a petrol station, a railway, a post office and a telegraph line to Bridgeport and Genoa, Nevada.
Once Bodie was notorious as the most lawless and toughest gold mining town in the West. The gold attracted business and professional men like mine operators, miners and merchants, as well as bad men and outlaws. Murders, shootouts, barroom brawls, robberies and stage holdups occurred frequently and contributed to its reputation of violence. Bodie had an opium dens in Chinatown and a red-light district. Reverend F.M. Warrington describes the town as "A sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion."
Bodie is also known for extreme harsh and unpredictable weather conditions, which are due to the high altitude (8,400 feet /72,600 meters) and the very exposed plateau. Winds can sweep across the valley with more than 100 miles per hour (160 km/h). Bodie has dry summers with very warm days and extremely cold nights. In winter, temperatures often drop below 0F (−18 °C). Since there is no forestland in the area, lumber had to be imported to Bodie. Plenty of firewood was needed to keep residents warm through the long winters. The winter of 1878/79 was particularly severe and claimed the lives of many residents.
Bodie turned into a ghost town once the gold ran out. In 1881 the rich mines were depleted and people moved to other prosperous strikes in Montana, Arizona and Utah. By 1886, the population dropped to approximately 1,500 people. The invention of the cyanide process in the 1890s, and the use of electricity as a source of cheap power, made mining profitable again. The Standard Company built its own hydroelectric plant approximately 13 miles away at Dynamo Pond, which was the first transmission of electricity over a long distance in the country. But Bodie only enjoyed a short revival – A large fire in 1892, and a second fire in 1932, caused by a two and a half years old boy playing with matches, destroyed 90 percent of the town. A few residents stayed until the 1940s, waiting for the next big gold strike. The last mine closed in 1942. Today it is silent and dead. It looks like everybody just picked up and left town.
Most of the building have fallen victim to time, fire and elements. Only a small part of the town with about 110 structures, including one of many once-operational gold mills, survived. Walking through the deserted streets, it almost feels like you are transported back to the past. The doors are locked, but you can look into the windows of the homes, businesses and saloons. Interiors have furniture, heater and curtains on the windows. The general store down the street from the church is stocked with goods, brought to town from as far as San Francisco. Ghirardelli chocolate boxes and other items are sitting in the shelves. Looking into the schoolhouse windows, you see a world globe and books covered with dust. Maps are hanging limp on the wall. It looks as if the students simply stepped out for a break and never returned. Bodie is preserved in a state of “arrested decay”. The buildings are maintained by the State Park, but only to the extent that they will not be allowed to fall over or otherwise deteriorate in a major way.
Bodie was the last of the old California mining towns – but its stories live on. They began in the newspapers and became legends like the “Bad Man of Bodie”. Outlaws like Tom Adams and Washoe Pete contributed to the Wild West atmosphere and the movies at the turn of the century continued the stories. Today the streets of Bodie are empty – Streets where gunslingers once had their showdowns, and where fortune were won and lost with a single turn of a card.