Here lie the bones of history, in the shadow of the eastern Sierra Nevada, north of Mono Lake between Lee Vining, California, and Hawthorne, Nevada. This is the ghost town of Bodie, California. Once the home of 10,000 miners, gamblers, and ruffians, Bodie today is a silent wood and brick monument to the American west. It is remote – miles down a dirt road that takes off from highway 395. Its about 100 miles south of Carson City, the nearest major town to the north, and about 90 miles from Bishop, to the south. But anyone interested in the old west would tell you, remote or not, it is well worth a visit.
The barren hills are 8700 feet above sea level, often dry, cold and windblown, with a few trees found in the gullies and valleys between the hills. Those hills are dotted with sagebrush, dry grass, and abandoned diggings, and the occasional worked-out mine. Gold and silver made Bodie, but the streak played out, and that killed Bodie.
In its time, Bodie was the exemplary gold strike town. It made men wealthy and made them poor, and had a gunfight nearly every day of its heyday existence.
The original strike was made in 1859. A prospector named Bill Bodey made the strike. Bill Bodey was a character that most people stood upwind from. About 5 feet 7 inches tall, one contemporary described him as the dirtiest person he’d ever met. He was from Poughkeepsie, New York, where he’d been a tinsmith before walking out on a wife and six children to go prospecting.
Bodey partnered with Black Taylor, a 4 foot 9 inch tall Cherokee. During the winter of 1859-1860, they built a cabin over their claim, and had to haul supplies from Monoville, north of Mono Lake, to their strike.
During one such trip a blizzard blew in, with raw cold and sharp winds. During the long hard journey, Bodey collapsed. Black Taylor tried to save his partner, but was unable to carry the larger man to shelter and Bodey froze to death. The town that grew from Bodey’s claim was named for him, even if the spelling was rather casual.
There really wasn’t much to Bill Bodey’s find. The town that grew up around it supported a few mines that barely made wages for the miners. Some die-hard prospectors stubbornly worked the nearby hills. Nearly 20 years later, in 1876, a freak cave-in at the Bunker Hill mine exposed a rich body of gold ore. The rush began and the town, and the legend, of Bodie was born.
A Truckee newspaper printed a prayer from a little girl whose family was moving to Bodie: “Goodbye, God! We are going to Bodie.” The Bodie paper said the Truckee paper got it wrong; the prayer was actually “Good, by God! We are going to Bodie.”
Bodie was wild and woolly and the streets were always busy, day and night. It was rough and violent for the first years, but the town grew spectacularly fast and it was even getting a little civilized when the boom ended. Bodie’s heyday was short – from 1879 to 1882. The boom ended, and the camp followers packed up and went away. All mining stopped in 1914.
Now Bodie stands as a testimony to the gold chasers – bad men and builders, miners and players – who lived the legends of the west. The state park service took over Bodie in 1962. Rangers and volunteers have rebuilt part of the town and put a museum in the old miner’s union hall. It’s a long way off from any main road, but if you’re interested in the history of the west, its wall worth the trip.