Ghost With a Past: Bodie State Historic Park

By Bob Holton September 10, 2016 13:25

Phil-Lindsay-bodie-fdtn-5-best1-2016-edited-2Whoever has taken a road trip over scenic Sonora Pass and ventured beyond into California’s vast high desert will remember the sign along U.S. Highway 395 that points to Bodie, population “0.”

In the middle of nowhere and stuck in a time warp, this old haunt is far and away California’s ghost town to end all ghost towns.

If you go there, keep in mind that the nearest gas station is a 24-mile drive to Bridgeport. Forget touristy souvenir shops. Forget fast-food restaurants. Forget the most basic hotel accommodations. Think warped, wooden buildings – 240 at last check, not counting outhouses and shacks.

Walk Bodie’s spectral streets, where ghosts of its unbridled and lawless past are said to loom everywhere. Peer in windows of abandoned buildings. Ponder century-old furniture and personal effects left behind by miners and their families who suddenly packed up and moved on for better prospects.

At the Lottie Johl home, for example, the table is still set for dinner.

Bodie is at the end of a 13-mile, one-lane “highway” just four miles from the Nevada border. Its last three miles are dirt and gravel.

A large part of this ghost town’s appeal is owed to a concept called “arrested decay.” Ever since 1962, when California declared it a state historic park, the idea has been to maintain Bodie’s dilapidated, weather-worn structures only to the extent that they will not further deteriorate and collapse. Result: History is frozen in time.

Betty-Sederquist-bodie-fdtn-4-best2-summer-2016-editedGiven the profound still and quiet, it’s hard to imagine this played-out diggings as once being a wide-awake city of 10,000 inhabitants, more or less.

Bodie was named after W. S. Body (or Bodey), one of four itinerant prospectors who were first to strike gold here in 1859. By 1879 the remote desert outpost had 65 saloons and enough gambling halls, dance halls, brothels and opium dens to qualify as one of the wildest, wickedest boom towns of the California frontier.

This world-famous mining district was once home to some 30 companies producing approximately $100 million in bullion over an astounding 81-year run, based on the $20 to $30 an ounce price of gold during the time. Production peaked in the late 1870s.

Ironically, Bodie was destined to become a ghost town by the fact that those lucrative mines were its sole means of support. One by one, they petered out as the town’s population steadily declined – only 1,592 living souls by 1890, 965 by 1900, 110 by 1920, 90 by 1940, and the last time anyone bothered to count, three in 1943.

Whether earned or not, Bodie had a terrible reputation in its heyday for stage robberies, bloody barroom brawls, stabbings and shootings. It was the Wild West on steroids. So bad was it, in fact, that around 1878 the San Francisco Argonaut published a tall tale titled “The Bad Man of Bodie.”

The Bodie Bad Man became known far and wide as the rudest, most villainous person in the modern world – the stuff legends are made of.

Perhaps it was the likes of this fictional character – or it could have been the inclement weather and sheer desolation – that inspired the daughter of a jobless miner to exclaim, “Goodbye God, I’m going to Bodie.”

This disparaging remark (hardly a chamber of commerce endorsement) somehow showed up in newspapers from coast to coast, advancing Bodie’s dubious reputation for years to come.

The history of Bodie and that of Tuolumne County are interwoven in a number of ways. When the now-defunct mining metropolis was at the top of its game and its mills were running 24/7, the Bodie stage left from the City Hotel in Sonora and returned three times weekly, allowing for snow conditions over the pass.

The San Francisco journalist who wrote “The Bad Man of Bodie,” E. H. Clough, was born and raised in Sonora.

Then there’s the story of Ellie Brown. If you visit Bodie, you may want to stop by the William L. Brown home – point of interest Number 64 on the state park’s self-guided walking tour. Here is where young Ellie grew up during the 1920s and early ’30s, before she cut loose and set out for Sonora to see the world.

She attended Sonora High School, and would often refer to herself in jest as “The Bad Girl from Bodie.” She later married one of Sonora’s most successful businessmen, Richard R. Holman, whose holdings included the Sonora Foundry, the ever-popular Mundorf’s Hardware Store on Washington Street, and the Confidence Mine.

Today, Bodie State Historic Park is a vivid reminder of California’s fleeting past – a time of fabulous gold strikes, boom towns, wild doings and ghost towns never to rise again.

Planning to visit Bodie?

Bodie State Historic Park is located about 120 miles from Sonora. Allow three-and-a-half hours for the scenic drive on Highway 108 over Sonora Pass and on to the park.

At Bridgeport, take State Route 270 for about 10 miles, then continue three miles on the unsurfaced road to the park entrance.

Unless otherwise indicated, the park is open every day of the year from 9am-6pm in the summer months (March 18-Oct. 31) with daily tours and history talks, and from 9am-4pm in the off-season.

Park entry costs $5 for adults, and $3 for ages 1-17. Only cash or checks are accepted at the entrance station. No camping is permitted.

Visitors with high-altitude health concerns take note: Bodie is 8,375 feet above sea level.

Call to make arrangements for those with limited mobility.

Dogs are permitted in the park but must be leashed at all times.

Don’t forget your camera: Bodie is very photogenic.

For more information, call (760) 647-6564 or visit online at parks.ca.gov or bodiefoundation.org.

Copyright © 2016 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Bob Holton September 10, 2016 13:25
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