Remember the HBO series “Deadwood “? That would be a good fit for the high altitude mining town of Bodie. Bodie is an island in a sagebrush ocean, six miles or so south of Bridgeport, Ca. and thirteen miles in from US 395. On your right as you head down 395 you see the Sierra Nevada Range- snow, peaks, cliffs and canyons, willows, aspens, pine trees, waterfalls, roaring creeks filled with trout. Take a left at the Bodie junction and you get…….sagebrush. And sagebrush. And more sagebrush. No trees in this very dry land. Oh there are a few stands of hearty aspens within a mile or so the town, but this is a vast and lonely place without a lot of shade.
If Bodie is an island in the midst of an ocean, than gold ( or better put, the greed for gold) was its anchor. Gold was discovered here in 1859 and the town hit its heyday in 1880. At that time it had a population approaching ten thousand and was 95% larger than the current photo you see above and below.
There were several fires during the life of Bodie which is one reason so little remains. But what remains is unique. In 1963 it became a state park which served to preserve Bodie and its contents from the looters and souvenir hunters that had plagued the town prior to that.
Located at such a high elevation and with the roads into the area being brutal washboards, it is not surprising that when people left they took the minimum. The general store, the hotel, the mortuary, these buildings and others had an abundance of left behind items that made up the necessities of life in Bodie.
Inside the general store, and a few of the other buildings, the rangers have set things up that were in storage, giving the spaces more of a feeling of how it looked day-to-day back in the day. Likewise with some of the large mining equipment. Some were moved for display sake. But believe me, nothing was imported.
Though Bodie is a state park, it is still neighbored by private property. Much of it belonging to modern-day mining companies. And that is how I came to spend several years living there in the mid 1970’s. I grew up in Southern Arizona. Douglas, Arizona to be exact, which was a Phelps Dodge Mining Corporation company town. There was a large copper smelter there that processed the ore from the Lavender Pit copper mine in Bisbee, 23 miles away. Also situated in Douglas was Western Exploration, the geological and geophysical exploration center for Phelps Dodge. I knew people at Western Exploration, so when it came time for summer jobs I started working around there just after high school. After several summers of work they realized I didn’t screw up too regularly and asked me if I wanted to work seasonally as an assistant geologist. I thought about it for a couple of seconds and said yes. And off to the field office in Reno before moving a 23 foot travel trailer onto the hill above Bodie State Park. Phelps Dodge wanted to do some exploration drilling to see if there was enough gold content to warrant any further development. There wasn’t at the time, you can all breathe a sigh of relief. But it did provide me with a great job from May to October for two years in a row. There were also claims to be walked and maintained, samples to take from the drilling, assay materials to be processed and logged and a lot of beer to drink.
We got along well with the park rangers and the Conservation Corp. volunteers who worked in Bodie Park for the summer, helping to keep the town in a state of “arrested decay”. In other words, they wouldn’t allow anything to deteriorate further but would not improve on anything either.
We were a cast of characters for sure. A bunch of practical jokers, all fairly young and rambunctious, living twenty miles from Bridgeport in the middle of nowhere. The head ranger at that time was an ex serviceman by the name of Mike O’Rourke. He looked a lot like Abe Lincoln, tall and lanky. Mike sure knew his way around a case of Keystone I must admit. And he had a great way of keeping the looters out who from time to time would attempt to come into Bodie at night looking for artifacts to take home. He had wired loud speakers around the town which enabled him to tell someone to not go where they were headed for their own safety. At night when the park was closed, after the third or fourth beer he would break out the sound effects record. Sounds of “ghost locomotives” charging through the empty darkened streets of Bodie would reverberate off the surrounding hills. Coyotes would start howiling ( I believe that was track 3 on the other side of the album) followed by several discharged rounds of ammo from Mr. O’ Rourke’s service revolver. At that time people were allowed to camp just outside the park. They got the quick idea it was not wise to even consider entering the park after sunset. There were shenanigans from us all, each one trying to outdo the other and I shall refrain from great detail even though some statute of limitation must have passed by now. But let me say you haven’t lived to you see just how high a fifty gallon drum can fly when placed over a lit stick of dynamite.
For us miners, work was ten days on and four days off . It was a great schedule because it allowed ample time to take off packing in the marvelous close-by backcountry. Burro Pass, Matterhorn Peak, Green Creek, Virginia Canyon, all so inviting.
We were fortunate to have Bobbie Bell come visit from time to time. Bobby grew up in Bodie when it was still populated later in its life. Evenings were spent listening to him pass on some oral history. One of my favorite stories was when he woke up on his day off from working at the Standard Mill. He sat bolt upright from his sleep, awakened by the unbelievably loud sound of quiet. The mill had developed mechanical problems and had suddenly shut down. Otherwise it was a constant source of noise. Another tidbit was how the mining companies would take a Model T Ford underground into the mines, piece by piece and rebuild it so it could be driven from level to level in the tunnels. Bobbie also mentioned that when the Standard Mill burned down (before his time) in 1898 they recovered enough gold dust from underneath the shaker tables to rebuild the mill out of pocket.
Many people come through Bodie. While walking around I caught snippets of conversation in French, Japanese, and German. Cameras abound. The air is crisp. You halfway expect John Wayne or Clint Eastwood to stroll up to you and ask you if you’re enjoying your visit. I can just imaging John Wayne speaking German.
If you get a chance, take the trip. There’s gold in them thar hills.
Thanks for taking some LIP from me,
P.S. Click on any of the photos to enlarge.