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Remote Mining Town Stands Silent, Empty

May 01, 1988|CHARLES F. QUEENAN | Queenan is a free-lance writer living in Santa Ana

BODIE, Calif. — "Goodby, God, I'm going to Bodie."

That was the anguished entry a worried little girl wrote in her diary when she was about to accompany her family to this remote mining town in 1881. She had good reason to fear the future.

Other frontier outposts have become far more celebrated for their marshals, gunfighters and showdowns, but Bodie (pronounced Bo-DEE) richly deserved its reputation as one of the toughest, most violent towns in the West.

Today that roistering, hell-for-leather community of a century ago stands silent and empty as one of California's most fascinating ghost towns. A travel book on the subject calls it "possibly the best all-round ghost town in the West."

Nothing has been restored and the town languishes in a permanent state of "arrested decay," 13 miles off U.S. 395, 119 miles south of Reno, 382 miles north of Los Angeles and just a few miles from the California-Nevada border.

Violence Erupted

The Bodie turnoff--California 270--is 18 miles north of Lee Vining and seven miles south of Bridgeport, both of which have overnight lodging, restaurants and campgrounds. Bodie has none.

Waterman S. Body discovered gold here in 1859. The news loosed a swarm of itinerants on the place--the typical motley rabble of fortune-seekers, adventurers, con men, psychopaths and desperadoes who roamed the frontier in those days. Most were armed; many were dangerous. It was an explosive mix, and violence erupted often.

With law enforcement virtually non-existent in the early days, vigilante justice often took over. "Case dismissed, as the defendant was taken out and hanged by a mob," a justice of the peace's report read.

"There is some irresistible power that impels us to cut and shoot each other to pieces," the Bodie Standard stated. During an unexpected lull in June, 1881, the Bodie Daily Press observed, "Bodie is becoming a quiet summer resort--no one killed here last week."

More Hazards

Stray bullets and random violence were only part of the hazards of living in Bodie. At an altitude of 8,369 feet, the winters were brutal. Snow, driven by winds up to 100 m.p.h., often drifted as high as 20 feet, and temperatures plunged to 20 and 30 degrees below zero.

Body himself (the townspeople changed the spelling so the pronunciation would be correct) lost his way in a blizzard and froze to death only months after his big strike. Dozens of others died of exposure in the paralyzing winter of 1878-79, and many left rather than face the ordeal of another winter.

While the boom in Bodie lasted, 30 companies brought out an estimated $100 million. Eventually the gold became harder and more costly to reach, and Bodie went into a steady decline. Only a few diehards remained by World War II, and the town was designated a state historic park in 1962.

Scene From a Movie

The first full view of Bodie as you pass the final curve in the road looks like a scene from an old Western with John Wayne. Marshal Matt Dillon would have been right at home here, although he and Deputy Festus would have had their hands full with that unruly crowd.

Spread out below is a scattering of more than 170 weathered buildings in various stages of decrepitude. Some have partially collapsed, others are propped up, but given the weight of winter snows and the ravages of time, many are remarkably well preserved.

Occasional repairs to strengthen a roof or stabilize a sagging wall are made by the resident ranger, but as subtly as possible so not to disturb the unrestored look of the town. To the left of the entry road is the graveyard, a fenced-in section for "respectable" deceased and "boot hill" for the others.

Parking is on the west side of town. Admission is by an honor system; you place the $3 fee in an envelope and toss it into a container.

There are no tourist-type amenities of any kind, save for a couple of ramshackle outhouses. Anything more modern would intrude on the atmosphere.

To walk down the path into town is to turn back the pages of history. In the general exodus from dying frontier towns, departing residents often left behind everything they couldn't carry with them. Such was the case in Bodie.

The contents of many abandoned homes and buildings have been left virtually intact, just as they were when their owners walked away half a century or more ago. Only a thick layer of dust marks the passage of the years.

Peek Through Windows

The most interesting part of the Bodie experience is to peek through windows. Visitors may even enter rooms of some old homes and examine this trove of antiquities--dilapidated sofas, old beds, dressers, primitive kitchen equipment, chamber pots and other relics of turn-of-the-century living. Most of the town's estimated 10,000 artifacts have yet to be inventoried.

Among the highlights of a nostalgia-laden stroll through Bodie's checkered past are:

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