From Wild West boomtown to fire-devastated ruin, the town of Bodie stuffed decades worth of experience into a few drama-packed decades. Now it is one of the largest and best preserved ghost towns in California.
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Bodie on a crisp fall day. The town is only accessible via a long and dusty dirt road, snaking along the desert hills near the east side of Yosemite National Park. The town comes into view, nestled into a valley, with the ore-processing mill perched above it on the hillside. We parked and wandered in past abandoned mine equipment, giant cable spools and gears big enough to prop up a barn.
Although Bodie is most famous for its Gold Rush era heyday, residents actually hung around until the 1960s. The town was founded as a gold mining camp in 1859, and expanded in 1879 when new discoveries of gold pushed it into a boomtown. At its height, Bodie was home to a rowdy population of nearly 10,000. But as soon as 1880 signs of decline were already appearing, as competition from other gold boomtowns drew miners elsewhere. By 1910, only 698 people remained; by 1920, just 120.
Although only a shadow of its former self, today the town is composed of nearly 200 original buildings, including mine buildings, homes and shops, with a small cemetery occupying a hillside. Most of the buildings are closed up, and the land is maintained by the California parks service, giving it just a touch of a theme park feel. The entire town is maintained in a state of preserved in a state of “arrested decay”, meaning that buildings are neither restored nor allowed to fall down, though a few have been transformed into ranger stations for the caretakers who live on site. Visitors are free to roam through the streets and peek in windows, and wander into the few open buildings. A small museum and gift shop highlights the story of Bodie, along side individual artifacts from the homes and shops of the town.
Budget shortfalls have been threatening to close the park, thereby making the town off-limits to visitors, but has thus far managed to stay open.