The History and Geology of the Bodie Ghost Town
Jul 14, 2021
Bodie State Historic Park, located only 48 miles north of Mammoth Lakes in the heart of Mono County, California, is undoubtedly one of the most legendary ghost towns in the Western U.S. Preserved in a state of “arrested decay”, visitors to Bodie are able to explore the turn of the century remains of one of California’s most lucrative mining districts.
The history of Bodie is vibrant and colorful and the town’s legacy as a Wild West icon is everlasting. With a diverse population numbering close to 10,000 at the town’s peak in 1880, industrious miners and successful businessman rubbed shoulders with notorious gunfighters and nefarious gamblers. From the tales of the initial discoverer, whose life ended tragically, to the development of electrically powered gold mines and vicious gunfights, the story of Bodie is sure to interest all members of your group or family.
A Brief History of Bodie
The birth of the town of Bodie began in summer of 1859, with four adventurous prospectors wandering the Eastern Sierra foothills in the search of mineral wealth. Arriving from the western slopes via Sonora Pass, the group began exploring the canyons and hills north of Mono Lake. About 10 miles from Monoville, the group discovered a promising placer (stream bed) showing of gold within a meadow surrounded by rolling hills of sagebrush. The men felt confident in their placer prospects and they immediately built a small cabin next to Pearson Spring, which is on the outskirts of the ghost town near the old cemetery. With winter approaching, the miners decided to spend the cold months in the nearby mining camp of Monoville and return to the mining claim in the spring.
The news of discovery did not reach far and the deposit was almost forgotten. At this time, the massive mines of the Comstock Lode in Virginia City to the north were in full production and the gold mines of Aurora to the east were rapidly developing, keeping thousands of miners employed. As these deposits were exhausted, miners began emigrating into the Bodie Hills and the region rapidly exploded.
In 1876, Bodie had only a few dozen residents. By 1879 and 1880, the town grew to an estimated population of around 10,000 people as the mining industry quickly expanded. This rapid growth brought an incredibly diverse population, which comprised a broad spectrum of culture, ethnicity, and notability, into the Bodie Hills. As the people came in, the town began to evolve and several prominent neighborhoods became established.
To the east of town, the mighty mines and mills pumped economic lifeblood into the town. In the center and south of town, a vibrant business district blossomed, flanked to the west by the well-kept homes of mine management and business owners The northern end of town came to life in the evenings, as the dozens of saloons, gambling halls, taverns, brothels, and opium dens of the Red Light District and Chinatown beckoned miners with their expensive vices. Bodie quickly gained the reputation as a “shooters town” due to the Wild West-style gunfights that often erupted during the height of the town’s prominence.
In 1881, the Bodie and Benton Railroad was formed and although the 32-mile rail line never connected the towns of Bodie and Benton as intended, it did provide much-needed lumber to the mines from Mono Mills on the south side of Mono Lake. The availability of lumber, which was necessary for building construction, mine support, and fuel, was a major issue for the residents Bodie and until the railway was completed, continuous 20-head mule teams hauled lumber from the forests to the west and south.
At its peak between 1879 and 1881, Bodie’s main street reached over a mile in length. During this time, Bodie had 2 churches (Catholic and Methodist), at least 2 newspapers, a telegraph station, post office, 22 operating mines, many large (and very noisy) stamp-style ore mills, multiple motels, several general stores and mercantiles, stables, doctors and pharmacists, union halls, schools, breweries, and several dozen saloons. Although it is difficult to accurately gauge the size of the town due to the transient nature of the region’s population in the 1870’s and 1880’s, Bodie was likely the 6th or 7th largest city in California at this time.
Aside from the vast mineral wealth and the rough and tumble reputation of the town, Bodie’s next claim to fame is the installation and operation of the world’s first long-distance electrical transmission network. In 1892, the Superintendent of Bodie’s Standard Mine began designing an electrical system to replace the facility’s expensive and laborious steam plant. After locating a suitable site for a hydroelectric station on Green Creek near Bridgeport, 12.5 miles of suspended power lines were strung linking the 3300-volt hydroelectric station to the mine. At this time, electrical transmission over such a great distance was unheard of and many of the mine’s investors were skeptical of the undertaking. Once the lights turned on and the machinery began turning on electrical power, the skeptics were turned to believers and industry was revolutionized at a global scale.
A kitchen fire in the summer of 1892 destroyed much of town to the west of main street. The town was rebuilt, although the damage was done and several of the residents left. Tragedy struck Bodie again in the early summer of 1932 when most of the town burnt to the ground. This fire, which was accidentally started by a young boy playing with matches, sealed the fate of the once glorious mining town.
After major mining ended in 1915 and small-scale mining efforts halted in the early 1950’s, the remaining buildings slowly began to decay as residents left or passed on. Due to the town’s remarkable ghost town-like remains and the value of the minerals mined from the surrounding hills, the town received National Landmark Status in 1961. California adopted the Bodie State Historic Park in 1962 and it remains today preserved and maintained by the Bodie Foundation.
The Story of W.S. Bodey
The most ambitious of the four original prospectors was a former New Yorker by the name W.S. Bodey (“W” likely stood for Wakeman, not William). In the middle of the 19th century, Bodey sailed around the horn of South America to California’s goldfields. After several meager years, Bodey and a team of three other prospectors decided to try their luck in the foothills of the Eastern Sierra, where they discovered gold near Mono Lake. Bodey is actually credited with initially discovering the gold in the stream bed in 1859, hence the town’s name (whose spelling was later changed from Bodey to Bodie by a mistaken sign painter).
Bodey’s story, as is the case with many of the West’s famous prospectors, does not end well. At the opposition of the other two partners, Bodey and another prospector by the name of Black Taylor decided to stay in the cabin over winter in order to work the deposit. Unprepared for the harsh winters, the two ran out of supplies by November and were forced to make the 10 mile trip to the nearby mining camp of Monoville. On the return trip, a fierce blizzard caused the two to become lost and Bodey was unable to reach the cabin before succumbing to the winter storm.
In the following spring, Taylor was able to find and bury the remains of Bodey near the location of his death. Almost 20 years later, residents of the now booming town of Bodie found the unmarked gravesite and moved the remains to the town’s cemetery, where the bones of W.S. Bodey reside today.
Geology: Responsible for Bodie’s Existence
Bodie owes its existence to the area’s unique, and valuable, geology. Similar to Nevada mining districts to the east, Bodie’s precious metal deposits formed around 10 million years ago. Due to widespread tectonic extensional (or pulling apart) forces acting on the earth’s crust of eastern California and western Nevada, molten rock and superheated water reached the surface through conduits as explosive volcanoes or hot springs. These hydrothermal fluids contained gold and silver and when these fluids cooled, the metals precipitated within the surrounding igneous rock. Geologists use the term epithermal mineralization to describe this near-surface emplacement of economic metals.
Aside from the early placer workings, Bodie’s wealth was generated by hard-rock mining. Hard-rock mining refers to the process of breaking apart solid rock, or ore, to extract the precious metals or minerals locked within. To do this, miners must blast and mine into the rock in the search of valuable veins. In the case of Bodie, most (90%) of the gold and silver recovered was locked deep within quartz veins. These milky-white quartz veins, from inches in width to 20 ft. in average width at the Standard Mine, often contained a variety of economically important minerals; including pyroaurite, tetrahedrite, pyrite, stephanite, native gold, and native silver.
Beneath the town of Bodie, it is estimated that miners excavated 100’s of miles of tunnels in the search for valuable ore. These tunnels were accessed by vertical mine shafts, which had steam driven elevators to transport ore to the surface and miners to the workings. Experienced miners from the declining Virginia City and Aurora districts brought knowledge and efficiency to the Bodie District, making the workings more profitable for the owners of the mines.
The district was incredibly lucrative and many investors reaped the rewards from mining stock and dividends. In 1888, California State’s official Mineralogist reported that the district had produced over $18 million in precious metals, which is just under half a billion dollars today (adjusted for inflation).
Today, over 100 of the original buildings line the dirt streets of the Bodie ghost town; including the old Miners Union building, firehouse, jail, the massive Standard Mill, school house, Methodist Church, morgue, and several small homes. Overlooking the dusty roads of the once thriving Bodie, these buildings preserve the Wild West way of life, with many remaining as they were originally found over 60 years ago. The Miners Union building is now a museum, which showcases artifacts from Bodie’s past, and the Standard Mill has been partially restored. Daily tours of the relatively complete stamp mill facility are available throughout the summer for the nominal fee of $6.
One of the most popular attractions among visitors is the Bodie Cemetery, located at the end of a short footpath on the outskirts of town. Bodie was and still is known for having two cemeteries; one within the ornate cemetery fence and one outside of the fence, known as the informal Boot Hill cemetery. The plots inside of the cemetery fence were reserved as resting places for the respectable citizens of the town. The unmarked Boot Hill outcast cemetery was for the unsavory and derelict characters of Bodie, which were many in the town’s heyday.
The Bodie State Historic Park is an authentic and easily accessible desert ghost town made famous by vast mineral riches and late 19th-century western lawlessness. Over 200,000 visitors explore the town site annually and for additional information on the Bodie ghost town, consult the websites and resources listed below.
Leave Mammoth Lakes on California State Route 203 south and turn left after the overpass onto Highway 395 north. Drive for approximately 35 miles, passing through the small town of Lee Vining. Turn right on State Route 270 and travel east 10 miles to the end of the pavement.
For the remaining 3 miles, the road surface is dirt and travel may be slow. For current road conditions, call Bodie State Historic Park at 760-647-6445 or visit http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/roadinfo/display.php?page=sr270
Tips and Advice for Visiting Bodie
Bodie State Historic Park has limited resources. Flushable toilets are available near the parking lot. There are no concessions, although there are several areas around the park to enjoy a picnic lunch. Camping is not allowed within or near the park.
The ghost town is located above 8,000 feet in elevation, so visitors should be prepared for all types of weather. Sunscreen, sunglasses, sturdy shoes and a jacket are recommended.
The park entrance fee is $5 for adults and $3 for a child (age 1-17). Cash or check are the only accepted forms of payment. Summer hours: 9:00am – 6:00pm (March 18 to October 31st).
Inquire about tours inside of the Miner’s Union Hall, which is now a museum. Daily tours of the Standard stamp mill leave at 11:00 am and 3:00pm at a cost of $6 per person.
The official California State Park website for Bodie: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=509 Mammoth Lakes Tourism Bodie webpage: http://visitmammoth.com/things-to-do/summer-activities/bodie Additional websites on Bodie history: