- Historic Sites
The Real Gold At Bodie
The author leads a search for hidden treasure in the amazingly complete documentary history of a California ghost town
April 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 3
The road to Bodie, California, turns to gravel as it meanders upward from U.S. 395 on a thirteen-mile climb through sagebrush to an elevation of almost eighty-five hundred feet. I paused at the crest of a hill where a small sign marked the entrance to Bodie State Historic Park. The air was still, and the silence absolute; but I was most struck by the intensity of the light and colors. A spectacular June sunrise illuminated the imposing wall of the Sierras to the west. In the other direction, Bodie Bluff loomed in silhouette against a cobalt sky crisscrossed by the condensation trails of airliners. Below, in a shallow valley, was Bodie, the weathered pine of its buildings russet and yellow against a sea of gray-green bunchgrass. Here I was, a lawyer from the big city of the big deals, musing about color and light after arriving two hours ahead of schedule for my first day as a volunteer intern at the fledgling Bodie Archives.
Like the earlier discoveries of gold at Sutter’s Mill and the Comstock, the big strike at Bodie came by chance. The claims around the struggling mountain camp were all but played out when Peter Eshington and Louis Lockberg took over the failed Bunker Hill mine in 1874. Having sunk a shaft 120 feet into Bodie Bluff, the two Scandinavians were on the verge of abandoning their project when the lower works caved in, exposing an immensely rich vein of ore. The partners took a ton and a half of gold from the drift and sold the property to the founders of the Standard Mining Company. The rush was on.
Within a few years Bodie was home for ten thousand stalwarts. Hoists and stamp mills covered the bluff above a thriving commercial district, which stretched a mile along Main Street. By 1882 the mines of Bodie had produced fourteen million dollars in bullion, and the town had become notorious for its faro parlors, brothels, and opium dens. The streets of Bodie were a shooting gallery that for a time averaged six murders per week. The boom lasted less than a decade and ended with the disappearance of the mother vein. Decline became calamity after a series of conflagrations destroyed whole sections of the town. Eventually Bodie was left alone and forlorn, prey to savage winter storms and systematic plun dering by vandals and souvenir hunters.
What sets Bodie apart from other ghost towns is not what it has lost but what remains. More than 150 of the town’s original structures and thousands of artifacts still cling to the high eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada. Isolated and totally abandoned, Bodie is one of the last true ghost towns in America.
The archive project began with the designation of Bodie as a state historic park in 1962. In preliminary surveys of the town site, the California Department of Parks and Recreation had collected an enormous array of artifacts. Unexpectedly, the search for relics also turned up middens of paper. Ignored by looters scavenging construction materials, documents of every description were scattered on the floors of boarded-up buildings or jumbled and moldering in cabinets, drawers, dome-top trunks, and rodent nests. The searchers left much of the paper where they found it, placing the rest in storage cartons to prevent further deterioration. It would be 1986, a quarter-century later, before the Tahoe Sierra State Park Foundation provided funds to a program aimed at preserving and cataloguing what may be the most complete documentary history of a Western gold town ever assembled.
I followed the road past the cemetery to a small car park in the shadow of the hoist of the Red Cloud Mine. The surrounding area was littered with corroded mine and mill machinery. Partially hidden by the sagebrush was a carpet of broken glass, nails, metal shards, and rusted tin cans.
A short trail led to park headquarters, which consisted of two small, sparsely furnished rooms in the Cain “mansion,” once the home of James Stuart Cain, Bodie’s leading banker. At the office located in the rear portion of the residence, I was greeted by Brad Sturdivant, one of the resident park rangers assigned to protect the site. As intruders and would be vandals quickly found out, Bodie, although abandoned, was not uninhabited. After I completed the paperwork, Brad gave me an informative map, and I began my first walk through town.
From my reading I knew that Bodie would be unlike any of the dozens of ghost towns I had visited over the years. Yet I was still not prepared for its sheer size. Bodie was not some crumbling roadside ruin or a couple of dilapidated buildings sandwiched between a gift boutique and a fast-food franchise. This was a town, at least part of a town, with stores, residences, livery stables, artisans’ shops, saloons, and hotels—all standing as they were left.