The Real Gold At Bodie

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Although most structures had been secured from public entry, I could see their haunting interiors through windows and the cracks of sagging shutters. Eerie images of dustladen furniture and peeling wallpaper materialized behind threadbare curtains. Gaming chips were strewn over a roulette table in a dark corner of Sam Leons’s bar, and caskets appeared in the gloom of the town morgue. In a barbershop, shaving mugs adorned with the names of patrons lodged between half-full bottles of hair tonic. Among the cobwebs in the display windows of the Boone & Wright store was an array of century-old merchandise. Apart from the hulk of a Model T Ford resting in the corral behind the Odd Fellows Lodge, my hour-long wanderings encountered no sign of twentieth-century life.

Nonplussed, I watched as a woman in a pink bonnet and hoop dress bustled along Main Street, paused, and entered the Miners Union Hall. The apparition turned out to be the very lively Carol Canby, whose husband, Bob, was a resident ranger. When time permitted, Carol acted as volunteer hostess of the Bodie Museum, a single artifact-crammed room located on the first floor of the frame building. She also served as the park’s unofficial historian and information officer, graciously fielding questions and occasional grumbles about Bodie’s lack of conveniences (the town had two drinking fountains and some primitive rest rooms). At the entrance to the hall was an exhibit credited by the rangers with limiting the amount of pilfering in the park. In a glass case was arranged an assortment of returned souvenirs, accompanied by letters recounting tales of hard luck that had originated from the time the visitor had purloined the item. After a brief tour of the museum, I recrossed Main Street and walked east, up the hill to the schoolhouse.

The Bodie School was the center of the archive project, which since its inception had been directed by Susan Searcy, manuscript curator at the University of Nevada at Reno, and Patricia Gregory, a special consultant to the Sierra State Park Foundation and curator of history with the History of Science Division of the City of Sacramento. Susan and Patty, both experts in the preservation and cataloguing of historical documents, had stretched a limited budget by enlisting the assistance of a handful of graduate-student interns and parttime volunteers. Bodie’s insidious weather, which Mark Twain’s Roughing It divided into two seasons, “the breaking up of one winter and the beginning of the next,” restricted the archivists’ work to the summer months. Even so, they had made substantial progress.

I was as close as I would ever come to experiencing the feelings of the man who first entered the tomb of Tutankhamen.

Spacious by Bodie standards, the 1879 two-story building was originally the Bon Ton Lodging House. It was converted to a school after an angry pupil set fire to the original schoolhouse. Now consolidated in crates in the empty upstairs classroom was an extraordinary repository of records gathered from throughout the park. A second-floor office had been transformed into a document work area, as had the adjacent cloakroom, still lined with wall hooks for children’s coats and hats. At the foot of the stairs near the front entrance, the groundfloor schoolroom remained in its original state, with desks, textbooks, an old globe, and even a lesson plan on the chalkboard. Invisible to park visitors peering into its windows, the technology of the twentieth century buzzed behind the classroom’s north wall. There an insulated room within a room had been constructed at the rear of the building to avoid disturbing the original structure. Instruments inside the chamber automatically monitored temperature and humidity. Also in operation were a recently donated computer and a sophisticated security system. Lining the walls were rows of steel shelves, most empty, but some holding documents carefully labeled and encased in acid-neutral folders and boxes—the beginning of the Bodie Archives.

 
 
 
 
 
Documents of every description were jumbled and moldering in cabinets, drawers, dome-top trunks, and rodent nests.

The records were sorted and cleaned on the second floor and then transferred downstairs for computer cataloguing by the professional archivists with help from Chris Myers, an experienced intern from Sacramento State University. Like most of the team, I alternated between cleaning and sorting. Crew members wore vinyl examination gloves to protect the documents against soiling, and surgical masks to protect ourselves from dust and mold spores. My work space in the upstairs office had a window that provided both ventilation and an opportunity to eavesdrop on the conversations of visitors walking along Green Street below. More than once a startled tourist spotted me at the window and asked if the building was a hospital.