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
Our raw material was the immense trove of paper in the upstairs classroom. We sorted through diaries, correspondence, elaborate billheads, newspapers, checks, broadsides, daybooks, ledgers, receipts, maps, and scraps. Unless we could specifically identify an item with a person or commercial business, it was separated by mine name and then further divided by predefined categories. At times classification could be confusing because of the maze of mergers, take-overs, and spin-offs that took place in the Bodie mining district of the 1870s. There was the Bodie Mine and the Bodie Consolidated, the Bodie Gold, the Bodie Standard, the Standard Consolidated, the Bulwer Consolidated, and even the Bulwer Standard.
Many of the documents were in a remarkable state of preservation, almost mint. Others were in varying states of decay, and the cleaning operation caused a necessary bottleneck. Each and every paper and page was dusted with a natural-bristle brush before it was brought downstairs. We used cheesecloth to remove mildew and other debris.
While this day-to-day routine may sound tedious, for me it was nirvana. Each carton yielded some new treasure. The 1876 daybook of a local saloon revealed that the price of whiskey was two drinks for a quarter; no customer bought a single drink, probably to avoid being labeled a shortbit. The payroll records of the Mono Mine for 1877 bore the elaborate signatures of Welsh and English miners acknowledging receipt of four dollars for a twelve-hour shift in the mine. The author of an 1878 leaflet extolling the rapid growth of the town observed: “If no reaction takes place, Bodie will soon have a bank, theater, [and a] church.... A public school building is a necessity now, the material therefore having arrived to a very perceptible degree—of course, by immigration, children in arms included.” Indeed, the myriad invoices confirmed that by 1880 the residents of Bodie enjoyed as full a range of goods and services as would be offered in any town of equivalent population in the country. Receipts from the Occidental Hotel and the Restaurant Maison Doree documented regular summer deliveries of fresh lobster, oysters, boysenberries, and coconuts.
Patty and Susan had explained to us that the task of the archivist was to preserve and organize historical papers for future researchers; it was for the historian, not the archivist, to interpret the meaning and significance of documents. Wise directions, of course, but who could resist reading aloud to colleagues letters to a leading mine engineer in Bodie from “Mamie,” the unwed mother of his infant daughter, who had left for San Francisco and was again pregnant:
May 17, 1883 San Francisco
The baby is well with the exception of a fresh cold. I am feeling well but awful downhearted.... I really don’t know what to do. I am going on 3 months gone. The longer I leave it run the more it will cost. I know you do not wish me to have such a thing done … but you must know how I feel bringing children into the world without a name. If I am to die doing it, it cannot be helped.... O: God I wish you was here tonight or that I was with you I have the blues so bad.
May 23, 1883 San Francisco
...I am going to get up tomorrow. I miss carried twin children, two boys. O: I am thankful to God that I got on so well.... I am awfully sorry that I cannot leave for Bodie right away. God knows I am anxious to be with you.... I am very sorry I cannot tell you the Doctors name. I took an oath that I would not.... I wish we were together this evening so that we could have a little chat as we can talk much better than writing....
We found no record indicating that Mamie ever returned to Bodie.
Members of the crew developed feelings of camaraderie with other previously unknown Bodie personalities whose activities, and even idiosyncrasies, were revealed in growing detail with each new crate of records. While names such as J. S. Cain, Theodore Hoover (brother of Herbert Hoover), and Washoe Pete (the apocryphal “Bad Man from Bodie”) had long been associated with Bodie lore, the interns were more interested in the likes of Capt. John H. Kelly and E. F. Irwin, both unknown to history books but clearly men of great stature in the community. I “adopted” J. W. Pettibone, whose letter book led me on a journey from Colorado through the Western goldfields and finally, in 1879, to Bodie. After a notable career as a mining superintendent, Pettibone contracted pneumonia and died during a particularly bleak Bodie winter. For years thereafter Bodieites remembered that time as “the winter when Pettibone died.”