It was while perusing a Lonely Planet guide to California that – this genteel Frenchman – discovered this gold mining ghost town, and he was stoked in wanting to visit especially since it was near Yosemite where he and his wife were intending to go. Like icing on the cake, the drive from Yosemite to the town would only take an hour, making it a perfect ending to sightseeing around California. I didn’t need any convincing to see it when he told me about the plan. There was something about visiting an old mining town abandoned to the inclement weather that appealed to me, not to mention the part of me that loved history.
We agreed upon San Francisco airport as our meeting place. It was the end point from Danville where I was staying in an old high school buddy’s two-storey residence while they were coming in from a friend’s place in Foster City. The drive from San Francisco to Yosemite to Bodie was a study in contrast. From the grey skies of San Francisco, we entered the colourful landscape and smooth terrain of Yosemite only to leave it for the rocky roads and chocolate-colour scenery of Bodie. The car slowed down to a standstill, as a uniformed officer met us at the entrance to Bodie Historic Park close to 4pm.
“Good afternoon. Welcome to Bodie,” greeted Debbie Kielb, handing us our guidebooks and tickets. “Follow the map inside for the walking tour, which you can finish in two hours. You still have time – the park closes at 6pm. Have great day!”
Bodie was swathed in yellow, blue and brown that 23rd of August as several groups of people walked about the desolate land, taking in the abandoned houses, stores, school house, standard mill and old Methodist church. The founding of the town is attributed to Waterman S. Body (a.k.a. William S. Bodey) who discovered gold in the area and, perhaps as a form of gratitude, named the town after him. The change in spelling, in one story, was because of an illiterate who painted the town’s sign incorrectly. However, another story has it that the change was deliberate so that the pronunciation would be correct.
It became a booming district, enticing people from all over the country to try their luck in striking it rich. By 1879, it boasted a population of 10,000 as well as a reputation of wickedness of people to bad weather. Robberies, stage holdups, street fights and killings were regular occurrences in town that its citizens had become inured to the knell of the bell announcing the burial of the deceased every so often. Its reputation of wickedness preceded it, prompting an unknown girl, who was relocating to Bodie with her family, to write in her diary, “Goodbye God! I am going to Bodie.” Also, the phrase “Bad man from Bodie” never failed to escape the lips of its citizens and outsiders. Historians, according to the guidebook, are divided on who really it was. One group said it was someone named Tom Adams while another said it was Washoe Pete.
The town’s heydays lasted from 1877 to 1882 and by 1931 it was hanging by a nail to survive. As if it were a sign from the universe, the last church service was held in 1932 and more than three decades later turned into a ghost town.
Our tour started at Fuller Street and, turning left on Green Street, we came to the old Methodist church standing majestically under the afternoon summer heat. It was quiet inside; the church chairs and kneelers bereft of its religious goers. Bodie lived up to its names as the lair of the bad men: the church was not spared of ungodly theft as someone dared to steal the oil cloth with the 10 Commandments painted on it.
Continuing down on Green Street, we hit the intersection of Main and King Streets. Only the bank vault was what was left of the bank. Parked inside the firehouse were the “fire engines” waiting to be hitched to horses and pulled to the next fire. Firemen were able to put out the fires of 1892 and 1932 quickly, but subsequent fires proved difficult because, as the guidebook put it, “screens at the reservoirs were not replaced after cleaning and the pipes were clogged with rocks and mud.”
Also on the same street was the old Boone Store and Warehouse that still had a lot of canned goods on its shelves and other products for sale filling its display windows. Across it was the Wheaton & Hollis Hotel, which, in its heydays, would have had its rooms fully occupied. Walking on, the school house riveted me. Through the windows, I espied forsaken books, dusty desks and black boards filled with English scribbles, and couldn’t help wonder at how the students were at that time and how Belle Moore, Bodie’s fist school teacher, managed the class. The school house was built in 1879 and was originally the Bon Ton Lodging House. Apparently, the school house standing is the second one because the first one, located two blocks up the street, was burned down by a juvenile delinquent.
We lost track of time as we walked up and down the roads of Bodie only to take notice of it when an officer came to remind us to hurry up as the park was closing in 10 minutes. The warm breeze two hours earlier was replaced with cool wind while the colourful palette above turned muted grey. It was time to make our way back to the parking lot; the drive back to Jamestown, where we were based, was a good two to three-hour drive. Darkness was descending soon on Bodie and I couldn’t help think about the residents and they would be doing at this hour. But one thing is certain though, only bad weather and five percent of the buildings remain of the ghost town as the bad men of yesteryears have long been resting in their graves.