California gold mining which started with the great Gold Rush of 1849 is what the history of California is all about. Ironically, the discovery of gold at Sutters Fort is what started the rush and it happened at just the time that Alta California was being handed over to the U.S. government as a result of the Mexican American War in 1848.
There is one old California gold mining town which probably is the best example of what an early mining camp was like. In addition to that, the site is now preserved by the California State parks system which means that it will remain there for both tourists and historians to enjoy. The town, which is now officially a ghost town, is Bodie California. Bodie is located high in the Sierra Nevada mountains on the east slop towards the state of Nevada. It’s not one of those tourist stops you’re going to just drive by. When you arrive at Bodie State Historic Park it means that you’ve purposely driven there. The area is just a few miles north of Mono Lake California, itself an interesting tourist side trip.
In the late 1850’s, a man by the name of W.S. Bodey and two partners were prospecting for gold. It was near the present day ghost town where Bodey did indeed find gold while sifting through dirt. Although W.S. Bodey knew there would be more gold to find in the surrounding hills, nothing similar to a gold rush occurred. At the time, prospectors were more interested in both Virginia City Nevada to the north and the nearby camp of Aurora. Bodie, being as remote as it was most likely had something to do with the lack of enthusiasm from outsiders. As for W.S. Bodey, he died just a year later in 1859 while lost in a blizzard while trekking back to camp with supplies bought near Mono Lake.
Prospecting continued for the next several years. The area didn’t really take off until 1876 when the Standard Company discovered a profitable deposit of gold ore. This one event more than anything transformed Bodie from an isolated gold mining camp with only a few people to a bustling gold town. The Standard Mine was the major employer by the late 1870’s. At one time Bodie had over sixty saloons and a sizable Chinese population.
The photo at right is of Bodie California circa 1890.
The area at first took on the name of Bodey’s Camp. That spelling didn’t last for long. The story of how the town ended up being spelled Bodie even though it’s name was in honor of W.S. Bodey, is tale that could only have happened in the 1800’s Calfiornia gold era. It seems that a man who owned a stable in nearby Aurora California was having a sign painted for him.
Some twenty years after W.S. Bodey found that first gold in the Sierra foothills and ten thousand people made the area it’s home. This was primarily due to the gold found by the Standard Company. Sentiment finally arrived for the founder of the camp. Nobody really had a good idea however just where the founders remains were buried. In 1871 by sheer chance his grave was located when a person was looking for a lost horse. Nothing was done until 1879, when because interest in the founder came forefront, it was decided to exhume the body. When this was completed it was somehow determined that this indeed was the body of W.S. and plans were made to rebury the body. This was planned with quite some ceremony under the direction of a group named the Pacific Coast Pioneers of Bodie. During this time of town pride, a fund of some $500 was established to commission a sculpture commemorating both the town and W.S. Bodey.
What happened next is a one of a kind story. perhaps something that could only have happened in a remote California gold mining town of the late 1800’s. At about this same time, news of President Garfield’s death by assassination reached Bodie. Emotions and sentiment were such that all agreed that a special inscription be placed on the new monument for the town’s founder. On the monument erected for W.S. Bodey reads the inscription, ” Erected to the Memory of James A. Garfield”. The monument with this inscription however is not on the gravesite of W.S. Bodey. The gravesite for Bodey is on a hill up above it overgrown with sagebrush. The wild west gold mining town of Bodie California therefore has the distinction of being spelled a bit different than the founders name and the monument paid for by the funds earmarked for his grave honors one of our nation’s fallen presidents.
It’s a true story and certainly so strange that it couldn’t possibly have been made up. By the year 1881, Bodie’s mine production reached $3.1 million. The gold was shipped by armed guard to the mints in Virginia City Nevada as well as the mint in San Francisco. A narrow gauge railroad was built in 1881 called the Bodie Railway & Lumber Company. The rail cars brought lumber, cord wood, and mine timbers to the mining district from Mono Mills just south of Mono Lake. In the latter part of the 1880’s many prospectors were lured away to other promising sites in Tombstone Arizona and Butte Montana. During the 1890’s, while on the decline from the peak years, Bodie was aided by advances in mining techiques but by about 1910 the town was on the final decline. During that year the population was estimated to be just under 700. The people who remained were those that decided to make Bodie their home regardless of the mining decline.
Today, Bodie California is a true ghost town by every sense of the word. By the same token we are fortunate to have it as part of the California State Parks system. While Bodie never seemed to receive the same publicity of other California mining camps, it is probably the best authentic example to visit. What remains of Bodie ghost town is now protected by being a California State Historic Park. Visitors can tour the old town site and really get a glimpse of what a roaring gold town was really like. When you see the location, it’s surprising to know that at one time some 10,000 people called it home. There is a museum and guided tours are available. All in all it’s an excellent learning experience and a great stop for the entire family.
Bodie California is located about 90 miles southeast of lake Tahoe, about 5 miles from the Nevada state line and about 10 miles north of Mono Lake California.
(Photos and images are in public domain)