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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Boom & Bust in Bodie

Once it was a good-sized mining settlement—a rip-roaring, wild-west boomtown. Today Bodie is a wind-swept ghost town, a tourist attraction of abandoned wooden structures, idle stamp mills, a decrepit red-brick morgue, and a supposedly haunted cemetery.

Gold was first discovered there in 1859 by a man named W. S. Bodey. Prospectors then were abuzz over gold strikes in the vicinity of Mono Lake, near the edge of the California-Nevada border, so he and his three companions decided to try their luck at a lonely location a bit farther east. A mining camp sprang up, but later that same year Mr. Bodey froze to death in a blizzard while en route to Monoville for supplies. The camp was named in his honor, although some confusion remained over the proper enunciation of the name “Bodey” (or was it really “Body”?). Three years later, the residents changed the spelling to what they felt was more phonetic: Bodie (BOH-dee).

For awhile it was a settlement of little note, a rough place in a hard environment at 8,375 feet, blistering hot in the summers and buried in snow in the winters. By 1868, only two companies had built stamp mills, neither profitable.

Then in the late 1870s, everything changed with the discovery of a fantastic new "line" of gold—and Bodie’s fortunes spiraled to the sky. New buildings appeared, a volunteer fire brigade was formed, a bank opened, and the first nonstop daily stage service commenced from Carson City, Nevada. In December 1877, when the Standard Mills Company declared a stock dividend of $1.00 per share, excitement only escalated. The next year, Bodie Mining Company’s rich strike sent its stock price soaring from fifty cents to fifty dollars per share. Stages crowded with passengers arrived daily.

Letters to out-of-town newspapers written by Bodie residents in 1879 said their town of 9,000 inhabitants contained 52 saloons, eleven gambling tables, and four wholesale liquor dealers. In addition, a school—which would accommodate 300 students—and a church were both under construction. Main Street was a mile long! Said one correspondent, ”You can score ten for Bodie in consideration of the fact that our mines claim the center of attraction, and we support more square gamblers, gin-mills, prostitutes, bummers, dead-brokes, vampires, and generous souls … than any other camp on the coast.” Indeed, families, miners, and merchants co-existed with gunfighters, robbers, prostitutes, gambling halls, and opium dens in the community’s Chinatown.

At its peak in the 1880s, Bodie boasted 40 to 50 mines in active operation, but that only lasted until the gold ran out. The economy deflated, worsened by an 1892 fire that wiped out a large portion of the town. People began drifting away to more profitable places. Finally, with just enough gold left to justify staying, only 800 residents remained. The Standard Company, the first mining company during Bodie’s heyday, gave up in 1913; and although a private investor realized a profit by re-opening Standard’s mill to its former employees, it wasn’t enough to stop the town’s decline.

In January 1919, Santa Rosa’s Press Democrat, under the headline FAMOUS BODIE MINE CAMP TAKES PLACE AMONG THE HAS-BEENS opined that with the post office closed, the stage line discontinued and practically every mine idle, Bodie had “virtually ceased to be.”

Within a month, a rebuttal appeared in the Los Angeles Herald headlined BODIE, THE BAD TOWN, DENIES IT HAS DIED. “Bodie is still alive and, like Mark Twain, declares that the report of its death is greatly exaggerated,” the Herald reported. However, by 1920, the population had dwindled to 120 people—and another fire ravaged the town in 1932. When the last residents at last departed in the 1940s, they left behind household furniture, and merchant’s goods still sitting on the shelves of stores and bars—items perhaps deemed not worth the cost and effort of moving.

In 1961, an abandoned Bodie officially became a National Historic Landmark and in 1962, a California State Historic Park. It is preserved in a state of “arrested decay,” as befits an authentic ghost town.

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