It started out so predictably. We would go and see the ghost town of Bodie, California, and then check it off of our bucket list. But it was so much more than that.
Whether it was 150 years ago or today, I don‘t think anyone is able to walk out of Bodie the same way they went in.
Bodie piques an interest that will never be sated. It stirs feelings that will never be described. As a perfectly preserved window into the past, it portends our own future.
But first, it is important to note why Bodie stands so far apart from any other ghost town.
From anything else really.
Dearest, you know I am not new to ghost towns. I have been walking in the shadow of wild west history since I was a little girl being dragged along with her parents and their rock hounding club in Death Valley. I was only about 3 years old when my mother and I were shot at while exploring an old abandoned mine there. Evidently, it wasn’t so abandoned.
Since then, the web has provided information pointing us to ruins that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. I have explored so many more than I have shared here, so I would say I am a pretty good student on the subject of ghost towns.
So imagine my surprise when Bodie humbled any preconceived notion of what it would be.
Unlike its countless other ghost town counterparts, Bodie is truly frozen in time. It is maintained in a “state of arrested decay”, and has been preserved as such since each shop owner and/or resident locked their doors and walked away. Each business and residence has been preserved as it was left, I chose to take their word for it.
But I had to know more.
I couldn’t wait to get home and google Bodie to start trying to answer the whos, whats, whens, and hows. Let me forewarn you if you ever intend to do the same…your mind will literally explode with the volume of information.
The only problem is…even the information published at the time goes from accurate, to slightly embellished, to grossly misrepresenting the actual facts. Now add 150 years, and it’s like playing telephone across generations. So how does one determine what is true?
I don’t think anyone can know what is actually true except those who lived and died there.
But I have to say, http://www.bodie.com provides a plethora of information that seems to perform “due diligence” in providing as accurate data as they can, or at the very least, provide a platform from which to plunge into the web. Many of the vintage photos in this post are from there.
Take the man who the town is named after, which was actually spelled Bodey or Body. His wife changed the spelling to Bodie because she liked it better OR a sign painter misspelled it and it stuck. You begin to see what I mean already?
Another website that drills down to authenticating information is http://www.findagrave.com. I went to this website and put in “Bodie” and what followed was at least 8 hours of reading that I don’t mind that I’ll never get back. It lists all of the sections of cemeteries within the cemetery (Boot Hill, Chinese, and the three “respectable” areas of the main cemetery) with all information available for the known respective interments (and how they got there, if known).
Again, if there were hundreds that died in the winter of 1878 – 1879 alone, the interred list is under representing how many people are actually buried there. Not a surprise it is lost to the ages, since records have burned twice in the city’s lifetime and wooden headstones are long gone.
To paraphrase the answer to my original question (why is Bodie so intact)?
It appears to be thanks to one man and his family, James Stuart Cain.
Jim Cain arrived in Bodie (originally from Quebec, Canada) at the age of 25 with his new bride Martha to make his fortune, and make his fortune he did. He wisely became a lumber baron ( wood being the single most required item in Bodie for living, dying and everything in-between), a mine owner (in which he struck gold, both literally and figuratively after suing The Standard Mine Company for pilfering his lode), bank owner, and ultimately the primary land owner of Bodie, California.
Jim and Martha Cain 1879
An excellent article about the life and times of James Stuart Cain and his intrinsic connection with Bodie;
In the 1940s and 50’s there was a rush to pilfer anything that could be carried from old west ghost towns, in fact Bodie’s sister city of Aurora, Nevada was decimated. As a result, Jim Cain hired resident caretakers to ensure Bodie would not fall into the hands of hungry antiquities bandits. There they stayed until the California Park Service bought the town from Jim’s children in 1962.
Now, the town protects itself. There is an alleged curse associated to anything that is pilfered from Bodie. The park rangers get mail regularly containing items taken from Bodie (even something as seemingly insignificant as a nail), begging them to put the items back so their bad luck streaks will stop. I used to think that this was hype made up by the park rangers, but after reading some personal accounts of tragedy after taking items from Bodie, I’m not so sure.
A debris field like this (one of many) would not have survived in an “unguarded” ghost town.
I had no intention of taking ANYTHING from Bodie anyway.
But I was wrong about not taking anything from Bodie. I took home a renewed reverent respect for the hardships our ancestors endured. The fact that any of us are still here is a testimony to the grit of our grandfather’s fathers, and their women.
Bodie was extra harsh. At just under 8300 ft. in elevation and situated on a flat plateau with no trees or hills to block the wind, the weather is some of the worst in the lower 48. Bodie frequently boasts the lowest temperature in US cities. In the harsh winter of 1878 – 1879, hundreds of people perished from the bitter cold and disease.
Bodie Post Office in Winter
When I visited the cemetery, I was reminded of how much we take infant mortality for granted in our modern day and age. Too many children there.
This photo I took of a bedroom was initially because of the draped curtain, but what resonated with me was the baby sweater on the dresser. Why didn’t they take it? Who did it belong to? Did they outgrow it or something much worse? Bodie created more questions than answers for me.
Bodie, like most ghost towns, was remote even in its heyday. Getting supplies in and out of Bodie, especially in winter, was difficult to impossible as it is prone to “white out” storms and heavy snow conditions.
Bodie receiving a supply wagon in summer.
Bodie was violent. Very violent. Besides having 65 saloons, a red light district, and more than one opium den, there was gold. Miners were paid handsomely, and did not hesitate to frequent saloons, gambling halls, and the company of like-minded women. With 6,000 to 10,000 residents (depending on whose calculations you believe) at its peak, Bodie was a bustling town.
“Saloons and gambling hells abound,” reported San Francisco’s Daily Alta California in June 1879. “There are at least sixty saloons in the place and not a single church.”
Bodie 1879 –
“Besides the business and professional men, mine-operators, miners, etc., there were hundreds of saloon-keepers, hundreds of gamblers, hundreds of prostitutes, many Chinese, a considerable number of Mexicans, and an unusual number of what we used to call “Bad men”-desperate, violent characters from everywhere, who lived by gambling, gun-fighting, stage robbing, and other questionable means. The “Bad man from Bodie” was a current phrase of the time throughout the west. In its day, Bodie was more widely known for its lawlessness than for its riches.” (Smith 1925)
Bodie – 1890
Most of the opportunistic miners (and associated violence) left the town when it began it’s decline from the “bust” period, even before the devastating fire of 1892. Most of the miners and business owners who stayed and rebuilt were family oriented.
General Store in Bodie – 1880
General Store in Bodie Today –
The town suffered a steady decline and was nearly deserted in 1927, but in 1928 a resurgence occurred when several big money mining companies invested in new processes and equipment. Within 2 years the companies suffered heavy losses and were gone.
Main street in Bodie nearly deserted in 1927
Main street in Bodie after 1928 Resurgence
Then, as if on cue, in 1932 a devastating fire burned most of Bodie (started by a 2 ½ year old who was angry about his birthday cake and set his kitchen table on fire). The town never recovered. The remaining buildings represent only 5% of the original structures.
Bodie before 1932 fire – Bodie After the 1932 fire
Bodie died a slow death. Unlike its boom and bust counterparts, Bodie stayed alive (even if it was just a handful of miners and their families) until the last mine closed in 1942 as mandated by the federal government to close non-essential mines because of World War ll.
But true even until the end, Bodie’s last 6 residents were plagued by violence and mystery as 5 of them died untimely deaths. After one man shot his wife to death, 3 of the other men shot him dead. According to legend, the ghost of the murdered man would visit the three men, shaking his fist. Soon all 3 died of very strange diseases.
Here is my photo journey through time. I tried to include then and now comparison photos wherever possible.
Jim Cain and the Bodie Bank. Notice the distinct vault door behind him.
Bodie Bank Exterior.
Jim Cain opening the vault after the 1932 fire –
Bank vault now, notice the vault door characteristics are still easily identified.
Bodie Safe in 1932 –
Bodie Safe now, it’s empty. Like mine.
Fire house now.
Methodist Church then – not sure of the year.
Methodist Church now.
Inside the church then.
Inside the church now. The Ten Commandments that are hanging on the wall were stolen. Let that soak in for a minute….so hopefully they read number 7 (Thou Shalt Not Steal) after they got home. Please note that church pews have not changed in a hundred years. Meant to keep us awake I guess.
The original school building was burned down by a boy who didn’t like going. This school house was originally a boarding house. At one time, there were over 600 children registered, but only about 100 at a time would attend.
I have the exterior photos now but forgot to upload them…here are a couple from the interior now. That poor globe has seen better days.
On the chalkboard behind the teacher’s desk, she (Ella who married one of the Cain boys) writes that 8 graders have an assignment due. It’s those small details that are timeless, and make Bodie a very special place.
This shirt hanging on the wall in the doctor’s house. As if someone just hung it there.
A home owned by someone with means. The furniture is still beautiful. The pictures still on the walls. It is rumored that the rocking chair still rocks, sometimes on it’s own, sometimes powered by a spectral woman knitting. The multiple layers of wall paper were all they had as insulation from the cold.
An icebox with a stepping stool still under it in another home.
If Bodie is on your bucket list, you might want to make plans sometime soon to visit. Homes like this one will not last too much longer. The state park is dedicated to keeping time suspended, but will not rebuild them when they cave in.
The undertaker’s shop. There were two children’s coffins, one in the front room, one in the back with the white expensive display coffin barely visible here. Very unnerving. There were a couple of fellas that were selling expensive coffins, then would go out and dig them back up and resell them. They were caught. Things didn’t end well for them. Karma I say. Their story is on the Find A Grave site.
One of two hearses displayed in the old Union Hall building which is now a museum.
The James Stuart Cain house. I’m not sure why the cupboard doors are open in every room. Maybe I don’t want to know. The place is allegedly haunted by a Chinese maid once employed by the Cain family who doesn’t take kindly to adults. Duly noted!
Look how huge a simple radio used to be.
Standard Mill in 1879 –
Standard Mill today –
Bodie children in front of the Standard Mill, undated. I hope they all lived very long lives.
These massive iron elevators would lower workers deep down into the earth via cables and mine shafts. There was no margin for error if you couldn’t keep your arms in.
I can tell you this, while I was walking through Bodie, I often got the feeling that I was the one being observed. I felt as though life was going on as usual in Bodie. Just as it did in 1880, just as it will forever more.
Bodie 4th of July celebration 1880 –
Until next time dearest.