While Deadwood may be the most well-known of the lawless, Wild West towns of the mid to late 1800s, it has nothing on Bodie, California when it comes to anarchy and violence. Bodie may not be as well-known as Deadwood, but its story and history are just as interesting. The state of California recognizes this and preserves Bodie as an official ghost town, open for visitors to see what life was like in the Wild West. Unlike Deadwood, which is a tourist attraction today, complete with tourist shops, gambling, hotels, that obscures much of the real history of the town, Bodie is about as pristine as it gets as far as being kept in its original state. Here’s what you should know about Bodie, and visit the ghost town it left behind.
In 1859, there were four gold prospectors chasing the promise of wealth in the Sierra Nevada mountains. One of these prospectors, W.S. Body, went for supplies in a nearby town and was killed by freezing in a blizzard that struck on his way back to his partners. The camp where these prospectors set up was named after Bodie. The spelling change of his last name comes from a misspelling a sign painter made on the town stables in 1862, and the town has used that spelling for its name ever since.
The original prospectors did find gold in Bodie. This brought in several companies that got land claims and set up mining there. The town flourished until 1868 when the harsh terrain of the area and small gold yields pushed most of the companies away. A few hardy people stayed behind and made their living by digging up small amounts of gold, washing placer gravel, or driving shafts for quartz mines. In 1877, Bodie experienced the first of several resurgences. It was this year that a local mine collapsed and exposed a supply of gold ore so large that wealthy San Francisco speculators invested in the town again. Industrial mining began in the town and produced nearly $800,000 of gold and silver, which richly rewarded stockholders in the company.
The success of the gold mining industry in Bodie sent hundreds of people there hoping to make their own fortunes. They built a town, and two more large deposits of gold ore were discovered in the area of Bodie. The store of gold was believed to be as large as the famous Comstock Lode. Even though Bodie had not produced vast amounts of gold, it was enough to get investors from New York involved. The large companies and individual speculators spent huge sums of money in mining. By late 1878, there were twenty-two mines in Bodie.
With so many people coming to Bodie, the town soon became one of the wildest in the Wild West. It earned a reputation similar to the famous lawless and violent Old West towns of Deadwood, Tombstone, and Dodge City. Gambling establishments and saloons were the most common public buildings in Bodie. In 1879, there were at least sixty saloons in Bodie, and yet not one single church.
The crime was rampant in Bodie during this time. Stagecoach robberies, saloon riots, shootouts, and other incidents of violence were almost daily occurrences in Bodie and made the news more often than news of gold coming out of the mines there. Yet, people kept coming, even bringing their families. A popular story from the town’s violent past involves a three-year-old girl from San Jose who, upon learning her family was moving to Bodie, prayed, “Goodbye, God. We are going to Bodie.” She believed Bodie to be so dangerous even God did not go there.
By the mid-1880s, the town boasted between 7,000 and 8,000 residents, and a Main Street more than a mile long. A local brass band played there, the town had two banks, a Chinatown, and even a red-light district.
Bodie continued to operate as a town for another three decades, though with a gradually diminishing population. The estimation of the gold ore to be found there was wildly incorrect. Miners were only finding low-grade ore at the upper levels of mines, not the higher grade ore they hoped to find in the lower levels. The ore they found was not worth the cost of keeping the high technology industrial mines operating. The big companies and a lot of individual citizens left the town, but it continued to support a population of about 800 on the mining of low-grade ore for a few more decades.
Bodie had its second resurgence between 1928 and 1931. This was when a handful of high-financed mining companies came in to try new technological methods to reach what was still thought to be a large supply of gold ore below the town. Yet, once again, Bodie was not to become the grand town it imagined, for a fire destroyed most of the downtown area in 1931.
Bodie fell into years of neglect after this. It eventually finally came into the luck it had so long imagined in 1962 when California realized it was an almost perfectly preserved example of an Old West mining town. The state took over Bodie and gave it to the stewardship of the state’s Department of Parks and Recreation. The remaining buildings were preserved as they were. Today, Bodie belongs to the world, and people from all over can come to it to see what the Wild West really looked like.