I had wanted to go to Bodie ever since I first heard of the place. It’s a Gold Rush ghost town that lingered into the modern era, a place of gambling halls and fancy girls, murders in the street and four graveyards — a place that lived long enough that it has gas pumps and some electric wires, but is so inaccessible and isolated that people walked away, leaving everything behind.
Even with modern transportation, Bodie is a long ways away. We left San Francisco early in the morning, drove up and through Yosemite, and came down on the eastern side of the Sierras. We’d waited to go until September, when the oppressive oven heat had died down somewhat but the passes hadn’t snowed closed yet. Our campsite, near a little creek, was shaded by aspens turned to gold. It had a water tap and a pit toilet. We had the place all to ourselves.
We waited to make the rest of the drive into Bodie until morning, unwilling to face the washboard road until we were sure we’d have enough time to see everything. The State Park Service oversees the ghost town now, making sure the old buildings don’t fall down. There is much to see: roulette wheels and crystal chandeliers, striped cotton mattresses and coffins for sale. The church. The rusted-out old cars. The horse-drawn hearse.
I poked around the graveyards while my friend Samuel toured the old mine. In its heyday, Bodie dug out $30 million in gold, $1 million in silver. The stamping mills worked around the clock, crushing the quartz stone to extract the precious metals. Bodie would have been loud then. Now all I could hear was the wind.
Elizabeth my Wife
I knew Bodie had been as wealthy as it was dangerous, but I was shocked to see how much remained in the graveyard. There were plenty of graves marked only with boards, but there were also ornate metal fences, wrought or cast iron, shipped from back east or carted over the Sierras. There were plenty of marble gravestones, too. Those would have been heavy to drag over the mountains before paved roads were built and yet the survivors felt strongly that their griefs required permanent monuments, ones that stand decades after the town was abandoned.
Who was Elizabeth? She had no last name on her marker. Did she lie there alone or were her children with her? Was her husband there, with no one to buy him a stone to remember his name? Or had he loaded all he could on a mule or into a wagon, into his pickup or his car, and left her and all they’d shared behind?
Here was a love that left stone flowers to brighten her grave, but left no last name to keep her memory alive.
I wondered if she knew all the songs the wind could sing. Did she sing them to herself when the wind fell silent? Did those left behind in the graveyards keep each other company at the end of the day, when the tourists left and the rangers locked up and the fat full moon rose over the desert?
I was glad when Samuel returned from his tour, when it was time to get back in our car and head back to our campsite. We may have been alone there, but it didn’t seem as lonely as Bodie.
Bodie State Historic Park
Information: P.O. Box 515; Bridgeport, California 93517
(760) 647-6445 Established: 1860s Number of interments: 77 marked Open: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in summer; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in winter. Closed for inclement weather. Entry fee: $7 for adults 17 and up, $5 for children ages 6 to 16. Under 5: free. Cash or personal/travelers checks are accepted at park entrance station. No credit cards.
Bodie State Historic Park is a ghost town on the eastern edge of California, over the Sierra Mountains and past the tufa spires of Mono Lake. The desert is excruciatingly hot in the summer and difficult to reach in winter, when the pass through Yosemite snows closed.
In its brief heyday, 10,000 people lived and worked in over 2,000 structures in Bodie. Miners who’d chosen to take stock rather than wages brought home $880 a week. One month in the 1880s, miners dug out $600,000 in gold and silver. The total haul reached $30 million in gold, $1 million in silver.
Between the time the last working mine closed in 1947 and the ghost town’s induction into the state park system in 1962, Bodie effectively vanished from the map like Bonny Doon. Despite the rage for Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and the cowboys of early television, Bodie survived in a west too wild to be inviting. Though it had once been fabulously wealthy, Bodie offered no amenities to middle-class families traveling in the Eisenhower years. It stands a long way from anywhere. The road into town continues to be passable only to motor vehicles traveling at five miles per hour. Bodie still boasts no lodging or working restaurants.
Currently, Bodie has been designated the best-preserved ghost town in America. Up to 200,000 people visit it annually. Its 170 surviving buildings stand in a state of arrested decay. Nothing is being restored; at the same time, nothing is allowed to tumble to the ground. Overseen by the California Park Service, Bodie State Historic Park’s highlights include an undertaker’s parlor, complete with fully stocked coffin showroom; the last standing church, scoured of whitewash by the gritty winds; several gambling houses, still furnished with roulette wheels and billiard tables; and one of the gold mills which day and night pounded the city’s wealth from the hard quartz.
During the boom times, gunfights broke out weekly, if not daily. Mine accidents occurred repeatedly. Childhood could be brutal. With life so uncertain in Bodie, the extensive graveyard that overlooks the town is in fact five cemeteries adjacent to one another. The first is Wards Cemetery, the main city graveyard. Directly behind that lies the Masonic Cemetery, followed by the Miners Union Cemetery.
West of the perimeter fence remain the Chinese, excluded from the proper graveyards. Whenever Chinese immigrants died in California, they wanted to be buried only long enough for their remains to become skeletonized. The surviving Chinese in the area were supposed to open the graves, collect the bones, and return them to their homeland, where they could rest with their ancestors. Unfortunately, because of violent prejudice and the transient nature of the Gold Rush boomtowns, many Chinese linger in their original graves. The Friends of Bodie’s cemetery brochure estimates that several hundred Chinese were — and are — buried in Bodie.
The final cemetery on the hill shelters the outcasts: gunmen, illegitimate children, and prostitutes, all those shunned by “respectable” folk. Only wooden posts or heaps of rocks ever marked most of those graves. Now the only marker visible is fairly modern. A cement tablet, stamped with a rough cross and her name handwritten in shaky letters, remembers Rosa May, a prostitute who died while nursing miners during a pneumonia epidemic.
Inside the proper cemeteries, a surprising amount endures. Some of the plots still sport split-rail fences. Beautiful ironwork, imported from as far away as Terre Haute, Indiana surrounds others. The lonely fences, like the frames of vacant beds, punctuate the sagebrush-covered hills and underscore the vast, silent isolation of the dead who’ve been left behind.
One of the most beautiful monuments has a child-sized marble angel leaning against a scroll to the memory of Evelyn Myers. A month shy of her fourth birthday, Evelyn’s folks had a drainage ditch dug around their home. Curious little Evelyn leaned over the railing on the porch to watch the workman. Without looking over his shoulder, he brought his pick back and crushed her skull.
Bodie’s museum in the former Miners Union Hall displays a clipping from the Bridgeport Chronicle, which reported, “A sad accident occurred in Bodie…which has enlisted the sympathies of the people of the entire county for the bereaved parents…. The funeral took place on Wednesday, the attendance showing the deep sympathy of the people, with whom she was a great favorite, being a most beautiful and lovable child.” Although her name wasn’t mentioned in the story, her father Albert K. Myers operated the general store, according to a bookmark I picked up in the museum’s gift shop. Everyone in town must have known him.
If Evelyn’s parents lie in the graveyard, they’re in unmarked graves. More likely, they moved away and left their beloved child behind.
Bodie’s namesake has only been shown proper deference in later years, although confusion lingers over his real name. When “Bill Body” made his initial discovery in 1859, richer diggings in Virginia City and elsewhere overshadowed it. In the winter of 1860, Body (or Bodey) got caught outside his cabin by a snowstorm and froze to death. Coyotes stripped his flesh before his partner found him in the spring. Not until 1879 did the city fathers reclaim his body from its shallow grave and transfer it to Wards Cemetery. Townsfolk ordered a granite monument to celebrate him, but before it could be placed on his grave, U.S. President James A. Garfield was assassinated. Swept up in the national mourning, Bodie’s citizens co-opted Body’s monument and rededicated it as a cenotaph to the slain president.
In 1976, Boone’s Memorials placed a large black granite marker on the gravesite. On it, the founding father is referred to as “Waterman S. Bodey,” but the other details of his story remain the same. In that monument’s shadow stands a cement wall erected by the historical society E Clampus Vitus to “William S. Bodey,” which prays, “Let him repose in peace amid these everlasting hills.”
August 13, 2011 is Friends of Bodie Day: special tours, BBQ, live music and horseless carriages. Tickets are available here.
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