From historical sites to golden beaches, towering majestic forests, and even battlefields, the California State Park System has a lot to offer. But perhaps most unique in the state park system is Bodie, North America’s most complete ghost town.
Nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at an elevation of almost 8400 feet, in its heyday the 19th century town of Bodie may have been one of the most violent places on Earth.
Named after W.S. Bodie, the feisty little town east of Bridgeport, near the California/Nevada border, was born as a mining camp in 1859 after the discovery of gold in the nearby foothills. It status as an isolated speck on a map changed in 1870 when news of rich veins of the precious metal caused the population to swell to over 15,000. The value of the nearby mines would eventually exceed $100 million dollars but, with that windfall, came a dark, violent side.
To proclaim the average prospector of the mid 19th century as “rugged” would be an understatement. So when a flood of single, hard living men converged on Bodie, and the only form of official recreation was drinking and fornication, it set the stage for a perfect storm of mayhem. Adding fuel to the fire, Bodie’s three breweries worked 24/7 to supply the saloons all along the main street. Sixty brothels within the town limits employed more than 1800 shady ladies.
Violence quickly became commonplace. Men were murdered for their gold in arguments over who paid for the last beer, line jumping in brothels or even the facts about Bodies last homicide. At its peak Bodie was so violent they averaged a murder a day for more than a decade. When one day passed without a homicide, townspeople spoke of the “Christian spirit” that had over taken the town. It was short lived. Murders resumed the next day.
It didn’t take long for the violent lore of Bodie to spread throughout the west. Many mothers were known to scare their mischievous children into fearing, “the Bad Man from Bodie.” And, unlike the more traditional bogeyman, the Bad Man from Bodie was based on reality. Legend has it when a six-year-old San Francisco girl learned her family was moving to Bodie she exclaimed, “Goodbye God, I'm going to Bodie.”
As with every other 19th century mining camp, Bodie lived and ultimately died based on her precious metal load and by the end of the 1800’s much of the town was abandoned. Some slight mining activity continued until WWII however, by that time much of the town, had been lost to a 1932 wildfire.
By the 1950’s Bodie was destined to obscurity however the government had other ideas. In 1961 Bodie was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Its status as a historic district was further memorialized when the California Legislature created Bodie State Historic Park in 1962. Of the 2000 buildings that once stood within the 5000 acre town, only 170 buildings remained.
Today, visitors can explore the streets of a town that once was a bustling area of activity, sin and violence while the towns remaining structures sit preserved in a state of arrested decay. Interiors of the remaining buildings are virtual time capsules with many still left stocked with goods from long ago. Removing any of the items is considered theft.
Anyone contemplating a visit to Bodie must plan ahead. Because of its elevation, Bodie is often closed during the winter months due to heavy snowfall. The town also has no electricity or running water and the nearest lodging is 20 miles away in Bridgeport. Most visitors arrive via SR270, which runs from US395 to the west. Despite the highway designation, the last three miles is along an unpaved road. Visitors can also access Bodie from SR167 near Mono Lake however this route is extremely challenging as more than 10 miles of the dirt road is not maintained and is in a very poor shape.