Bodie Historic District, the best-preserved ghost town from the California Gold Rush, is located 7 miles south of Bridgeport, California at an elevation of 8,379 feet in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Now in a state of arrested decay, Bodie is an excellent example of an American West boomtown and the accompanying lifestyle that developed in the western mining towns. As part of the California Gold Rush, many Chinese came to live and work in Bodie during its early years. More than 100 historic buildings remain in the district to convey what life in Bodie was like between its founding in 1859 and its end in 1942, when mining was suspended and the last Bodie residents left the town.
Gold was discovered in the Mono Lake region of California in 1852, and placer gold was discovered at the future site of Bodie in the Mono Basin in July 1859. William S. Bodey and E.S. Taylor discovered the gold, staked their claim in the harsh high desert environment, and established camp. Bodey died during a snowstorm in the winter of 1859-1860 on a supply trip, and the Bodie Mining District organized in 1860 in his honor. The town remained relatively small with fewer than 20 buildings until the Bunker Hill Mine discovered large deposits of gold and silver at Bodie in 1876. This bonanza resulted in a population boom as people streamed into Bodie in search of riches. By 1879, the town had grown to over 250 buildings and 10,000 residents, encompassing houses, a school, a Wells Fargo bank, four volunteer fire companies, hotels, a jail, cemeteries, stores, churches, newspapers, a mortuary, and other structures that supported the large community. Main Street lengthened to over a mile of densely populated one and two story buildings. The total estimated output of the Bodie mines between 1876 and 1941 was $70 million, with the high point being 1879. Shortly thereafter the promises of riches from newer mines started to lure Bodie's residents away.
By the 1880's, the city had developed a tough reputation, even spawning a popular expression "a bad man from Bodie," which meant someone who was unusually unpleasant. With the boom came breweries, saloons, brothels, a popular red light district, and gambling dens, which led to an increase in nightly shootings, stabbings, and brawls. The city developed a special notoriety for its overly violent residents. It was even infamous with children, one of whom wrote in their diary, "Goodbye God, I'm going to Bodie."
Many Chinese immigrants came to Bodie from Southern China as contract laborers in 1878. They settled on the outskirts of the town in a Chinese community, or "Chinatown," northwest of Main and King Streets. The Chinese residents of Bodie faced discrimination in the local mines, which forced them to turn to service occupations for employment. They operated laundries, peddled vegetables (shipped in by express), supplied charcoal, and provided most of the wood used in the town. Bodie's Chinatown was made up of two and three story wooden buildings and included general stores, homes, laundries, boarding houses, a restaurant, opium dens, a Taoist temple, saloons, and gambling establishments. Newspaper accounts depicted a thriving community and mentioned Chinese New Year's celebrations and large funerals. At its peak in 1880, several hundred Chinese lived in Bodie's Chinatown.
Bodie's slow decline began in 1879 and, as was typical in 19th century mining communities, continued with a series of booms and busts for the next several decades. As the supply of mineable material became scarce, people began to leave the area. By 1886, Bodie's population had fallen to approximately 1,500 residents. A fire in July 1892, destroyed a large section of Main Street, but a rebuilt business district on a smaller scale adapted to the needs of the city. Several of the surviving buildings still located on Main Street were probably moved from another part of Bodie to their present location after the 1892 fire. Another fire destroyed parts of the Main Street business district downtown in June 1932. The War Production Board suspended mining operations in 1942, and the last residents of Bodie left shortly thereafter.
After its abandonment, its location and isolation from the outside world helped preserve Bodie as one of the best examples of mining ghost towns in the West. Bodie became a National Historic Landmark District in 1961 and a State Historic Park in 1962. Today, 110 buildings still stand in and around the town and building interiors remain as they were left, still stocked with goods and furniture. Bodie Historic District is in a state of arrested decay, with its buildings and other aspects of the community left as they were when residents abandoned the community to its past.
Bodie Historic District is located in Bodie, CA and the Bodie State Historic Park. For more information, visit the Bodie State Historic Park website, the Bodie Foundation website. Bodie Historic District has been documented by the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey.