A couple years ago, I started seeing photos pop up around Instagram that literally haunted me. Images of antique rooms covered in thick layers of dust, wrought iron beds with beautifully decomposing mattresses and dainty wallpaper peeling away in long layers, hats left dangling from chairs awaiting owners who will never return. Perfectly preserved decay, simultaneously frozen in time and ravaged by it. It seemed like a strange fever dream, no way it could exist in reality. Surely these were just film sets, all Hollywood smoke and mirrors built for some weird music video shoot. But as I researched, I discovered that not only was it 100% real, it was right here in our own backyard. Never able to resist a good ghost story, the Sirens packed into the Prius and headed out to investigate the truth behind one of the largest gold rush ghost towns in California and the U.S.…Bodie State Historic Park.
Located off the 395 about an hour northeast of Mammoth, things start to feel strange early on as the paved road with signs pointing you towards Bodie State Historic Park suddenly disappears without warning and you find yourself very slowly bumping along the twists in the mountain pass as if instantly transported onto the covered wagon trail. We pass the dried-out carcass of some large animal on the side of the road, carrion ominously circling overhead in the stark sunlight and dry heat. Turning one final corner, the winding dirt road opens up to a vast expanse of open fields, a large metal mill and dozens of wood shanties blanketing the landscape. This is Bodie. And in its heyday, it was notorious.
After a collapsed mine accidentally led to the discovery of a rich cache of gold ore in 1875, people began flocking to Bodie in droves from all over the world in hopes of staking their claim and striking it rich. Between 1877-1881, it was a boomtown, home to 7000-8000 prospectors and their families and folks looking to provide services for the hopping town. The mile-long main street was packed with storefronts and businesses, including many saloons and entertaining diversions for the men who worked the mill—rough characters who gave the town a reputation for lawlessness run wild.
To that end, Bodie even had its own flourishing red light district behind Main Street. Ladies of the night set up inside one-room cabin “cribs” along Bonanza Street, a.k.a. “Virgin Alley” and “Maiden Lane”. Women with names like Beautiful Doll and French Joe received local men here each night. Just down the way, hundreds of Chinese immigrants populated Chinatown which offered an array of saloons, gambling halls, boarding houses and launderettes. For those looking for something more, their opium dens were a popular destination.
Although Bodie is considered one of the richest gold strikes in the state with the Standard Mine excavating $18 million worth of ore over 38 years, the boom time was short-lived. As the initial gold yield dried up, the population rapidly decreased into the early 1900’s (although mining continued up until 1942). Townsfolk took what they could and left the rest of their belongings behind, off to seek their next opportunity.
It’s hard to imagine that what we see of Bodie now is only five percent of what once stood here, the town falling victim to fires, time and the elements. The remaining buildings range from the original 1870’s heyday to the 1940’s when the mine finally closed for good. In 1962, the land was bought by California State Parks as a historical site to be preserved in a state of “arrested decay”—buildings are repaired only to stay stable, but are not restored. Everything is kept exactly as it was left.
This is where the ghost town part comes in. As you travel the self-guided streets with your map in hand, peering into windows of homes and businesses kept like eerie museums of lives still being led by the invisible, you can’t help but feel simultaneously thrilled and spooked. Egg cartons sit eternally on decaying lace tablecloths awaiting their journey to the frying pan. Coats hang on wall hooks in their endless abandoned slumber. The schoolroom’s lessons remain frozen in time on the chalkboard, lecturing rows of empty desks all covered in dust.
Due to the preservation effort, most buildings are sealed off and can only be viewed from the outside, windows acting as our portals into what once took place within each room’s walls. Thankfully, a few buildings are open to the public for up-close investigation. Standing inside the actual buildings, you can feel the many lives passing beneath your feet and flashing before your eyes, layers of different floorboards and wallpaper slowly exposing themselves amongst the abandoned belongings. The provided map assists you in filling in the gaps with helpful information about who lived in each home. But as you look around, you can’t help but wonder who used that baking pan, played with that toy baby carriage, read in that chair, peered through those curtains each night and why they chose to leave these items behind…ghostly mementos that they once lived and breathed here.
Life during the gold rush was brutal and uncompromising. The man who first discovered gold in Bodie and for whom the town was named after never even made it to see any gold mined, dying in a blizzard during one of his initial prospecting attempts. The ensuing town may have earned its notorious reputation, but we Native Californians are raised with a fascination and respect for the Wild West, understanding that the rough-and-tumble men and women of the era literally laid the foundation of our great Golden State. Their brazenness paved the way for future generations of California pioneers in all of our current fields—inspiring that spirit of courage, boldness, forward-thinking and, of course…adventure. So if adventure is what you seek, be sure to make your way up the 395 and explore the many ghost stories lurking inside every room of Bodie State Park—a stunningly beautiful haunting you’ll be happy to experience!
Entry to Bodie State Park is $8 per person. Evening ghost walks and star tours are available on select nights during the summer season. For more information, visit the Bodie State Historic Park website: http://www.parks.ca.gov/bodie/.
Be sure to SUBSCRIBE on the Sirens & Scoundrels homepage for weekly DIY local adventure guides & gatherings delivered straight to you! Enter your email address on the home page & hit “SUBSCRIBE”!
Follow us on Instagram: @sirensandscoundrels
Contributing Photography by: Gina Cholick
© 2016 Sirens and Scoundrels