Eastern Sierra Nevada, California
Mono County, California
Mono - COUNTY
First 10 miles paved, 3 miles dirt - PAVEMENT
Just a few - CURVES
Bridgeport - GAS
History and growth of Bodie, California
First, let’s approach this from the motorcyclist’s perspective.
Bodie State Historic Park in the Eastern Sierra is a must-go destination. Located north of Mono Lake/Highway 120 and southeast of Bridgeport in the Eastern Sierra near the Nevada border, Bodie is purported to be one of the best-preserved ghost towns on the West Coast sitting atop an 8375 ft mountain top at the end of a dead-end road.
The first 10 miles of Highway 270 are paved and a super fun thrill ride. Fast, wide, curvaceous, and a steady uphill climb. Highway 270 has a 10-mph corner 1 mile in that has caught some of our less attentive riders off guard, the sign says 10mph so pay attention Francis.
At the halfway mark are brilliant green meadows at Cinnabar Canyon that often are covered in grazing sheep. A nearby hilltop usually has a small camper and yes, a real shepherd standing near the sheep herd. Working dogs are often seen tending the flock of sheep and rounding up any that wander. This flat canyon is often adorned in brilliant green grass contrasted against the hillsides of sagebrush. There are several other dirt roads into Bodie approaching from the south, east, and north that the dual sport riders may find of interest.
At a low rise 10 miles in are wide pull outs on either side of the highway giving a last-minute opportunity to regain your senses and prepare for the dirt section. If you run up here in early June at the first chance over the newly opened passes, the view is a broad sweeping peak filled sky toward the Sierra Nevada range, layered in snowpack.
Fortune favors the bold. Push on into the dirt portion and ride for Bodie. The remaining three miles are hard pack, bumpy, rocky and washboard sand. If you’re quite proud to say you’ve never ridden your bike in rain and hate cleaning it, this isn’t your road. The dust gets into everything and coats the rims brown. The dust requires ample following distance away from the bike in front of you to avoid the dust cloud kicked up. We’ve seen all manner of motorcycle ride this short distance from large cruisers to small sportbikes with nary an issue. The dual sports all stand up and zoom off, meanwhile I pick a line and use the Float Technique with minimal input and float over the bumps, large rocks and washboard.
We once asked a docent at Bodie if he ever thought the state would pave the last three miles. Never, he insisted. They want people to truly experience what it was like to travel here in 1880 during the heyday of the mining operation. Every single item, every board, every nail, every single piece of wood was brought to Bodie up these dirt roads on buckboard freight wagons.
The ghost town of Bodie is currently in a state of arrested decay, a term coined by the park service. The park service maintains the buildings, but keeps them looking like it’s still 1880. It’s not uncommon to see some sort of upkeep on the buildings, a roof being shingled, or general maintenance. In 2016, a 5.7 earthquake rocked the town and the park closed while staff assessed any damage to the historic buildings. Doors are locked on most buildings, but peering through windows reveals an alluring bounty of color, detail and at times, stark realism. A child’s coffin about the side of a 1st grader can be viewed at the park, complete with viewing window at the face of your child. If you walk through the nearby cemetery, graves for children are as common as adults.
Fires were also a common thing in gold rush boomtowns and Bodie was no different. It’s estimated only 10% of the buildings remain, but the more difficult number to swallow is thousands of people lived here in 1879.
Indoor plumbing? Not really. Electricity? Early days no. In later years, yes. Many of the remaining homes still standing have an outhouse out back. If you’re never experienced an outhouse when it’s 10 degrees outside, you haven’t truly lived. We had a three-seater out behind our farm house growing up as a kid in Wisconsin. With two older brothers, and two younger sisters, and one bathroom in our 1880s era farmhouse, it got some use, even when it was 10 degrees outside.
Residents of Bodie endured far worse as their mining camp was perched atop a mountain at 8375 feet.
Surrounded by sagebrush and zero trees, extreme temperature swings in this part of the eastern Sierra Nevada were daily occurrences. Built on a windswept mountain top in a bowl-shaped plateau like depression, there were no trees. Even today, the temperatures are written on a small chalkboard and placed in a window daily by the rangers at Bodie, it says 78 during the day, 30 at night. Last years: High 92, Low -28. Few clouds above ever accompany our many visits to Bodie and blue skies above allow the temperatures to change rapidly from morning to mid-day.
On average, Bodie has 303 nights below freezing every year. No month has ever been frost free. Having 80% of the calendar year below freezing each night presented special challenges to those living at this elevation in 1880. Winter storms produced 100 mph winds and whiteout conditions. Residents got lost crossing the street and died, their frozen bodies found in spring under piles of snow. High winds whipped snow drifts 20 feet high past the second story windows of the school house
There was no RU44 Insulation in 1880. Residents took tin shingles and shingled the exterior sides of their wooden homes, then took newspaper, and papered their interior walls to prevent blowing snow into their homes. If those weren’t available, they even used canvas to wrap the exterior of the home. Every home, store, and saloon had a wood burning stove, but there was no nearby wood supply available to burn.
Firewood could fetch a hefty price and had to be brought in piece by piece from the eastern Sierra. Lumber was brought in from Bridgeport, Benton, Carson City and eventually Mono Mills by rail after 1881. A small sawmill is still present in the town to cut down the cordwood into usable pieces in their wood stoves. The winter of 1878–79 was particularly harsh and people simply froze to death in their homes. The record low in Bodie was in 1903 when temperatures dropped to −36 °F.
Wood to fuel stoves for warmth in winter was a constant short supply. Lumber companies cut into the Sierra Nevada to the due east and hauled in cord wood on wagons to provide fuel for the harsh winters and charged exorbitant prices for their wood.
The biggest consumer of wood was the mines which required wood to power their steam boilers to pump the water from the mine. The water table was reached at the 500 ft mark and many types of pumps were used to remove the water that continually threatened to fill the mine. Powering these pumps were wood-fired steam boilers until electricity arrived in 1893.
During winter, the park is closed when Highway 270 is impassible from snow. Bodie on average receives about 100 inches of snow per year which can last into mid-June on the ground.
Upon arrival at Bodie, pay attention to the open/close times, generally 9-6 daily. When we’ve arrived too early before 9am, we park at the guard shack and wait till the clock turns 9 and then enter the park. The cemetery is on your left, the town on your right. A large dirt parking lot provides ample parking and modern restrooms. Mining equipment is everywhere, simply left sitting in sagebrush in random locations.
A path leads down to the Methodist Church. The town site is littered with steel bits, old cans, old cars, a crankshaft and random items left among the sagebrush to rust away in the climate.
The discovery of gold at Bodie is commonly attributed to William Bodie (spelling variations of the name abound), a tinsmith, originally from Poughkeepsie, NY. Bodie left his wife and 2 children in 1848 for the gold fields of California arriving in the first wave of argonauts in 1849 then settling in Tuolumne County near Sonora. Bodie is said to have continued his trade as a tinsmith regularly writing to his wife back in New York while participating in social clubs and joining the fire department. Bodie had joined one of the largest mass migrations in modern history with the promise of gold in California. Argonauts thought they would collect their fortune in gold, and then return home as heroes. Very few actually found gold. Many never returned.
A decade later while prospecting in the Eastern Sierra with a small prospecting party, he discovered gold in 1859 in the hills north of Mono Lake. Bodie never gained anything from his discovery, rather he set out in a blizzard for Monoville near present day Lee Vining in November 1859 for supplies, became lost and froze to death. His body was found the following spring of 1860. Variations of this story compete for truthfulness, as the story of the discovery wasn’t recorded until 20 years later. Authors copied the story and omitted or embellished key details until the actual story has blurred over 100 years of re-telling.
Bodie was prospecting in the higher elevations of the Eastern Sierra along the Nevada border near the town of Bridgeport. Present day Highway 395 runs through the center of this region. Bodie’s discovery of gold took place at the same time a massive deposit of silver (embedded in quartz) was discovered at Virginia City 100-miles due north. The Comstock Lode beneath Mount Davidson was the first major discovery of silver in the United States and miners had to choose between the two discoveries. Many went to Virginia City instead of Bodie.
The processing of the quartz ore in 1868 at Bodie was originally done with two stamp mills and both couldn’t turn a profit. However, nearly 10 years later in 1876 as the deepest mine shafts reached 1,200 feet, the Standard Company bored into a profitable deposit of gold-bearing ore. Even more high-grade ore was discovered in 1878 by the adjacent Bodie Mine. Each discovery of gold attracted more hopefuls and Bodie prospered during this time of 1877 to 1880. Over 10,000 tons of ore was extracted by the Standard Mining Company and yielded close to $15M over the next 25 years.
Gold trapped in quartz rock was brought to the surface and crushed in nine stamp mills. The crushed quartz rock was then processed to separate the gold from the useless tailings which were simply dumped in huge piles of rock at the edge of the mines and are still visible today. There are even more piles of tailings not visible from the town that reside on the flip side of the hill. Currently, the Standard Mill building dominates the scene overlooking the town of Bodie.
By 1879-1880, Bodie grew to accommodate an estimated 8500 residents spanning 2000 buildings. Estimates as high as 10,000 townspeople were claimed although much debate swirls around the 10,000 number and the number has never been accurately substantiated. Census takers listed 5416 names in the mid-1880s, but newspapers of the time argued many people were not counted.
Some 65 saloons lined the mile-long main street. Behind the saloons was a Red-Light District. Miners earned on average $4.00 per day, about $100 in today’s dollars adjusted for inflation. On payday, there was nowhere to go expect into town to spend their earnings, whether at the saloon, the brothel, or the opium den. Murders, shootouts, stage holdups and alcohol-fueled barroom brawls were commonplace. Bodie quickly gained a reputation as one of the last true Wild West towns. To feed the thousands of people who lived here, 200 restaurants offered food to hungry miners.
Bodie like most boomtowns had a considerable Chinese population. The Chinese often did menial work as they had no rights to work inside the mine. Many came from Southern China as contract laborers in 1878. For work, they ran opium dens or dug up sagebrush roots to sell as firewood. Others utilized mule trains to transport wood from 20 miles distant. Chinese people mostly worked inside homes and restaurants. They also earned a living selling vegetables, making charcoal and after 1881, working for the railroad. In later years they took the mine tailings and attempted to re-process the tailings to source any hint of gold dust left in the tailings. Nearly every mining town had a Chinese population of laborers.
Bodie began to fade as a boomtown as early as 1880 when mining booms in Montana, Utah and Arizona promised a faster path to riches. The 1880 census counted 5417 people, a decade later the population stood at 779. Mine profits in 1881 were recorded at $3.1M and steadily dropped. The single miners known for their raucous behavior left while the working family men remained stabilizing the daily life of Bodie. The two story school house is still central to the town, survived all the fires and a quick peek through the open windows reveals school is very much in session. The globe, the world maps, the items we identify with learning were left undisturbed, even the dust is left untouched.
In 1881, the Bodie Railway & Lumbar Company completed a 32-mile railway from Mono Mills on the south side of Mono Lake along present-day Highway 120 with a 2000-foot elevation climb requiring a 260-foot trestle and two switchbacks. The railway was comprised of 4 engines, 12 service cars, 51 flat cars, and one caboose. This railway never connected to any other rail lines and every piece of iron, from spikes and tracks, to every component for the four locomotives had to be pulled to the site by mule teams.
At Mono Mills, the plaque reads:
To meet the ever increasing demand for lumber and cordwood the Bodie Railway and Lumbar Company was formed in February 1881. Timber was harvested from various tracts to the south. It was milled at this site and then shipped to Bodie on the railroad via Warm Springs and Lime Kiln. The sawmill was a two story structure capable of producing 80,000 board feet in a 10 hour shift (when the crew was sober) and was powered by a 16 inch steam engine. With the development of electricity at Green Creek and reduced gold production in Bodie, Aurora, and the Masonic, the demand for lumber and fuel wood diminished and the Mono Mills was abandoned in 1917.
The forest above Mono Mills known as Mono Craters was logged and the cordwood transported to the mine. There’s nothing left of the operation at Mono Mills except an interpretive display, but the train station at Bodie survived. However, it is only accessible via organized tours with a docent and is beyond the boundaries of where daily visitors are allowed to explore on their own. There have been plans proposed to restore the railroad office at the top of Bodie Bluff and make it accessible to visitors as a museum but at present, this has not happened yet.
A few years ago, some historians/railfans tracing the former right-of-way discovered a discarded flatcar half-buried in the dirt. The remnants of the car were removed and the car restored; it was displayed at June Lake Marina as of 2002 for many years until it was transported to Bishop to the Laws Railroad Museum and refurbished. The Laws Museum is 6 miles north of Bishop on Highway 6.
Everything in Bodie came in on wagon trains and or was manufactured on site. Foundries were built, water pipes for the town were constructed from wooden boards and iron hoops to create round wooden pipes for water that were buried beneath the frost line. There were actually many fires in Bodie that were extinguished by the fire department using the water system built into the streets. A reservoir was built near the town to store water, and there are several fire hydrants still visible today in the town.
Power had been provided to the mill via wood fired boiler and steam engine powering an electric generator. Electricity came in 1893 when the Standard Company constructed a hydroelectric plant 13 miles away at Green Creek. Dynamo Pond was constructed by damming Green Creek. The Dynamo Pond is still visible today and is located on the west side of Highway 395.
The site is significant in that it was the first test of the theory that electricity could be transported over a distance. Electricity began to light American homes as early as 1880 but electricity had always been generated at the site of the need. Green Creek fed into the newly-constructed Dynamo Pond and water fed into a penstock (or large pipe) and ran downhill to a powerhouse which ran a turbine. Mine workers built the powerhouse with recycled materials from the recently abandoned Bulwer-Standard Mill.
Dynamo Plant and Pond: Completed December 1, 1862, by the Standard Consolidated Mining Company, this Hydro-electric generating plant began operation in October 1893. Electricity was transmitted over a 13 mile line to the mining company's 20 stamp mill at Bodie. This facility was one of the first of its kind in this country.
Thomas Leggett in 1894 in his Electric Power Transmission Plants and the Use of Electricity in Mining Operations described the building of the power line:
“The length of the line is 67,760 ft., or 12.46 miles. The poles are of round tamarack timber, 21 ft. long, 6 in. in diameter at the top, set 4 ft. in the ground; poles 25 ft. long being used through the town, and along the line wherever there is danger of deep snowdrifts. They are placed 100 ft. apart, and fitted each with a 4 by 6 in. cross-arm, boxed into the pole, and held by one bolt and one lag-screw. The line crosses extremely rough country, not 500 yds. of which is level beyond the town limits. Most of the ground is very rocky, over 500 lbs. of dynamite being used in blasting the pole-holes.”
There is an urban legend that says the line was constructed perfectly straight as it was thought at the time electricity couldn’t turn corners but this adage has long-been debunked. The line was constructed straight to save money. The Standard Mine was on a budget at the time, and needed to keep its costs at a minimum. The myth also doesn’t account for elevation change and the line had several slight bends to it.
Find Dynamo Pond by riding five miles south from Bridgeport on Highway 395 or two miles north of Highway 270; then turn west onto Green Creek Road (dirt) and ride for another four miles. Note restoration efforts are in place to restore the native grassy habitats around the pond. The small reservoir remains, but only the foundation of the powerhouse is visible today.
That same year, the discarded tailings were again processed with the newly-refined Cyanide Process to recover any left-over gold dust in the tailings which proved briefly profitable.
By 1910, most people had moved on and the population dropped below 700. By 1914, yearly mine profits were a mere $6800. The railway ceased operation in 1918, the tracks were pulled up and sold to railways in the Philippines for use in building the Philippine National Railway. The steam locomotives were disassembled and transported to Hawaii for use on a plantation.
Devastating fires took place due to the lack of maintenance on the wooden pipes that should have provided the water needed to extinguish the flames as the population declined. In 1932, 90% of the buildings burned in a fire that burned most of what was left of the buildings in town. The 10% remaining, about 110 structures, are what we see today. Despite the steady decline, Bodie had permanent residents living there all the way to 1942 when the start of WWII meant the mines had to close as a non-essential activity to the war effort.
Caretakers were hired by the Cain Family who owned most of the land, but by the mid-1940s through the late 1950s, the buildings were left deserted to wither away. Mine owners leased the land to prospectors and at times, two-man operations still mined into the hillsides in search of gold bearing ore into the 1950s. In 1961, the grounds were named a National Historic Landmark, and Bodie State Historic Park was integrated into the California state park system in 1962.
Present day, a park ranger lives at the park year-round to serve as caretaker for the grounds. Buildings are left exactly as they were 140 years ago. The stores are all stocked, the school classroom is still in session and several buildings are open to walk through life in 1879. The one brick building is now the museum and large chucks of mining equipment are scattered about the town randomly left there.
Every visit to the park takes on a different theme, one visit I spent all my time in the cemetery. Another visit was photographing the large Standard Mill which you can tour the inside with a specialized docent led tour. One visit, my other tour guide Mark only took pictures of doorknobs. The park is a photographer’s delight and we’ve never been here without the local photography club setting up for the setting sun to capture the evening light or some other theme. Other visits, we were accompanied by the town cat, which beside the ranger, is likely the town’s only other permanent resident.
Ghost Tours and Mine Tours are available via the state parks website and often fill up months in advance. After bringing many tour groups to Bodie over a fifteen-year period, I began to buy books about Bodie and the best is Mining Camp Days by Emil Billeb, first published in 1958, who actually lived at Bodie and describes his many experiences working on the railroad and living in Bodie. Copies can still be easily found on line.
There are no services of any kind at Bodie although there are modern restrooms at the parking lot. The museum/visitor center is open mid-May through mid-October. The summer sun can be hot even at these elevations but the majority of our summer visits, temps have been in the 70s. The air here is thinner but you won’t notice it until you start walking up the hills. The museum on site is a must visit as it has ample mining camp regalia, including a horse drawn hearse and many historical photos within.
The 1937 Chevrolet coupe weathering in the sun is an added bonus.
Where to next?
Bodie SHP should always be a part of any visit to the Eastern Sierra. While you may consider Highway 395 to be a somewhat boring major highway, it provides a pathway to many spurs and directions. Highway 120 (don’t miss the June Lake Loop) across the bottom of Mono Lake is the closest fun motorcycle road. Always deserted, with curves and whoops, it can be combined with Benton Crossing Rd to provide a super-fun loop running parallel to Highway 395 and emerging near Mammoth. At Mammoth is Devils Postpile National Monument, and nearby, the Bristlecone Pine Forest at 10,000 feet (the highest paved road in California) via Highway 168 is another must do location near Lone Pine. The history aficionados should be checking out Manzanar War Internment Camp to the south or the aforementioned Virginia City to the north. Highway 4, Highway 89 and Highway 108 plus Highway 120 are all the local mountains passes over the Sierra Nevada range.
Bodie SHP - Photo Gallery
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