The year is 1876 and you have been charged with conducting due diligence for a group of investors who are considering purchasing “The Bullion Lode”. It’s late in the afternoon as you set out on your journey from San Francisco to the mine. You board the local ferry and spend two hours crossing the bay to Vallejo where you board the lightning express train at the Central Pacific Railroad terminal to take you to Reno. In Reno next morning you board the 6:15am train to Carson City where you booked passage on the stagecoach to Aurora; you arrive at 5:30am the next morning. Here you are joined by the mine’s promoter1 and the two of you take horses to ride another 10 miles to get to the mine. In all you have traveled 110 miles and it’s taken you two days of continuous travel2.
Your final destination is the Town of Bodie. Today the journey to Bodie from the bay area will take you about six hours of driving, including a quick stop at McDonald’s. The place you find is a ghost town, possibly the most well preserved of all the ghost towns in the Sierra Nevada.
Even though the journey has been reduced by a factor of 8, it’s still not easy. Starting on Route 395 you take the exit onto Route 270. This starts as a pleasant meander through the hills but very soon you lose the tarmac road and you are driving over loose gravel. This quickly slows down your progress as you try to avoid breaking that plastic air dam that hangs down from the front of your car. Paradoxically, this reduced speed is not such a bad thing since you are forced to take in the surrounding landscape. The land is barren, covered only by sage bush and pinyon pine, but at the same time you are in a landscape of rolling hills that seems to stretch off into the distance forever. Barren as it is the view is breathtaking!
Bodie itself stands frozen in time, much as it was when the final mining operations shut down around 1940. A large number of buildings remain, a small number of them fully maintained and used as a visitors’ center or accommodation for a few rangers who live here all year round. The other buildings are largely shells holding on to the memories of the events they witnessed, unable to share their secrets as they stand in silence in the heat of the summer or the snow of the winter.
Hollywood Move Over
If you can escape the crowds – given its location Bodie is extremely popular – you can wander down a quiet street and peer into the windows glimpsing the displays from the 1800’s. Your mind might try to assemble a picture of what life must have been like in this township. The quaint relics on display speak of a quieter time and you can imagine a warm summer’s day when time moved at a leisurely pace and life was much more peaceful than it is today.
In fact nothing could be further from the truth. First there was the industry. As we’ll cover in a later post, the process of extracting gold and silver requires the pounding of rocks taken from the ground. This means that when mining operations were going full bore there was a continuous thundering from the crushers that could be heard miles away.
Much worse was the fact that if there ever was a true “Wild West,” it was Bodie. For a long time this was a lawless town where the gun ruled. Early Westerns were often modeled on the happenings at Bodie, and at least one Western had Bodie in its title.
A Microcosm Of Human Life
We can look back with the prespective of decades and see that Bodie and its history captures a reflection of the human experience. It is a story of triumph and tragedy.
Fortunes were made and fortunes were lost. Innovation flourished, forced by the need for ever-increasing efficiency as the ores became harder to find and to mine. People behaved in the worst and best of ways. Explosions and fires brought calamities to the mines and without an EPA to protect the people, the mines were allowed to dump their contaminated waste with no thought as to the damage it might do to the local environment and the inhabitants.