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Gold Rush Community In Arrested Decay Had Its Zenith In 1880s
Looking to the west across the plateau at 8,000 feet where Bodie sits. Photo Courtesy California State Parks

BODIE — I need to thank John Harris for learning to really appreciate Bodie State Park even though it felt like it took me three days to get warm again.

Harris is a longtime Manteca history buff, a retired San Joaquin County probation officer, and one of the few — if not the only person — who has served on both the Manteca City Council and Manteca Unified School District Board.

He is also a history buff.

A number of years ago after reading about a visit I made to the state park which is the largest and arguably biggest example of a Gold Rush ghost town frozen in arrested decay in California if not the western United States, Harris dropped by with a ‘gift’.

Frozen, by the way, is an apt word, but more about that later.

It was a framed photo of Bodie. He shared some observations about Bodie and history in general. I thanked him for the photo.

To be honest I’ve lost track of it but it did get me to thinking about making a second trip to Bodie. Some 25 years had passed since my previous visit.

It was with my brother who was satisfying his passion for old buildings. It was a fitting pastime given he was an architect and his expertise was restoring historic buildings. The restoration of the Placer County courthouse was one of his projects.

I went along because he wanted my help taking photos. I had my fill after shooting half of the 20 rolls of 36-frame Kodak slide film he had me go through. Yes, this was back before digital cameras and smartphones.

While I like history, there are only so many old buildings I can take. Don’t get me wrong. I highly recommend people visit Bodie which is 114 miles to the northeast of Manteca as the crow flies or just over a 200-mile drive when either Tioga Pass on Highway 120 or Sonora Pass on Highway 108 aren’t closed for the winter.

Bodie has been a mining area that for years didn’t really take off after the first traces of gold were discovered in 1859. That all changed in the mid-1880s when the Bunker Hill Mine that was later known as the Standard Mining Co. hit the bonanza gold and Comstock silver all rolled up into one.

Nearly 10,000 tons of gold and silver ore were taken from the ground. It was valued at roughly $15 million over the course of a quarter of a century. Keep in mind that is in 1880s-1890s dollars.

Bodie gained boomtown status in 1877. Two years later there were more than 2,000 buildings and 8,500 people.

This is a segue into what prompted my second return to Bodie.

By the time Harris dropped his gift by I was transitioning from spending a week each summer doing road bicycling in the eastern Sierra to hiking. Four years ago — a full decade after Harris gave me the framed photo — I came across it again as I was planning my annual winter trip to Death Valley.

By then I had done more reading about Bodie and found it was a place of fairly extreme temperatures.

So I decided to go the circuitous route to Death Valley via Interstate 80 via Highway 395 instead of going through the Kern River Canyon or across Tehachapi Pass. Every other Sierra crossing in between is snowed in by late November.

I planned to take a short detour to Bodie via Highway 270 that is probably the only state highway where the last three miles is a dirt road.

My goal wasn’t to wander again among the buildings. It was to hike the hill overlooking Bodie — something I didn’t do during a previous midsummer visit. It wasn’t to take photos, which I did. I wanted to see for myself if the area around Bodie was really as inhospitable as they say.

I reached Bodie at 2 p.m. and was atop the hill 45 minutes later.

It was while standing there in a wind in excess of 25 mph with the sun and temperature dropping I was convinced they weren’t exaggerating. Bodie was built on some of the most hellish real estate in California. By the time I got back to the car and high tailed it out of Bodie, temperatures had dropped below freezing and the wind chill was even worse.

Bodie has an average of 303 nights a year where temperatures plunge below freezing. That compares to Utqiagvk in Alaska with an average of 315 nights of below freezing temperatures.

Bodie is considered a rare example of dry-summer subarctic climate wedded with hot to freezing summers. Bodie also enjoys plenty of long winters with snow. It’s not unusual for winds to push 100 mph.

Making those conditions possible is the 8,400-foot elevation with a plateau that is extremely exposed with no mountains and such to protect it or slow winds down.

It was said to be a miserable place to live. I no longer have any reason to doubt it. The only places I’ve been colder are on similar plateaus on ridges between Death Valley and the Panamint Valley at 8,000 feet during winter hikes.

After that excursion it’s hard to doubt the harsh life that is described in books about Bodie.

The last gold mine closed in 1942. By then Bodie had gone from its peak population of 8,500 down to 90. When 1950 rolled around not a soul was left.

By 1962 when Bodie became a state historic park 170 buildings remained.

Today the number is down to about 110 buildings.

A number of them were left as abandoned. Stores have rusted canned goods caked over with dust and dirt on shelves while houses that will make you think some modern tiny homes are McMansions still have furniture and such left as abandoned.

Winter hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. starting Nov. 17. Late spring, summer, and fall are clearly the better times to visit to thoroughly enjoy a day of wandering around the ghost town. A day visit from the Central Valley is doable although you can turn it into a short two-day trip with lodging in nearby Lee Vining or Bridgeport.

You can toss in a visit to nearby Mono Lake and its eerie tufa towers. Or you could head to Benton Hot Springs — an hour’s drive from Bodie on Highway 120 and soak up the warmth in rustic hot tubs fed by hot springs at campsites or in the nearby hotel.

As for me, I believe the story is plausible that a young girl upon learning in the 1880s her family was moving to Bodie wrote in her diary, “Good-bye God, I’m going to Bodie.”

And while that may have been a reference at the town’s peak to its 65 saloons, numerous opium dens, houses of ill-repute as well as its legendary violence and murders, the weather is enough to convince me of the truth to those six words.

There are more than 100 buildings in a state of arrested decay at Bodie State Park. Photo Courtesy California State Parks