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The Real Gold At Bodie

June 2024
10min read

The author leads a search for hidden treasure in the amazingly complete documentary history of a California ghost town

The road to Bodie, California, turns to gravel as it meanders upward from U.S. 395 on a thirteen-mile climb through sagebrush to an elevation of almost eighty-five hundred feet. I paused at the crest of a hill where a small sign marked the entrance to Bodie State Historic Park. The air was still, and the silence absolute; but I was most struck by the intensity of the light and colors. A spectacular June sunrise illuminated the imposing wall of the Sierras to the west. In the other direction, Bodie Bluff loomed in silhouette against a cobalt sky crisscrossed by the condensation trails of airliners. Below, in a shallow valley, was Bodie, the weathered pine of its buildings russet and yellow against a sea of gray-green bunchgrass. Here I was, a lawyer from the big city of the big deals, musing about color and light after arriving two hours ahead of schedule for my first day as a volunteer intern at the fledgling Bodie Archives.

Like the earlier discoveries of gold at Sutter’s Mill and the Comstock, the big strike at Bodie came by chance. The claims around the struggling mountain camp were all but played out when Peter Eshington and Louis Lockberg took over the failed Bunker Hill mine in 1874. Having sunk a shaft 120 feet into Bodie Bluff, the two Scandinavians were on the verge of abandoning their project when the lower works caved in, exposing an immensely rich vein of ore. The partners took a ton and a half of gold from the drift and sold the property to the founders of the Standard Mining Company. The rush was on.

Within a few years Bodie was home for ten thousand stalwarts. Hoists and stamp mills covered the bluff above a thriving commercial district, which stretched a mile along Main Street. By 1882 the mines of Bodie had produced fourteen million dollars in bullion, and the town had become notorious for its faro parlors, brothels, and opium dens. The streets of Bodie were a shooting gallery that for a time averaged six murders per week. The boom lasted less than a decade and ended with the disappearance of the mother vein. Decline became calamity after a series of conflagrations destroyed whole sections of the town. Eventually Bodie was left alone and forlorn, prey to savage winter storms and systematic plun dering by vandals and souvenir hunters.


What sets Bodie apart from other ghost towns is not what it has lost but what remains. More than 150 of the town’s original structures and thousands of artifacts still cling to the high eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada. Isolated and totally abandoned, Bodie is one of the last true ghost towns in America.

The archive project began with the designation of Bodie as a state historic park in 1962. In preliminary surveys of the town site, the California Department of Parks and Recreation had collected an enormous array of artifacts. Unexpectedly, the search for relics also turned up middens of paper. Ignored by looters scavenging construction materials, documents of every description were scattered on the floors of boarded-up buildings or jumbled and moldering in cabinets, drawers, dome-top trunks, and rodent nests. The searchers left much of the paper where they found it, placing the rest in storage cartons to prevent further deterioration. It would be 1986, a quarter-century later, before the Tahoe Sierra State Park Foundation provided funds to a program aimed at preserving and cataloguing what may be the most complete documentary history of a Western gold town ever assembled.

I followed the road past the cemetery to a small car park in the shadow of the hoist of the Red Cloud Mine. The surrounding area was littered with corroded mine and mill machinery. Partially hidden by the sagebrush was a carpet of broken glass, nails, metal shards, and rusted tin cans.

A short trail led to park headquarters, which consisted of two small, sparsely furnished rooms in the Cain “mansion,” once the home of James Stuart Cain, Bodie’s leading banker. At the office located in the rear portion of the residence, I was greeted by Brad Sturdivant, one of the resident park rangers assigned to protect the site. As intruders and would be vandals quickly found out, Bodie, although abandoned, was not uninhabited. After I completed the paperwork, Brad gave me an informative map, and I began my first walk through town.

From my reading I knew that Bodie would be unlike any of the dozens of ghost towns I had visited over the years. Yet I was still not prepared for its sheer size. Bodie was not some crumbling roadside ruin or a couple of dilapidated buildings sandwiched between a gift boutique and a fast-food franchise. This was a town, at least part of a town, with stores, residences, livery stables, artisans’ shops, saloons, and hotels—all standing as they were left.

Although most structures had been secured from public entry, I could see their haunting interiors through windows and the cracks of sagging shutters. Eerie images of dustladen furniture and peeling wallpaper materialized behind threadbare curtains. Gaming chips were strewn over a roulette table in a dark corner of Sam Leons’s bar, and caskets appeared in the gloom of the town morgue. In a barbershop, shaving mugs adorned with the names of patrons lodged between half-full bottles of hair tonic. Among the cobwebs in the display windows of the Boone & Wright store was an array of century-old merchandise. Apart from the hulk of a Model T Ford resting in the corral behind the Odd Fellows Lodge, my hour-long wanderings encountered no sign of twentieth-century life.

Nonplussed, I watched as a woman in a pink bonnet and hoop dress bustled along Main Street, paused, and entered the Miners Union Hall. The apparition turned out to be the very lively Carol Canby, whose husband, Bob, was a resident ranger. When time permitted, Carol acted as volunteer hostess of the Bodie Museum, a single artifact-crammed room located on the first floor of the frame building. She also served as the park’s unofficial historian and information officer, graciously fielding questions and occasional grumbles about Bodie’s lack of conveniences (the town had two drinking fountains and some primitive rest rooms). At the entrance to the hall was an exhibit credited by the rangers with limiting the amount of pilfering in the park. In a glass case was arranged an assortment of returned souvenirs, accompanied by letters recounting tales of hard luck that had originated from the time the visitor had purloined the item. After a brief tour of the museum, I recrossed Main Street and walked east, up the hill to the schoolhouse.

The Bodie School was the center of the archive project, which since its inception had been directed by Susan Searcy, manuscript curator at the University of Nevada at Reno, and Patricia Gregory, a special consultant to the Sierra State Park Foundation and curator of history with the History of Science Division of the City of Sacramento. Susan and Patty, both experts in the preservation and cataloguing of historical documents, had stretched a limited budget by enlisting the assistance of a handful of graduate-student interns and parttime volunteers. Bodie’s insidious weather, which Mark Twain’s Roughing It divided into two seasons, “the breaking up of one winter and the beginning of the next,” restricted the archivists’ work to the summer months. Even so, they had made substantial progress.

I was as close as I would ever come to experiencing the feelings of the man who first entered the tomb of Tutankhamen.

Spacious by Bodie standards, the 1879 two-story building was originally the Bon Ton Lodging House. It was converted to a school after an angry pupil set fire to the original schoolhouse. Now consolidated in crates in the empty upstairs classroom was an extraordinary repository of records gathered from throughout the park. A second-floor office had been transformed into a document work area, as had the adjacent cloakroom, still lined with wall hooks for children’s coats and hats. At the foot of the stairs near the front entrance, the groundfloor schoolroom remained in its original state, with desks, textbooks, an old globe, and even a lesson plan on the chalkboard. Invisible to park visitors peering into its windows, the technology of the twentieth century buzzed behind the classroom’s north wall. There an insulated room within a room had been constructed at the rear of the building to avoid disturbing the original structure. Instruments inside the chamber automatically monitored temperature and humidity. Also in operation were a recently donated computer and a sophisticated security system. Lining the walls were rows of steel shelves, most empty, but some holding documents carefully labeled and encased in acid-neutral folders and boxes—the beginning of the Bodie Archives.

Documents of every description were jumbled and moldering in cabinets, drawers, dome-top trunks, and rodent nests.

The records were sorted and cleaned on the second floor and then transferred downstairs for computer cataloguing by the professional archivists with help from Chris Myers, an experienced intern from Sacramento State University. Like most of the team, I alternated between cleaning and sorting. Crew members wore vinyl examination gloves to protect the documents against soiling, and surgical masks to protect ourselves from dust and mold spores. My work space in the upstairs office had a window that provided both ventilation and an opportunity to eavesdrop on the conversations of visitors walking along Green Street below. More than once a startled tourist spotted me at the window and asked if the building was a hospital.

Our raw material was the immense trove of paper in the upstairs classroom. We sorted through diaries, correspondence, elaborate billheads, newspapers, checks, broadsides, daybooks, ledgers, receipts, maps, and scraps. Unless we could specifically identify an item with a person or commercial business, it was separated by mine name and then further divided by predefined categories. At times classification could be confusing because of the maze of mergers, take-overs, and spin-offs that took place in the Bodie mining district of the 1870s. There was the Bodie Mine and the Bodie Consolidated, the Bodie Gold, the Bodie Standard, the Standard Consolidated, the Bulwer Consolidated, and even the Bulwer Standard.

Many of the documents were in a remarkable state of preservation, almost mint. Others were in varying states of decay, and the cleaning operation caused a necessary bottleneck. Each and every paper and page was dusted with a natural-bristle brush before it was brought downstairs. We used cheesecloth to remove mildew and other debris.

While this day-to-day routine may sound tedious, for me it was nirvana. Each carton yielded some new treasure. The 1876 daybook of a local saloon revealed that the price of whiskey was two drinks for a quarter; no customer bought a single drink, probably to avoid being labeled a shortbit. The payroll records of the Mono Mine for 1877 bore the elaborate signatures of Welsh and English miners acknowledging receipt of four dollars for a twelve-hour shift in the mine. The author of an 1878 leaflet extolling the rapid growth of the town observed: “If no reaction takes place, Bodie will soon have a bank, theater, [and a] church.... A public school building is a necessity now, the material therefore having arrived to a very perceptible degree—of course, by immigration, children in arms included.” Indeed, the myriad invoices confirmed that by 1880 the residents of Bodie enjoyed as full a range of goods and services as would be offered in any town of equivalent population in the country. Receipts from the Occidental Hotel and the Restaurant Maison Doree documented regular summer deliveries of fresh lobster, oysters, boysenberries, and coconuts.

Patty and Susan had explained to us that the task of the archivist was to preserve and organize historical papers for future researchers; it was for the historian, not the archivist, to interpret the meaning and significance of documents. Wise directions, of course, but who could resist reading aloud to colleagues letters to a leading mine engineer in Bodie from “Mamie,” the unwed mother of his infant daughter, who had left for San Francisco and was again pregnant:

May 17, 1883 San Francisco

Dear Papa,

The baby is well with the exception of a fresh cold. I am feeling well but awful downhearted.... I really don’t know what to do. I am going on 3 months gone. The longer I leave it run the more it will cost. I know you do not wish me to have such a thing done … but you must know how I feel bringing children into the world without a name. If I am to die doing it, it cannot be helped.... O: God I wish you was here tonight or that I was with you I have the blues so bad.

May 23, 1883 San Francisco

Dear Papa,

...I am going to get up tomorrow. I miss carried twin children, two boys. O: I am thankful to God that I got on so well.... I am awfully sorry that I cannot leave for Bodie right away. God knows I am anxious to be with you.... I am very sorry I cannot tell you the Doctors name. I took an oath that I would not.... I wish we were together this evening so that we could have a little chat as we can talk much better than writing....


We found no record indicating that Mamie ever returned to Bodie.

Members of the crew developed feelings of camaraderie with other previously unknown Bodie personalities whose activities, and even idiosyncrasies, were revealed in growing detail with each new crate of records. While names such as J. S. Cain, Theodore Hoover (brother of Herbert Hoover), and Washoe Pete (the apocryphal “Bad Man from Bodie”) had long been associated with Bodie lore, the interns were more interested in the likes of Capt. John H. Kelly and E. F. Irwin, both unknown to history books but clearly men of great stature in the community. I “adopted” J. W. Pettibone, whose letter book led me on a journey from Colorado through the Western goldfields and finally, in 1879, to Bodie. After a notable career as a mining superintendent, Pettibone contracted pneumonia and died during a particularly bleak Bodie winter. For years thereafter Bodieites remembered that time as “the winter when Pettibone died.”

Mark Twain divided Bodie’s weather into two seasons, “the breaking up of one winter and the beginning of the next.”

The only important location in the park from which records had not been collected was the Boone & Wright store. Harvey Boone was the town’s leading merchandiser when in 1879 he and J. J. Wright built the store and adjoining brick warehouse. Metal siding of flattened five-gallon kerosene cans—a common building material in Bodie before the development of corrugated iron—protected the structure from the elements.

Susan opened the padlocked door to the building, and we entered the store’s rear office with Patty, Judy Walker, who was an intern, and two veteran volunteers, Dorothy Roberts and lone Harmon. Bodie dust lay thick on the surface of the bookkeeper’s desk. Rodents had chewed up much of the contents of the drawers, but in a rear alcove we came upon cardboard boxes bulging with undamaged maps and strikingly rendered engineering drawings apparently collected during prior explorations by park employees.

The sales area yielded few records, but its shelves and floor space were crowded with retail stock: glassware, plates, coffee tins, empty food and condiment crates, hardware, tools, wearing apparel, shoes, and accessories. Judy donned a faded but once fashionable veiled hat, poignantly incongruous with her silk-screened T-shirt from a recent hundred-mile supermarathon.

A dank hallway cluttered with bricks, lumber, and pipe led to the back of the store. This rubble was home to Bodie Cat, a mangy calico and recent mother of a litter of kittens. Despite being a proficient hunter of ground squirrels, the wary cat was not above accepting nightly handouts from Marta Murvosh, one of two senior interns who resided at the park during the summer.

Two sets of ten-foot-high double iron doors separated the warehouse from the hall. We crowded into the narrow passage behind the first pair of doors and accustomed our eyes to the darkness. We then swung open the doors leading to the three-thousand-square-foot structure. In the dim illumination of a single light bulb was the astonishing inventory of memorabilia and relics gathered in the months after the park’s dedication. The walls were lined with wagon wheels, loggers’ pikes, mirrors, and shop signs. A magnificent safe from the Bodie Bank, tantalizingly unopened, was all but buried under saddles, bridles, and harnesses. The floor was piled high with boxes of artifacts, furniture, newspapers, barrels, leather suitcases, and book-filled cabinets. I knew that on this, the last day of my work at the park, I was as close as I would ever come to experiencing the feelings of Howard Carter upon entering the tomb of Tutankhamen.

Turning south onto 395 for the seven-hour journey home, I thought about how fragile the town and its contents really were. There was no doubt that had the state not made Bodie part of the park system, the town would have disintegrated. On the other hand, increasing tourist traffic, combined with the necessity for park officials to compete for funds just to maintain the structures in “arrested decay,” had created new stresses. An off-site visitors’ center would reduce some of the pressure, but that was nothing more than a dream. More substantial were those ominous rumblings from just outside the park, where a Canadian open-pit mine operator was drilling exploratory holes on Bodie Bluff. Yet even as I reflected on Bodie’s vulnerability and wondered how long this national treasure could endure, I somehow knew that the time had not come to start carving the town’s epitaph. After all, old Bodie was one of a kind: not a ghost but a survivor.


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