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CA 270, The Road To Bodie

Part 2: Bodie State Historical Park

Go to: Part 1 | Part 2

Having left modern conveniences such as asphalt behind in Part 1, we approach Bodie State Historic Park, now well over 8300 feet in elevation. Bodie began as a nondescript mining camp during the late throes of the California gold rush in 1859, established by a group of prospectors that included one William "Waterman" S. Bodey. Bodey's biography is now mostly lost to the past, and likewise his life to one of the region's notorious blizzards barely a year later. The Bodie Bluff nearby is named for his discovery, but the ultimate insult was paid to Bodey posthumously, as a nearby stable in Aurora (just over the state line) deliberately misspelled his name on their sign as "Bodie" in 1862 to avoid mispronunciation and the name stuck.

Nevertheless, Bodie remained a relatively obscure settlement with small local strikes barely keeping the stamp mills alive — until 1876, when the Standard Company discovered a massive amount of gold-bearing ore. By 1880 the wind-blasted settlement had exploded into a true boomtown with over 10,000 inhabitants working the region. Over 25 years, the Standard Mine by itself churned out a breathtaking $15 million in gold and while the boom lasted some thirty companies produced nearly $400,000 in gold bullion every month. At the peak, sixty-five saloons crammed Main Street barely a mile long, and the inevitable drunken fights, robberies, shootouts and barroom brawls combined to give the town a lethal reputation: if the booze didn't kill you, the opium dens in Chinatown could, along with whatever you might catch in the town's very popular brothels. It was widely observed that a man died every day in the town and there were plenty of hard-bitten goldbugs lining up to take their place. (One little girl of these families wrote bitterly in her diary, "Goodbye, God, I'm going to Bodie.") Eventually Bodie's mines turned out close to $100 million in gold over their lifetime.

"The town too wicked to die," as it was darkly christened, eventually did. As the gold disappeared, so did many of the miners, and the few respectable citizens that bravely clung to their holdings were only rewarded by cruel and uncontrollable fires in 1892 and 1932. The buildings that remain were those left from this second major fire and were eventually abandoned by their owners. The town thus lay in desolation for over two decades until the state park was established in 1962 to preserve the remnants, in so-called "arrested decay," and subsequently declared a National Historic District by the National Park Service.

And now a confession for the sake of veracity: some of the images in Bodie proper are ever-so-carefully retouched to remove bystanders and other vermin from the shots. Although weekdays are generally quiet in the ghost town, weekends get quite a bit of tourist traffic for a relatively isolated area. The infamy of Bodie clearly continues into the present day and this brief photoessay cannot hope to do it justice. You should really see it for yourself.

Bouncing down the dirt road over several ridges towards Bodie. For obvious reasons dust will be a problem for the next couple of shots; sorry about that.
State park boundary marker.
Undoubtedly new residents of Bodie experienced this same dusty, blasted vista obscured by whirling sand and dirt as they came into town.
Guard shack. Render unto Sacramento here.

Main Street

This is the "end" of Bodie Road, changing names to Main Street in the centre of town past the blocked section. We will take another look at this view in a moment.

The flagpole and the hillside.
Turning left onto the bypass road towards the parking area. Some of the old machine works and habitations cling to the slope as we drive by.
Bodie state historical landmark (California registered historical landmark number 341) in the parking lot. Dismount!
Ruins of old machinery dragged out near the parking area.
The Bodie Morning News, August 12, 1879, posted in one of the windows.
No pilfering! (Also note: more snow.)
Looking down Union Street, which is the NW-SE axis (Bodie Road and Main St make up the SW-NE axis). Union Street changes to Green Street upon crossing the Main Street axis.
The Methodist church, built 1882, and incredibly survived 50 years to its last standard service in 1932 despite, or perhaps because of, Bodie's famed iniquities. There were two churches in town (compare to the town's 65 saloons); this church was presided over by one Rev F. W. Warrington, who purchased the lot and commenced its construction, and the other church, a Catholic establishment, opened just five days before this one. The Rev Warrington minced no words about the upstandingness of the local citizens, observing in 1881 that Bodie was "a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion." (One wonders what he would have said about the modern soap opera.) After the town was abandoned, the church was vandalized along with the rest of the buildings. In a particularly ironic touch, the oilcloth that had the 10 Commandments on it was, in fact, stolen. However, some of the original items still remain, including the pews and small pipe organ.
The barn across the street, its old red colour still somewhat visible.
The Miller home, one of the home interiors open to visitors, owned by Tom Miller who worked for the Mono Lake Railway & Company at Mono Mills (see the US 6 exhibit). Most of the lumber used in the town came from that particular sawmill. Inside the house, not especially well-cordoned off, the chairs and a stripped spring bed are still present. On the other side of the room sits a somewhat shredded divan and fireplace.
The park offices next door.
The offices were originally the residence of James Stuart Cain, who started operations in Bodie at the tender age of 25 and ran barges across Mono Lake (see US 395 Part 8) to transport timber. When he and a partner leased a block from the Standard Mine and Mill, he pulled $90,000 in gold from the land in just 90 days. The Standard Company refused to renew the lease, but by then Cain had made his fortune, and ended up buying out substantial portions of the local property. As revenge, in 1915 Cain proved in court that Standard was deliberately encroaching on his Midnight Mine next door. Not only did he win, but the damages awarded were so substantial that Cain took over Standard Mine as well.
Facade of the Boone Store and Warehouse.
The Boone Store and Warehouse was erected in 1879 as a general store by Harvey Boone, a direct descendant of the famous Daniel Boone and a local tycoon who also owned a local livery business and the Boone Stable. Later he purchased another store and operated that simultaneously, fortuitious because in 1884 the original building almost completely burned down. The fire occurred despite the fact that he created the Bodie Water Company in 1879 specifically to have sufficient water for firefighting; the conflagration destroyed most of the block. Some of the remaining items are displayed, but are not for sale, and almost certainly past their expiration dates. Of note, the store used to sell such important items as Kellogg's Tasteless Castor Oil, and, continuing in the tasteless category, Trojan condoms. (I do not recommend using any of the remaining stock, by the way, even if you should be overcome with the romance of Bodie.) Several original Edison bulbs are still in the store and ostensibly still operate. Old gas pumps sit outside of the store, long since emptied.
The Wheaton and Hollis Hotel across the street.
When originally built in 1885, this was the U.S. Land Office, a point of no small local controversy due to conflicts of interest and much outright graft. The federal government, incensed, forced the Office to move to Independence in Inyo county in 1886. The vacated building became the Power Company headquarters for awhile, and then the Bodie Store, much to the chagrin of Harvey Boone. It finally turned into a boardinghouse, euphemistically called a "hotel," and the old legend for the boarding house is still visible through the window along with its telephone exchange and manual switchboard. The operator's chair is also present.
My favourite vista of Bodie is this one, looking down Main Street. It feels to me much like what a new arrival to Bodie would have seen, the forbidding buildings and the wild surroundings, almost a palpable feeling of doom and isolation.
The Deschambeau Hotel and the International Order of Odd Fellows buildings are at the immediate left. The I.O.O.F. legend is still faintly visible on the wood and is a immediately recognizeable local landmark. Its membership used it as a "health club" of the time, with weights and equipment available for fitness, and the Bodie Athletic Club operated out of its offices. Although the Lodge was officially incorporated as No. 279 in 1878, the building itself did not exist until 1880 when local businessman H. Ward built it and used the first floor for his (no doubt brisk) undertaking business. A small morgue operated next door. The Lodge was eventually merged with the Bishop lodge to the south. The bar of the Deschambeau Hotel is visible through the window, derivation of the name unknown, with beer bottles still littering the countertop.
Up on the hill, closed to the public, are the old Standard Mine and Mill works.
These are the ones J.S. Cain prevailed over in 1915. The stamp mill is here and a number of nearby relatively-well preserved buildings, but the area is unsafe for entry. The mine was first registered in 1861 as the Bunker Hill Mine but was lightly regarded until gold was struck in 1876, whereupon it reincorporated as the Standard Company in 1877. Despite a fire in 1898, the mill was rapidly rebuilt to continue output, and stamp operations ran up nearly until the bitter end. As many as thirty mines shipped their ore there for processing.
Next to the Wheaton and Hollis is the old school house, itself originally built as the Bon Ton Lodging House in 1879. This later one replaced the first, burnt down by a juvenile firebug.
Fire was, of course, a constant problem and Bodie's small firehouse on Main Street was clearly inadequate; the town's large quantities of wood were far more than the fire brigade could guard. In addition to the major fire in 1884 and multiple smaller burns, another major fire in 1892 burnt down most of the buildings in the business district and in 1932 a small boy playing with matches ("only you can prevent ghost town fires") started another fire which claimed even more of the old town. Ironically, in neither case was a shortage of water the problem: the problem was the pipes, which had badly maintained filters and the water system choked itself with mud and debris long before any water could be pumped. Even when the "tanker" could be filled, it is doubtful if the volume carried was sufficient to put out anything significant.

The fire bell at the top does work, and rang out the years of life every time another Bodie denizen was laid to rest. It was rarely quiet.

The unfortunate Bodie Bank, another one of J.S. Cain's local holdings after he bought it in 1890.
Although the Bodie Bank survived the fire of 1892, it did not fare so well in 1932, though the vault did survive and is still visible here. A frequent target of attempted robbery along with the Mono County Bank (which ran from 1877 to 1884 and closed, all accounts paid in full), it was raided as late as 1916 by four men who got away with about $4,000 in cash and jewelry.
And finally, the local jail.
There weren't many cells in it, but mostly because of the bail, which would let people out for $5. At least one occupant was forcibly released in a more murderous fashion by a local lynch mob. Despite its ramshackle look, only one person is known to have successfully escaped.
Leaving Bodie on the northeast side.
Main Street continues north to become Bodie Road again and advance to the Nevada border, seven miles distant. Along the way it passes the Blanchard Toll House and eventually connects to the famous Nevada mining town of Aurora. Operated by the eponymous Hank Blanchard, the toll road was the only major road linking the two boomtown regions, which Blanchard and his partners built along the natural gully made by the Bodie Creek. Today it still serves as the only "arterial" between the two regions, approximately; while the total trip is only about 14 miles each way, you would do well to check with the ranger station in Bodie before trying this drive because of the flooding risk and substantial erosion. Four-wheel drive is advised.

Bodie Rd (Westbound)

We turn back around at this point.

Looking at the town from the north, with Main Street proceeding ahead and the bypass road to the parking area curving to the right.
A rainy day over Bodie, on an earlier sortie, with the isolated town sitting in the ghostly cloud-filtered semilight. These sorts of sudden storms make driving the roads out of Bodie (other than CA 270) quite hazardous. This particular squall turned the bypass road into churning mud. I can well believe the chaos this caused with wagons.
Leaving the park.
This sign of uncertain provenance greets people exiting to the south, with the road to CA 270 proceeding right. The road to the left "10 mi VERY ROUGH ROAD," marked on NAVTEQ as Cottonwood Canyon Rd, is a harrowing grind over the mountains through the canyon of another creek bed into the northwestern Great Basin flatlands and thence to CA 167/NV 359 on its way to Hawthorne, NV. Unless you have no other way out, the "long way" of CA 270/US 395/CA 167 is substantially faster and almost certainly safer.
Oh, hey, more snow.
The radiant distant snowy mountains reflecting the sun.

WB CA 270

The first, and only, CA 270 shield westbound, with the rear of the state park sign visible as we finally resume Caltrans maintenance (and asphalt).
Descending the grade.
PM 9.50, the first postmile heading west.
The grade steeply descends in several places coincident with our sharp ascent the other way.
Passing the small meadow.
The rear of that sign we saw in Part 1. The Caltrans date stamp is from 1980. If left unmolested, it will probably survive for decades more.
Curving around in the canyon.
PM 0.5.
The entrance gate.
Approaching the end at the US 395 junction.
End highway with distance mileage at the US 395 junction. We turn left onto US 395 south.
End CA 270

Distance signage leaving the CA 270 junction.
To the right we pass the Dog Town Diggins, where a minor gold rush occurred in 1857. The name is a pejorative reference to the local miners' squalid accommodations and not to the canine; a small number of ruins persist. Dog Town's contribution was not actually in gold, however, because it yielded relatively little of it despite substantial (if brief) prospecting activity and even a supremely unproductive dredging operation of the nearby creek as late as 1900. Instead, it was the first attraction of immigrants and outsiders to the eastern Sierra, and it was these first Dog Town dwellers that moved on to inhabit the other more profitable later areas such as Bodie, Aurora, Masonic and even Virginia City, establishing the local boomtown economy. It is, therefore, fitting as our last historical stop. Dog Creek itself is alongside, another Walker tributary, just before it merges with the East Walker River.
Crossing the Conway Summit on US 395 south, overlooking Mono Lake and the Sierra Nevada from 8,138'.
Resume at US 395 Part 9 or Get out of the car (and stop going for the gold)
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