A History of Bodie, America's Most Notorious Ghost Town

Photo of Deanna Morgado
27 November 2017

Bodie’s story began in 1859, after the major Gold Rush period in California. When four prospectors struck gold in a small valley 75 miles southeast of Lake Tahoe. The prospectors came to this specific part of California, known as the Mother Lode region, in search of the much sought after gold. This small, gold-laden valley and the now developed mining outpost was hit by a violent blizzard shortly after the four prospectors discovered the gold. W.S. Body, one of the four, died as a result from the blizzard. This death gave the freshly settled district its name.

Stroke of Luck

The district’s name’s spelling changed in 1862 when a painter who lived in the next town over wrote a sign that read “Bodie Stables.” When the residents loved the misspelling better than the original “Body,” the district permanently changed it to “Bodie.”

Bodie California Ι | © Christopher Michel/Flickr

The hot boom of gold in Bodie faded almost as quickly as it appeared. In its prime, there were a large number of wealthy companies that had bought claims at Bodie, developing multiple mines and two stamp mills. But by 1868, the financially invested in mines and mills were completely abandoned. It appeared that Bodie had already been nearly bled dry of all gold and the difficult terrain of Bodie didn’t help the oncoming hardship either.

A glimmer of hope remained in a small bunch of prospectors and miners. For seven years, a minimal amount of gold trickled in but that seemed to be enough for the remaining gold hunters in Bodie to stick around. More mines, tunnels, and shafts were dug. Other residents made the little currency they had by washing placer gravel.

Bodie Chapel Ι | © Kevin Utting/Flickr

The luck of Bodie finally struck once again when one of the mines, Bunker Hill, caved in 1875. What could have been the beginning of a huge downfall for Bodie turned into its saving when the mine collapse gave way to a huge body of gold. There was so much of it that word got all the way to San Francisco and a wave of city prospectors flocked to get a piece of what Bodie had.

The exposed gold mine was so prodigious and fruitful that a group of capitalists formed a company in Bodie and bought out the entire claim. The newly formed Standard Company ended up deeply benefiting from this purchase. During the year 1877 Standard was able to produce a whopping $784,523 in both gold and silver bullion.

That would roughly equal over $17.5 million today.

A Boomtown

Bodie became full of new residents and miners. More and more wealthy companies and investors bought shares in this now booming town. All of Bodie and even outsiders became heavily optimistic that this was going to be one of the most prosperous towns in the region. High spending investors from both San Francisco and New York City practically threw money into Bodie in order to dig deeper mines to find what they were sure to be even more gold.

Bodie, California Ι | © Nick/Flickr

Except for the fact that there wasn’t any evidence to show that there was more gold to find… By the near end of 1878, 22 mines were dug with incredibly expensive machines for the search for next big pay day.

Settlers came from all over to Bodie to be a part of the wealth. In a year, the population grew from 7,000 to 8,000 residents. Because of the overflow of people, all on the hunt for gold, Bodie fell victim to becoming quite the violent Wild West boomtown.

The Decline

It didn’t take long for the inevitable in Bodie; a mere couple years after the immaculate growth of the town, the decline began to set in. The expensive machinery used in the multiple mines and mills needed more expensive upkeep and supplies. Hardly any gold was being found anymore. Residents weren’t able to work in a mining town that wasn’t much mining of anything. A few mines that seemed so hopeful just a year or two prior were completely abandoned and the developed companies weren’t coming out with much more than mere silver.

Even before the new year of 1881 people began leaving Bodie, trying to find the next profitable town. The boomtown’s population dwindled and dwindled until it reached a tiny 800.

Bodie, California Ι | © Nick/Flickr

For those 800 people, Bodie had just enough left in it to support them for three more decades; however, barely. While some companies were still able to continue digging their mines, when they would find gold, it was hardly enough for the company, let alone the workers. Finally the digging and mining stopped, proving fruitless.

The already low profit coming into Bodie continued to fluctuate but ultimately it plummeted. Companies tried to cut down on expenses anyway they could, but more residents left. The very first company to form from Bodie’s prime, the Standard Company, gave up in 1913, deeming Bodie depleted of riches. The Standard was the town’s most wealthy mine and company. The remaining handful of companies still open continued the struggle to stay afloat.

Bodie Wheel_fused_BW Ι | © Scrubhiker (USCdyer)/Flickr

The years following Standard’s closing, some hopeful prospectors tried to revive Bodie’s hills and mines, but to no avail. New technology of the 1900s motivated companies to attempt to build Bodie’s economy again. By the time World War II and its hardships hit, barren Bodie was abandoned once again. Not long after, Bodie’s population dropped to zero.

Ghost Town

Residents left whatever they couldn’t carry behind in Bodie. Old shelves in general stores and bars were left stocked, people left furniture and structures all behind.

Bodie California Ι | © Christopher Michel/Flickr

In 1962, it was decided that Bodie would officially become a National Historic Site and a State Historic Park. The town was declared to be in “arrested decay”, which orders the preservation of ruins.

Bodie #2 Ι | © Daniel Chodusov/Flickr

The now completely abandoned Bodie has become one of California’s most preserved ghost town. Travelers can visit Bodie, walk the dirt streets, and explore the preserved ghostly ruins. Visitors will even hear a spooky ghost story or two.

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