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Bodie: A Boomtown Gone Bust

In 1859 gold was discovered in the hills north of Mono Lake, and the town of Bodie was born. Owing to its isolation on the eastern side of the Sierras, far from any mountain passes, Bodie grew slowly. Then came the big silver and gold strikes of 1877, and the rush was on. First coined in a young girl’s diary when she found out her family was moving there, the bitter adage “Goodbye God, I’m going to Bodie” was soon heard all over the West.

Bodie’s population had exploded to 10,000 people by 1879, making it one of the largest cities in California. At its peak this bustling Wild West

metropolis boasted over 2,000 buildings including 7 breweries, 65 saloons, a red-light district, and even a Chinatown complete with opium-dens. Bodie was wild. The hard climate (temperatures in the 100s during the summer and 20 feet of snow in the winter) brought in hard people. The volatile atmosphere of money, gold, and liquor, meant murders were a daily occurrence. Bodie had the dubious reputation as one of the roughest towns in the old West.

Like a thousand other old West boomtowns, Bodie’s glory days were short lived. By 1881 the mines began to play out, and Bodie slipped into a long, slow decline. In 1892 a massive fire destroyed half of the tinderbox town in a single day. In 1932 a toddler playing with matches started the second big fire, which claimed all but 10% of the remaining structures.

The mine’s production slowed to a trickle by the 1930s, and the entire town was bought by local merchant and banker J.S. Cain. By WWII Bodie was essentially dead. Empty and untouched for decades, the town was protected by full-time, live-in caretakers until 1962, when it became a State Historic Park.

Hundreds of remote, late-19th century mining boomtowns were scattered all over the west. Most are gone: burned down by vandals, ravaged by antiques collectors and dismantled by salvage operations. Today they’re nothing more than names in books. Thanks to Cain’s caretakers protecting the town through its darkest days, Bodie is the best-preserved, most authentic mining ghost town in the American West. Nearly 200 buildings “held in a state of arrested decay”, are filled with dust-covered merchandise and forgotten possessions, untouched since the 1940s.

All summer long, Bodie swarms with thousands of tourists from around the world. Rental RV's pack the parking lot, a quarter mile from town. The place has taken on a surreal Disneyland artificiality. On my first trip to Bodie (during a family vacation in 1973) we could drive right into the center of town and park. We were the only ones there.

Standing quietly among the elegantly weathered buildings was mind boggling; you could feel time grind to a halt as the wind blew tumbleweeds down Main Street. Untouched and perfect, a ghost town hunters dream. This trip sealed my fate. I became completely fascinated with the realization that places like this occurred all over the West. Since then I’ve visited Bodie many times, and its surreal charms continue to draw me back.

Closed and difficult to gain access to at night, Bodie had remained one of the top locations on my “Someday I have to do night photography in there” list. When the opportunity finally presented itself through a photo workshop, I leapt at the chance.  –Troy Paiva


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