March 24, 2015

Preserving Decay: Exploring the Ghost Town of Bodie, California

Bodie preserved in a state of "arrested decay"

photo by: Alex Browne

Bodie is preserved in a state of "arrested decay" -- meaning everything stays just as it was when the abandoned town was acquired by the state parks department in 1962.

No one comes to Bodie, California, for the gold anymore.

That kind of traffic peaked in the late-19th century, after a mine cave-in in 1875 revealed vast quantities of gold ore. People from all over the world rushed to the high desert town, hoping to strike it rich. And with nearly 10,000 tons of ore extracted from the mine, it was one of the richest gold strikes in California.

By 1879, there were nearly 10,000 people living in Bodie. More than 2,000 buildings dotted the rolling hills: as many as 70 saloons, a bowling alley, dance halls, gambling halls, general stores, hotels, churches, and about 200 restaurants.

Circa 1879, Bodie, California

photo by: Bodie Foundation

At its peak circa 1879, Bodie, California, had a population of nearly 10,000 people and more than 2,000 buildings.

But its heyday didn’t last long. By 1881, the mines were depleted, miners left for new areas, mining companies went bankrupt. There was a boost in production again in the 1890s, a few years after a fire ravaged much of the town. But in 1932, another fire burned all but 10 percent of Bodie, and by the 1940s, it was essentially abandoned. In 1962, what remained of Bodie after that 1932 conflagration was declared a State Historic Park and a National Historic Landmark.

Today, decades later, crowds still flock this remote region of the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, northeast of Yosemite, to visit Bodie. But it’s not gold they seek -- it’s a genuine ghost town experience.

Fourth of July celebrations on Main Street in 1880

photo by: Bodie Foundation

Fourth of July celebrations on Main Street in 1880

When the California Department of Parks and Recreation took over Bodie in 1962, the department initiated a plan to preserve Bodie in a state of “arrested decay.” That is, the town would be kept exactly as it was when the final residents moved away and the town was acquired by the state parks department. The interiors remain just as they were, furniture and other objects left in place. Repairs are made only to the extent that the structures remain looking as they did when they were abandoned -- no improvements or alterations are made.

It’s a delicate balance -- and one made all the more challenging when you consider the snow and high winds that occur at 8,375 feet above sea level. But it’s what keeps Bodie feeling like a step back in time.

“When you come here, you still feel the essence,” says Terri Geissinger, historian, guide, and retail manager with the Bodie Foundation, a nonprofit group that works within the park to raise money to keep the park stabilized and preserved.

Miners in Bodie, California

photo by: Bodie Foundation

Miners flocked to Bodie, California, after a mine cave-in in 1875 revealed huge amounts of gold ore. The Standard Company purchased the mine in 1877.

Today, roughly 200 buildings still exist, including hotels, a jail, the Miners Union Hall, the Methodist church, the Standard Stamp Mill, outhouses, and several houses. Some are partially burned, some are dilapidated. And that’s how they’ll stay.

Visitors can peer inside the buildings. They can walk through one home, the Miller House. Daily tours through the Standard Stamp Mill are offered, which teach visitors how gold was extracted from quartz and turned into bars. There’s a museum and visitor center.

“Bodie is the kind of place that will give you the kind of experience you’re looking for,” Geissinger says. “If you come in the morning, or right before closing, or in [the off-season], you’ll get a more quiet experience. A total ghost town experience. But if you come when it’s busy, you’ll get the feel of what it was like when the town was alive.”

Bodie, California hillside

photo by: Jill Turner Odice

During the summer months, upwards of 1,200 people visit Bodie daily for a non-commercialized ghost town experience.

The Bodie Foundation is currently at work raising money for current and future preservation projects -- like the cemetery, where headstones are in need of stabilization and unmarked graves are being located. The Bodie Foundation is also raising money for the old railroad depot, a newly acquired property in need of stabilization. And, of course, there’s the ongoing Save Bodie campaign, which focuses on making necessary repairs to the most at-risk buildings.

“We need money to keep the stabilization going,” Geissinger says. “As with everything, it’s expensive. It’s hard to get crews up here. We need a lot of help.”

Bodie Foundation worker

photo by: Bodie Foundation

The nonprofit Bodie Foundation is raising funds to stabilize headstones at the town's cemetery and research unmarked graves(top and bottom).

Worker stabilizes headstones in Bodie, California

photo by: Bodie Foundation

Bodie has a dedicated team of people who work to keep it safe and in its state of arrested decay. The state park ranger is on site, and there’s also support staff that lives in Bodie year-round in some of the old houses. (Some are there full-time, others rotate in and out.)

“It is probably the most awesome thing I’ll ever do in my life, besides having my daughter,” Geissinger says. “I’ve been there for 15 years, and it’s really hard to explain. To be able to wake up in the morning and see [what the miners] saw -- the sun coming up over the hills, the sunsets in the evening. It’s amazing.”

Lauren Walser headshot

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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