If you thought those underwater photos of the Titanic were at once haunting and mesmerizing, there's a place on the Eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada that offers you the same time-capsule view of history. Bodie, California, today is one of the country's best preserved ghost towns and gives you the same sense that you have stepped back into a different time and place.
Just as you imagined what life must have been like in those last fateful hours of the Titanic's tragic maiden voyage, a look inside the many remaining buildings at Bodie will stir you to ponder just how life had been during those years back in the 1880s when Bodie was bustling with 10,000 souls.
A trip to Bodie can be taken any time of year as the California State Parks Department keeps the town open as a state historic park even in winter months. But cold-weather visits are for the hearty and the road to Bodie should only be tackled by a four-wheel drive vehicle when weather is questionable. In the coldest winter months, the town may be accessible only by snowmobiles and other over-snow equipment, so the Parks Department advises visitors to call ahead. In summer, those taking a Northern California vacation to Lake Tahoe can also easily stop by Bodie.
With a smattering of snow, our November visit was a little muddy -- but the colder weather seemed to make an even greater impression on us about how difficult life must have been here in the Old West.
In 1859, gold was discovered near this town by Waterman S. Body and townspeople paid homage to Body by naming the town after him with one slight variation: The residents were concerned that Body would be pronounced as it is spelled so they changed the spelling to Bodie.
As mining on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada went into decline, miners crossed the mountains to search for other sources of gold and, soon, with the discovery of such deposits as the famed Comstock Lode at Virginia City, this whole area east of the mountains began to surge with the influx of miners. The town of Bodie hit its peak in about 1880 when the town's population reached 10,000 residents.
By all accounts, it was wild, raucous sort of existence as miners and other residents indulged themselves at the 65 saloons that had sprung up all over town. Killings were said to be an almost daily occurrence. According to the park service, Bodie was also the scene of many robberies, stage holdups and street fights. Along Bonanza Street, Maiden Lane and Virgin Alley, ladies of the night set up a row of one-room cabins called "cribs."
Having read all the stories about Bodie, we were primed to see just what was left of this town and its colorful past. The country road to Bodie is clearly marked on US 395 just south of Bridgeport, and our anticipation grew with each of the 13 winding miles. Along the way we could see in our rearview mirrors the panoramic views of the snowy Sierra range that became more and more spectacular as we climbed closer to Bodie's 8,300-foot elevation.
Then, at the top of the grade and just around a corner, there stood Bodie. From a distance it didn't look like a complete town but rather a lot of random out-buildings spread over a few modest hills. Then, as we came closer, the buildings began to take shape — a church and steeple at the edge of town, a few remarkably well preserved houses, and then a few larger Main Street buildings that looked like they had been built for a Western movie — except this was the real thing. This was a real town where real cowboys had real gunfights.
The parking lot was just at the edge of town and, on this Tuesday morning, deserted except for one other SUV. We were going to have the town to ourselves, adding even more to the "ghostly" feeling we already were getting as we began to explore these buildings one by one.
Maybe it's because we're more accustomed to visiting movie lots and fake western towns, but somehow we weren't quite prepared for our first glimpse into one of these buildings — which happened to be the old Methodist Church. There, covered in a thick layer of dust, were the hand-carved pews, the pulpit and an ornate pipe organ. It seemed that, with just a bit of a scrub down, this church could be ready to host a congregation this coming Sunday.
And that's when the Titanic effect started to kick in. We had come to see the buildings of a town that had its hay day more than a hundred years ago, but somehow we had not realized that this historic park was much more than a set of buildings — many of those buildings are, in fact, mini-museums still housing the artifacts of the day. In some cases, it looks like the residents just got up and left one day, but didn't take anything with them. It was all very eerie, just like seeing those dishes and dolls and chandeliers laying at the bottom of the ocean with the Titanic.
To be sure, the "museums" at Bodie are not pristine. As we peered in the windows of various houses, we noticed most had been ransacked and vandalized to one extent or another. Furniture was torn, wall coverings were ripped, dust and dirt covered everything. It was like coming across an abandoned cabin in the woods that still had furnishings but had been open to the elements and vandals for many years.
Yet there are some buildings at Bodie that have so many furnishings left behind they are virtual antique shops. The Boone Store and Warehouse has shelves packed full of period dry goods — boxes and boxes of various food items as well as medicinal containers of all sizes and shapes. Bottles of this and cans of that are stored in a series of wood box-style shelves right behind a vintage cash register.
The school house still has lessons on the blackboards and rows of wooden desks with books strewn over them. A wood stove is in the center of the room and we could only imagine how important that was to everyday life in a town that can have long stretches of sub-zero temperatures.
Some of the houses still have complete kitchens, with the sink, wood stove, kitchen table and chairs still intact. Dishes from the period again bring back those Titanic-like sensations of stepping into a different time to visualize what life had really been like.
Surprisingly, only about five percent of the original buildings remain in Bodie. Since there are dozens of buildings still standing, one gets the sense that this really was a Sierra boomtown prior to a decline in the local mining business and a devastating fire in 1892.
Helping to complete the picture, the parks department gives visitors a booklet and map that shows where various buildings were once located. While there are just a few buildings left on Main Street, the town at one time had a business area that stretched for a solid mile with one and two-story frame buildings.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Bodie State Historical Park is located along California's Nevada border, near Mono Lake in the part of the Sierra Nevada where you find Mammoth Mountain ski area. Bridgeport and Lee Vining are the closest towns with accommodations, although Bodie is just an hour or so from the many resort facilities at Mammoth. Prices are good and this can end up being a relatively inexpensive California vacation.
WHAT: Bodie State Historical Park is an opportunity to step back into history and see what life was like for those living in California during the late 1800's.
WHEN: Any time of year, although winter visits can be difficult due to deep snow and subzero temperatures. It is recommended to call ahead for weather conditions before visiting. The last three miles of the 13-mile road to Bodie are unpaved. Look for travel packages at local motels during the shoulder season.
WHY: Bodie has been remarkably well preserved, although the furnishings you find in the buildings often have been vandalized or damaged. You can't go in all of the buildings, but there are several open to the public.
HOW: To learn more about Bodie State Historic Park, call 760-647-6445 or visit www.parks.ca.gov. Online, you can also visit www.bodie.com, where the Friends of Bodie offer many more details about the town. If you're looking for cheap vacations, this is it -- it costs $3 per adult to visit the park.
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