There are ghost towns where only the crumbling remnants of overgrown foundations remain; there are ghost towns where a few dilapidated buildings remain; and then there is Bodie, California – an entire town lost to the passage of time in the mountains of California. While there are many great ghost towns scattered through the Western United States, I have yet to see one that has the scope and size of Bodie. Moreover, Bodie possesses a certain intangible, elusive quality that these other ghost towns do not. From the moment you enter Bodie, and step onto its streets, you feel not as if the town is dead – but almost as if the town could come back to life at any moment. Even stranger, it feels like Bodie’s inhabitants have just stepped out of their homes, businesses, and the mine into the neighboring mountains, and will be back in just a moment. And, depending on who you talk to in and around Bodie, the reason one has this feeling is because some of its inhabitants never left.
In practical terms, however, Bodie is the quintessential ghost town because of three reasons: 1) its location; 2) its size; 3) its state of “arrested decay”; and 4) the supernatural lore that now surrounds it. At an elevation of 8,379 feet, the town of Bodie is tucked high away in the Bodie Mountains , which is a remote part of California, seventy five miles Southeast of Lake Tahoe. The closest towns to Bodie are Lee Vining, which is located 31 miles to the South, or Bridgeport, which is located twelve miles to the North. Even today, Bodie is a somewhat inaccessible place – the California 270, which connects Bodie to Highway 395 is only accessible during the summer months, and is unpaved for the last three miles to the town. During the winter months, Bodie is only accessible by cross country ski, snowshoe, or snowmobile, but such access can be limited by unpredictable and extreme winter conditions.
Although Bodie was founded in 1859 by a group of prospectors including W.S. Bodey, it did not become a boomtown until 1876, when gold was discovered. By 1880, it had a population of over 7,000 people, and over 2,000 buildings. However, after 1890, the population began to decline as the mines began to produce increasingly smaller amounts of gold. Although a fire burned a fair portion of the town in 1932, several hundred buildings – yes, actual buildings remain. What really makes these structures – and the environs of Bodie the most interesting is how things remain even today. The walls of buildings are mostly intact – although weathered by the passage of time; and many structures still have windows, doors, and look like they could be occupied. Inside these buildings everyday items – cans of food, dishes, beds, chairs, tables, and many more things remain. Outside of the buildings of Bodie, various pieces of machinery – some related to mining, others related to everyday life quietly rust and decompose.
All of these things are preserved in the State Park under the “arrested decay” policy; meaning that they are protected as a matter of law (and supposedly are also protected by supernatural laws as well, which I’ll discuss more below). The reason that the town still has all of these things – mining equipment, personal effects, and various other things is because of something I already discussed: location. Bodie is and has been in a remote location; and when people were forced to leave the town from 1890 onward because of economic difficulty, or other reasons, in most instances, they took only what they could reasonably carry, and left most of their possessions behind. These items have been left behind to face the passage of time, but also provide visitors with many windows into the past as to what life was like – and to what the people were like who resided in Bodie.
If a plethora of ruined buildings in a remote location with personal effects and other knickknacks interspersed within them weren’t enough to convince you that Bodie is the quintessential ghost town, the supernatural lore surrounding the town should. While not everyone can agree whether ghosts exist or not, what everyone can agree on is the history of the town, which clearly establishes that during its heyday, Bodie was a bad, bad place. From 1860-1900, murders, shootouts, barroom brawls, and stagecoach holdups were regular occurrences for Bodie. At that time, Bodie was known more for its lawlessness than for its gold mining, as the phrase “the Bad Men of Bodie” was common. All of these issues say nothing about the facts that mining in the 19th century was inherently dangerous, medicine in the 19th century was speculative at best, and that finally, living in a remote mountain town in the 19th century was just risky on its own.
Today, many people believe that Bodie is one of the most haunted places in California because of the many deaths that occurred in Bodie from disease, mining disasters, and the aforementioned lawlessness that occurred. It is rumored that many of the surviving houses in Bodie has supernatural residents, and it is further rumored that a little ghost girl haunts the cemetery, and other spirits roam the mines and stamp mill. In addition to all of the ghost activity that may or may not exist in Bodie, there is also the purported “BODIE CURSE”. While the origins of the Bodie Curse aren’t well known, the particulars of the curse are well known.
Supposedly, the curse befalls anyone who takes anything from Bodie. For example, if one was to take an old bottle home, a variety of bad things would then later happen to that person: their dog would die, their roof would collapse, their Grandma would get sick, and so on and so forth until the bottle was returned to Bodie. While my example may sound like I am joking about the curse (and I am), this curse is a REAL cultural phenomena! Every year, the Rangers at Bodie receive hundreds of letters – with items and apologies asking that the curse be lifted. Is the town haunted, and is there a curse?
Short answer: I don’t know, and I’ll never know. While I was there, I did ask a Ranger about both of these things, and it was her firm opinion that some of the Ranger residences had “presences”, and she did confirm the flood of mystery items that were returned to the park. In terms of full disclosure, I did not take anything from Bodie – because I don’t break the law – but if you’re at Bodie and you’re not worried about the laws of men and want a souvenir – perhaps you should be worried about supernatural law. (Just kidding).
Directions: Bodie is located off of California Highway 247. As noted above, seasonal closures do affect the road.
Tips: I think the photos – and the descriptions do the area justice, but in case they don’t, be sure to allow a great deal of time to explore the area as there is a lot to see, and photograph.