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The Arrested Decay of Bodie

Updated: Jul 1, 2021

When I first stepped onto Main Street in Bodie, it seemed to me as alive as any small town. After a few minutes I began to see how wrong I was. No one was entering or exiting buildings. The people walking around in the streets were dressed like me—tourists definitely not from these parts.

Indeed, Bodie is a deserted town, a piece of California’s golden past. A town whose population went from 10,000 to a few hundred between the years of 1879 to 1915. Although some gold mining occurred after 1915, the mine was closed for good in 1942 with the US government shut down all nonessential gold mining because of WW2.

Vandalism threatened the town in the 1940’s, but the owners enlisted a caretaker. It wasn’t until the early 1960’s that California designated it as a State Historic Park. Now, more than 200,000 people visit the park each year. That’s 20 times more than Bodie’s peak population.

Bodie is isolated from the main highway. It takes about 20 minutes by car to drive the road from Highway 395 to the entrance. Imagine what it would have taken in 1879. During the gold mining days, there was a railroad, through. I imagine all supplies and most people arrived that way.

The Parks department keeps Bodie in a state of “arrested decay.” They don’t do anything to restore Bodie to its former glory, but they will step in when they see a foundation starting to decay or any other condition that could cause a building to collapse. Although the outside of many buildings look terrific, a peek through the windows dispels any notion of the buildings being habitable. Wallpaper peels off the walls. Furniture and supplies are upturned. Water stains mark the ceilings. Still, there are many intact and interesting things to see inside—pool table, coffee grinders, old tin cans, a doctor's examination table, and so on.

The staff doesn’t enter the buildings, which is unfortunate as the interior windows are dirty, some full of cobwebs. It makes seeing and taking photos a bit of a challenge. But it does add to the ghost town atmosphere.

A few buildings have been restored on the inside, but this is where the Parks staff lives. Windows are covered with opaque curtains. Visitors must be respectful by not stepping onto those porches or trying to peer in those windows.

If you purchase the guide to Bodie when you enter the park, you’ll have all you need to learn the history of most of the buildings. Buildings are numbered, so it is easy to find pertinent information. The Historic Society offers tours for a fee. One of their tours goes into the area where the mine buildings are. Normally, the mine is off limits.

The road into Bodie is quite beautiful. I was happy that I misread the opening time for the park because that caused me to stop along the way to enjoy wildflowers, magnificent views of the Sierra, and a herd of sheep being wrangled by sheep dogs and a shepherd.

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