Gold is a funny thing.
It will drive a human being to live far out on a desolate, arid plateau baked by summer heat, frozen by zero degree winter temperatures and blown apart from vicious blizzards and 100+ mph winds. Keeping warm means lighting a fire with expensive, imported lumber and, due to the gold’s remote location, probably everything (food, liquor, clothing, wood) has to be brought in over a long, dusty trail, making the camp one of the most expensive and dreariest places to live.
All this for an opportunity to strike, gamble, or steal it rich.
Bodie, California started out pretty much like most mining towns. In 1859, a prospecting group that included former New York State resident, W.S. Bodey, found gold in the desolate California wastelands east of Tioga Pass.
By 1876, 30 miners were living in the Bodie mining camp. Four years later, there were 10,000.
Unfortunately, W.S. Bodey never realized the potential of his little mining site as in 1860, he was caught in a blizzard while getting supplies from Mono City, 26 miles away. However, from 1877 to the late 1880s, the town boomed and predictions of it being the next Comstock Lode ran rampant. Yet where Comstock produced almost $400 million in gold and silver ore, Bodie was only able to produce approximately 8% of that payload, or $34 million. Nonetheless, the town did its best to keep up other appearances where rowdy mining life was concerned.
The red light district, complete with brothels, opium and gambling dens, was found at the north end of town and at one time there were approximately 65 saloons to choose from. With nowhere else to go after a hard day’s work but the saloons and brothels, it’s little wonder at least one killing per day was estimated. As a result, the cemetery quickly became filled up with markers commemorating fatal gun, knife or fistfights.
Unfortunately, few of these wooden markers have survived over the decades and those that remain, are mostly stone memorials. Interestingly enough, while Bodie had its own Chinatown, few Chinese, were buried here. Instead, their remains were shipped back to China as soon as possible to be joined with family ancestors on native soil.
One marker seen near the cemetery is dedicated to Rosa May. Rosa May was a prostitute who allegedly helped nurse the sick miners during an epidemic but her line of work did not allow for a burial inside the cemetery gates.
Another sad story concerns Lottie and Eli Johl.
Lottie worked at one of the Bodie brothels and Eli was the town butcher. They fell in love and eventually married, much to proper society’s dismay. As a result, Lottie was never accepted into ‘normal’ social circles and the two lived a comfortable but lonely life without friends on the edge of town. After her death, she was allowed a burial just inside the cemetery gates and Eli built her a magnificent memorial which he decorated in her honor each Memorial Day.
Eventually, as the town slipped further into decline, Eli made the hard decision to move away, leaving his Lottie behind. By 1921, there were 31 people living in Bodie.
By 1940, only 20 remained.
In 1961, the town was designated a National Landmark and in 1962, it became Bodie Historic State Park. During the summer, thousands will make the difficult drive in to visit, making it one of the most well-known ghost towns in the country.
Update: Due to the 2009 California budgetary problems, Bodie is just one of the many state parks scheduled to close and be placed under caretaker status although it appears no date for formal closure has been officially announced on the State Park site.
For a very good idea of just how long it takes to drive from Interstate 395 to Bodie and to understand why the route is typically closed in winter, check out this You Tube video.
• Find A Grave: Bodie Cemetery listings
• Google Books: Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra, Lottie & Eli Johl