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Bodie brings authenticity to ghost-town tourism

Perhaps the most authentic ghost town in California, old Bodie invites visitors to explore and interpret the past themselves. Preserved in a state of "arrested decay," the 1880s gold- and silver-mining boomtown appears much as it did when the last residents left more than 50 years ago. Thousands of visitors annually take fascinating excursions into yesteryear at Bodie State Historic Park.

Bodie lies east of the Sierra Nevada peaks between U.S. 395 and the California-Nevada border. Watch for the turnoff from U.S. 395 onto Bodie Road, Highway 270, seven miles south of Bridgeport. Bodie lies 13 miles from this turnoff. Paved for the first 10 miles, the road’s last three miles are graded and often rough.

Although the ghost town remains open year-round, most visitors come during the summer and early fall, when the park is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Winter hours are shorter. Bodie’s nearly 8,400-foot elevation makes road conditions chancy when snow begins to fall, often my mid-October. Most winter visitors arrive on snowshoes, skis or snowmobiles. With the spring snow melt, visitors find the road slick and muddy until dry summer weather returns.

The road ends in a parking lot overlooking the old town where 200 structures — about 10 percent of the town at its height — remain. Bodie housed 10,000-12,000 residents during its heyday, then the third largest community in California. Fires sweeping through much of the town in 1892 and 1932 drastically altered the community. Because of declining mine production, many structures consumed by the fires never were rebuilt.

The surviving buildings served the needs of a dwindling population. Because of Bodie’s remote location and the difficulties of transportation, many people packed light when they left. Visitors today look through windows into the past where houses retain original furnishings and stores stock vintage wares.

A former union hall in the center of town now contains a museum with fascinating artifacts and a bookstore. The museum stays open daily from the end of May to Oct. 1, manned by friends of Bodie. One of many California state parks mentioned last year as facing closure in financial hard times, Bodie remains open this year because of the support of city and county authorities and active volunteers who donate their time and fundraising efforts. Studies indicate that the money saved by closing Bodie would be more than offset by the loss of sales tax revenue generated by tourists visiting Bodie and other attractions in the area.

Expect to pay a park entrance fee of $7 for adults and $5 for youngsters ages 6-16. No fee applies to children 5 and younger. Visitors explore the town on self-guided rambles. Join an expert on Bodie history at 10:15 a.m. for a free talk. Inquire about the availability of tours of the town and the stamp mill. Expect to pay a tour fee of $8 for adults and $4 for children. Evening mill tours offered in summer on weekends cost a bit more. Private tours of the town, cemetery and major mining area may be reserved. For tour information, call (760) 647-6445.

Bodie took the name of the prospector who discovered ore in the vicinity in 1859, but changed the spelling. Known as Waterman S. Body or William Bodey, the prospector perished in a winter snowstorm before the year was over. Diggings near the site produced middling results for several years until a mine cave-in uncovered the first good vein of ore in 1875. Miners working the area organized the Bodie Mining District. Many claim holders sold out to larger mining interests in 1877. Between 1877 and 1888, the district produced $35 million in gold and silver.

The town that grew to serve the district drew all elements. Bodie acquired a wicked reputation for its 65 saloons, seamy red light district, festering Chinatown full of opium dens and its high mortality rate. Violent deaths seemed commonplace in Bodie, where on some days, the bell that dolorously tolled the years the deceased had lived sounded continuously. Fenced portions of the town’s cemetery contained the remains of respectable folks who met their ends in normal ways, however tragic. Bodie’s bad element is buried beyond the pale in "boot hill" outside the wrought iron fences.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s column appears on Sundays.

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