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Gold Rush Ghost Town

30 April 2017

A perfectly preserved gold rush town, Bodie in California has been left in a permanent state of stasis, gathering dust after its population upped sticks in search of the next big rush.

Down a dusty, bumpy road, off state highway 395, lies Bodie; a ghost town born out of the gold rush. While this place once boomed – touted for some years as California’s second or third largest town and with a total gold output worth close to US$34 million – it was eventually doomed to a fate typical of the rush. Once the precious metal had been mined, the people left, leaving Bodie in a permanent state of stasis.

“When I was shooting, a number of houses had calendars on the walls from the early 1900s,” says filmmaker, photographer and producer Aya Okawa, who took the pictures.“Now the site is monitored by the California State Park service to protect the historic buildings from looters.” Not all of the town survived but 110 or so structures still stand. Okawa’s pictures show the buildings’ interiors are as originally left, with domestic furniture sitting just as the town’s citizens had arranged them: a perfectly preserved gold rush ghost town.

STRIKING GOLD

WS Bodey was a man of solid reputation living in Poughkeepsie, New York. He was a tin manufacturer with a shop on Main Street but he craved adventure and excitement. In 1848, after hearing of gold being discovered in California, Bodey set sail for the west coast in search of his own fortune. Ten years later, he would find both it and tragedy in equal measure. In 1859, east of Mono Lake, Bodey discovered gold.

It was a find that sparked a rush and birthed a town. Unfortunately, the man the town was named after – the name changing from Bodey to Bodie over time – would never actually get to see it flourish. In November of the same year, while on a supply trip to nearby Monoville, Bodey got lost in a blizzard. When he eventually couldn’t continue, his companion left him to his fate. He froze to death with his body not found until the following spring.

BOOM TIME FOR BODIE

While there was gold in the hills, Bodie still struggled to prosper as nearby towns thrived. It remained more of a mining camp than a bona fide town. But when significant gold-bearing ore was discovered in 1876, it was transformed into a genuine Wild West boomtown. And boy, was it wild.

By 1879 there was a population of nearly 7,000, with a Wells Fargo bank, four volunteer fire companies, several newspapers and a mile long main street boasting 65 saloons. Nights were lively and, after a long day searching for gold, the get-rich-quick prospectors would head into town to the saloons. Murders, shootouts, bar room brawls and stagecoach hold-ups were commonplace. Newspapers later reported that, after a night in Bodie, people would regularly ask: “Have a man for breakfast?” It meant: did anybody get killed last night?

THE GOLD RUNS OUT

Unfortunately for Bodie, as soon as the gold went, so did the majority of the people. Such was a prospector’s life. Mainly single men, when the precious metal went, so did they; off in search of the next boom, the next fortune.

After a steady decline, a 1910 census gave Bodie’s population as just 698 – mainly families who had stayed behind after the rush. In 1912 the last edition of the last local newspaper ran off the presses while 1915 saw the first recorded note of Bodie as a ‘ghost town’ – in an article rebutting the notion – in the San Francisco Chronicle. However, by 1917, the town’s railway has been abandoned and the iron tracks scrapped. By 1920 there were officially just 120 people left, although the town still had a few inhabitants up until 1943.

THE HERITAGE SITE

After suffering from the threat of vandalism in the 1940s, caretakers were sent to look after Bodie by the Cain family, who owned much of the land. It was designated a national historic landmark in 1961 and became Bodie State Historic Park – an official gold rush ghost town – the following year, preserved in a state of arrested decay. It now attracts more than 20,000 visitors a year.

Images: Aya Okawa

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