It put the “wild” in the Wild West. It rivaled infamous towns like Tombstone, Deadwood and Dodge City. It even inspired the phrase “Badman from Bodie” thanks to its lawless reputation.
During its heyday from the 1870s to the 1880s Bodie, California had 31 murders, no less than 60 saloons, many houses of ill repute and lots of gold to fuel the insanity.
One three-year-old little girl supposedly prayed “Good-bye, God; we are going to Bodie in the morning” when she found out her family was moving from San Jose to the infamous gold rush town.
The town’s newspaper editor didn’t miss a beat revising the girl’s prayer. He replied, “We would like to make a slight correction to the punctuation of the above. It should read, ‘GOOD. By God we are going to Bodie in the morning.’ “
I went to Bodie just like that little girl. The difference? I couldn’t wait to get there. Bodie, near the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, is one of the best-preserved, non-commercial ghost towns in the West. It’s chock full of fantastic photo opportunities.
Unlike many Old West towns, Bodie doesn’t sport a single tourist trap or modern convenience (except for the bathrooms near the parking lot). Instead the weathered wooden buildings are in a state of arrested decay.
When California State Parks bought the town from the Cain family in 1962 officials decided to preserve the buildings’ roofs, windows and foundations. They did not, however, restore or reconstruct the buildings. What remains now is about five percent of the original town. But believe me, you won’t run out of things to photograph.
Bodie’s rich gold mining history can be seen as soon as you hop out of the car. This giant wheel from one of the 30 mining companies found in the Bodie Mining District was left to bake in the sun. In the far right of the frame you can see some of the Standard Consolidated Mining Company’s Stamp Mill. The town is peppered with pieces of its mining history.
While only five percent of Bodie still stands, it’s spread over a good distance. The only way to see it is by walking. So I decided to keep the gear light. I took my 16-35mm zoom and a 24-70mm zoom along with my Singh-Ray LB Warming polarizer. The day was warm, so my lighter load paid off in more energy to shoot.
I meandered around town and my mind went into overdrive with photo ideas. Bodie truly is an Old West photographer’s Disney World. It wasn’t long before I stumbled upon a car graveyard. What, you may wonder, was a 1940s era car doing rusting in a 1880s ghost town?
A Little More History
Bodie had a long and colorful saga before it faded into oblivion. W.S. Bodey, a New Yorker, discovered gold in 1859 near what would be the town. Unfortunately for Bodey, he died in a blizzard a couple of months later and never saw the town that would be named for him (although with a slightly different spelling).
Despite its shaky beginning the city did grow as more riches were discovered in the nearby Bodie Hills. In 1875 a big vein of gold ore was exposed and a new gold rush infused life into Bodie. Homes and businesses sprang up at a rapid pace. The rougher element also arrived to give Bodie its infamous reputation. At it’s peak about 8,000 people called the town home.
By the 1900s, Bodie began to decline. In 1932 a terrible fire destroyed a large portion of the town. Many folks packed what they could into their cars and left everything else behind.
Today things are exactly as those folks left it. It’s bizarre to look through the windows and see homes and businesses precisely as they were the day they were abandoned (with a thick layer of dust, of course).
After the fire Bodie slowly became a ghost town. When the last mine shut down in 1942 the town faded away until the California State Parks officials purchased it with the intent to share this gold mine of history with the public.
So that 1940s era car really does fit into Bodie’s history. You’ll see houses and artifacts from the 1870s through the 1940s.
You could spend all day at Bodie. But I opted to spend one afternoon and the next morning shooting. The park’s hours preclude shooting during the golden hours of sunrise and sunset. But shooting late in the afternoon and early the next morning allowed me to capture images of both west and east facing buildings.
Because I visited in the fall, the crowds were smaller. I had no problem getting the shots I wanted. The park rangers were visible and helpful. At the same time I was free to wander and photograph.
The overall building shots are intriguing but don’t overlook the detail photos. I found old truck bumpers, bullet-ridden signs, a giant blade from the sawmill and even a mine car sitting next to the main street. Be sure to peek in the windows of the buildings too for those “just abandoned” inside shots I mentioned earlier.
If You Go
If you decide to visit Bodie you’ll need to know a few things:
- Admission is $10 per car, cash only. You can check the park’s website here for updates on admission and hours. Several times a year you can participate in an evening Ghost Walk. The park stays open until 10 p.m. Get the details here.
- Summer hours run March 18th through October 1st. The park is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Winter hours are November 1st to March 17th. The park is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. You won’t be able to catch the golden hours of sunrise and sunset, but you can still make nice photos if you’re creative.
- Take food and water. If you plan to spend much time at Bodie, you should bring your own provisions. Nothing, other than a water fountain, is available in the park.
- Summers are hot. There are no trees in the park and the sun quickly broils tourists. Dress accordingly. Winters are cold. It’s a wind-swept landscape. Bundle up.
- If you visit during the winter, call 760-647-6445 to find out road conditions first. Roads often close due to snow.
- You must drive 13 miles off U.S. 395 to reach the park. The last three miles are a rough dirt road. Trailers are not recommended.
- During the peak summer tourist season, the streets of Bodie are crowded. You may have to wait for an opening to capture your photo. Bring lots of patience and creativity with you.
- The town of Bridgeport, about seven miles north of the park turn off at State Route 270, is a good place to spend the night and get a meal.
- Dogs are welcome as long as they are leashed and under your control.