Monday, October 23, 2017

Ghosts of the Empty Lands East of the Sierra Nevada: The Town of Bodie

The Matterhorn Crest of the Sierra Nevada from Bridgeport. Bodie is another twenty miles to the east.
Central California is almost literally a "land flowing with milk and honey". The Great Valley (called by those who live elsewhere the Central Valley) is one of the richest agricultural regions on planet Earth, producing most of the nation's nuts, and a significant portion of its vegetables and fruits. And lots of honey, from the bee colonies used to pollinate the crops, and milk from the hundreds of dairy farms. The rich harvest is made possible by the imposing wall of the Sierra Nevada, a 400-mile-long mountain range that wrings out practically all the moisture in the storm systems that roll in from the northwestern Pacific Ocean. It is in so many ways a gentle land where extreme weather events are relatively rare (recent floods and droughts notwithstanding). The fault lines for which California is famous are relatively far to the west, so earthquakes don't often affect the towns and cities of the valley (although the possibility is certainly there).
But...rise above the valley floor and into mountains, and over the crest to the lands beyond to the east, and things change. The storms that bring so much richness to the west slopes are used up by the time they cross the crest, and often all they bring to the east is bitter cold dry winds. The forests, if they exist at all, are scraggly Pinon Pines and Utah Junipers. Most slopes are covered with drought tolerant sagebrush and rabbit brush. The growing season is measured in weeks, not months. Agricultural efforts in a harsh land like this are generally doomed to failure. In fact, the written history of the region is generally one of failure and disaster (the indigenous peoples of this land tell a different story of course; there is a difference between imposing one's will on a landscape versus surviving on the resources available).
In 1848, gold was discovered in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and hundreds of thousands of hopeful people converged on the Mother Lode with their dreams of avarice, or at least dreams of a better life. A few of them got rich, some of them barely got by, and many failed. Many of them walked and rode from Mexico and Central America, others came from the east coast by ship, and some courageous, but perhaps foolhardy people walked across the vast desert between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. Mere survival was the challenge for many of them, and a fair number didn't. Imaginative minds could hear the cries of those lost in the howling winds.
The damage at the top of the brick building was from a 5.7 magnitude earthquake last year. It closed the park for several months.
The Gold Rush lasted for half a decade before the rivers were depleted of their riches, and most of the gold that remained could only be mined by methods that required vast amounts of money from investors. There wasn't much left for the individual prospector to search for, and thousands of hungry miners began to consider the barren lands east of the Sierra Nevada that they had traversed years earlier. Men began to creep back over the Sierra Nevada and began searching the empty lands beyond. As usual, most failed in their efforts, but others found riches. One man managed both. W.S. Bodey found a ledge of gold ore in the barren hills north of Mono Lake in 1859, but before he could enjoy his discovery, he froze to death in the harsh winter. A few others worked the ledges in the years that followed, but it wasn't until 1876 that a truly rich lode was found. Investors were brought in, a series of mines, including the Standard Mine, were established, and by 1880, a town of 10,000 people had risen from the sagebrush. The city was called Bodie (Bodey's name was apparently altered to make the pronunciation clearer).
The town developed a fearsome reputation. In the harsh climate, there were few amenities besides drinking, and deadly conflicts were a constant part of life. One legend stated that a young girl, upon finding that she would be moving there wrote "Goodbye God, I'm going to Bodie" (a town has pride, and an editor for the local paper said the punctuation was wrong; she had actually said "Good, by God, I'm going to Bodie").

The mines were successful for a few decades, producing perhaps 2 million ounces of gold, but by 1913 the Standard Mine shut down, and people drifted away. 2,000 buildings were scattered across the valley, occupied by perhaps a few hundred people. A fire in 1932 destroyed most of the buildings, but 167 of them survived. Concerns about vandalism led to the establishment of Bodie Historical State Park in 1962, and efforts were made to stabilize what buildings remained. What's left is one of the most picturesque ghost towns to be found in the American West. The only residents today are a few rangers, and the ghosts. I'm not usually superstitious, but I would be just a little creeped out living there. I see the signs that say that all visitors must be gone by nightfall, and I wonder...why?
We visited the park at the end of September during our fall field studies trip, and the day was comfortable, not too warm, not too windy, but I found out later that overnight Bodie had been the coldest spot in the entire United States at 16 degrees (the hottest spot at 104 degrees was Death Valley; we were halfway between the two that night). Snow had fallen less than a week earlier, and snow fell again a few days later. And this was the "nice" time of year.
The Standard Mine mill and the once-proposed open pit mine on the hill beyond.

The Bodie Hills are the remains of four stratovolcanoes that were active 8-14 million years ago. Hydrothermal activity around hot springs associated with the volcanism was responsible for the emplacement of the ores. Gold resources certainly remains, and because the gold claims were still valid, efforts were made in the 1990s to mine the hill above the town by way of open pit mining. Millions were expended in exploration and public relations, but eventually the lands were withdrawn from mineral speculation, and the ghosts of Bodie will be able to rest in relative peace.

If you want to visit, information about the park can be found here: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=509.