American Ruins: A Town Where Decay Itself Is Preserved

At a deli in Bridgeport, I met a man named Mike who was selling meat and beef jerky for $15 a pound. I told him I was on my way to Bodie, the windswept ghost town 15 miles away in the Sierra foothills. I couldn't tell if he was smiling as I said this — his overgrown beard concealed his expression.

"A park ranger stayed there one night, left, and never came back," Mike said. "Nobody knows why. There's something there."

I thanked him, grabbed my bag of ice and beef jerky and headed deeper into the Sierra foothills.

An abandoned and rusted car sits outside a field flanked by historic buildings in Bodie, Calif.
Photographs by Erin Sherbert
An abandoned and rusted car sits outside a field flanked by historic buildings in Bodie, Calif.
Bodie, a town once thriving with wealth and crime, is now thriving in decay, attracting more than 200,000 tourists every year to the ghost town.
Bodie, a town once thriving with wealth and crime, is now thriving in decay, attracting more than 200,000 tourists every year to the ghost town.

I felt drawn to Bodie for the same reasons people are drawn to parts of Detroit or New Orleans — it's American decay. These dilapidated places attract those with a strange desire to see where civilization failed — which then, paradoxically, makes the decay a part of the local economy. It works for Rome and Athens.

But Bodie is an archetypal American ruin.

In 1849, New York native W.S. Bodey left his wife and kids when he got word that there was gold — and lots of it — in California. He landed in San Francisco and, shortly after, stumbled upon one of the most valuable goldstrikes in California. Eventually, one mine would yield more than $15 million in gold and silver over a 25-year span. But he didn't get to enjoy his find; Bodey froze to death later that November after losing his way in a blizzard while getting supplies. His body was found the following spring.

But his discovery was the beginning of the Gold Rush era — right there in the untamed town of Bodie, sitting 8,375 feet above sea level (the spelling was later changed, perhaps because of an illiterate sign painter, so the story goes). By 1877, Bodie was rich; the Standard Gold Mining Company had scored a quality of gold not yet seen by any other Gold Rush town. It became a magnet for miners and families — as well as bandits and desperadoes.

Two years later, 10,000 people had settled in the rolling hills around Bodie. Dance halls, saloons, gambling halls, whorehouses, and opium dens kept the miners intoxicated and entertained. But with drugs and booze came daily murders, gunfights, and stagecoach holdups — real Wild West stuff. Lawlessness was intrinsic to the place, and it became known for the "Bad Men of Bodie," the town's most infamous outlaws, including Washoe Pete, who, as True West magazine wrote in 2007, was a "bluffer" known for his "purty fair shootin'." Once, Bodie was rich in money and crime.

I pulled up to what's left of Bodie. It was crowded for a ghost town. Curious visitors milled around in silence, as if they didn't want to disturb the dead, and shot pictures through the windows of the locked buildings.

As many as 15 park rangers, who watch over Bodie day and night, have taken up permanent residence in the town. They live in the defunct buildings, some that have stood for more than 100 years. There are no commercial businesses operating in Bodie today; there's no place to get gas or grab a quick snack while you tour the site, and there's definitely no place for visitors to stay the night. Unlike other ghost towns, such as Virginia City, Nev., Bodie isn't there to turn a profit. Rather, it's there to serve as a monument to failure. "It's arrested decay," said John Buie, a veteran park ranger. "We try not to do anything [to change] the town." This means maintaining a delicate balance: Repairs are made to the structures only enough to keep them in their current state of disrepair.

Bodie relies almost entirely on donations, meager park fees from the state, and postcard and bottled-water sales at the Bodie museum, the one mark of civilization, situated in the middle of town.

"It's pure history," said Buie, who runs the museum, which is filled with artifacts left behind by Bodie residents, including reading glasses, fans, musical instruments, and a book filled with signatures from miners tracking their per diem pay. "Most Californians know nothing about history until someone tells them, because it's not on their text [messages]. When they come here, they learn a little bit about where everyone came from."

He was right. I was mesmerized as I walked around looking at each of the 200 buildings, which are scattered throughout the town with such irregularity that I never quite felt oriented. Partially charred hotels, isolated saloons, and dilapidated homes and whorehouses lined the dusty roads. The structures are boarded up, but peeking through the windows I saw the remains of a life that once was: faded newspapers on a desk, broken bottles above a bar stool, rocking chairs that had cradled generations of gossipy grandmothers, rotted wallpaper in a child's room, eerie caskets sprawled unevenly throughout the town mortuary, and the occasional lace-up leather boot. Everyday things that Bodie residents and business owners had left behind and never come back to claim.

The attraction of these routine items was more than just historical curiosity. Visitors scrutinized, in every sense, the remnants of Bodie in hopes that they could somehow experience a time and place that was no longer there, even if only for a few hours. But beneath this curiosity was a deeper question about why it had failed.

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In glancing at the headline I thought for sure that it was an article about San Francisco Tenderloin and 6th St.  They are so good at preserving decay in this town.

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