A Brief History: Summarized from the Full and Accurate Account

Bodie: "The Mines Are Looking Well ..."

By Michael H. Piatt

Bodie consisted of scattered placer diggings, prospect holes, and cabins when J. Ross Browne sketched the district in 1864. Not until the Bunker Hill Mine caved and exposed valuable ore would industrial-scale mining, begun in 1876, spawn bullion shipments and stock dividends that turned Bodie into a gold mining sensation. (The Bodie Bluff Mines. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society)
In 1859 four prospectors discovered gold in a shallow California valley north of Mono Lake, where tales of riches had drawn them from their homes in the Mother Lode region. Joined by other gold hunters they mined briefly, until an unexpected November blizzard overtook the remote mining outpost and killed one of the discoverers. W.S. Body's wintry death gave the diggings its name. The spelling changed when a painter in the nearest town lettered a sign "Bodie Stables," and area residents thought it looked so much better than other phonetic variations that by 1862 "Bodie" had become the district's accepted name.1

Several financially backed companies acquired claims at Bodie, but by 1868 they had abandoned their mines along with the district's first two stamp mills.

Bleak terrain and meager returns prevented even the glimmer of gold from attracting much interest, and Bodie District languished for the next seven years, yielding only enough yellow metal to tempt a few hopeful prospectors and sustain a scattering of destitute miners. Some steadfast inhabitants washed placer gravel, while the most hearty drove tunnels or sunk shafts to follow low-grade quartz veins into the earth. Then in 1875, a mine called the Bunker Hill caved, exposing an ore body that attracted San Francisco speculators. One group of capitalists purchased the claim and organized a company that set up industrial-scale mining. Their gamble paid off. The Standard Company produced $784,523 in gold and silver bullion during 1877 and rewarded stockholders with four consecutive monthly dividends.

Fantastic yields prompted the Standard Company to build this 20-stamp mill in mid-1877. Cordwood stacked at right produced steam that powered the mill's ore-crushing machinery. Sixteen years later, fuel costs and declining ore values inspired the Standard to convert its mill to electric power. The mill burned down in 1898, but was replaced by the Standard mill that survives as a prominent feature at Bodie SHP. (Harry M. Gorham collection. Courtesy, California Historical Society, San Francisco)

The company's good luck sent shock waves through the mining world and attracted hundreds of fortune seekers. The newcomers built a scruffy, ramshackle town while distant speculators organized companies and sold stock to eager investors. Two bonanza veins in the Bodie Mine, followed by the discovery of the incredibly rich Fortuna Lode and the vast Main Standard Ledge, convinced stockholders and hopeful arrivals that opportunity awaited. Based on overoptimistic reporting, everybody believed that Bodie's ore sprang from a colossal vein, similar to the Comstock's Big Bonanza. This lode, experts theorized, stretched two miles from Bodie Bluff, passed through High Peak and Silver Hill, then pinched out somewhere below Queen Bee Hill. Although most Bodie mines had yet to produce profitable ore, investors from San Francisco to New York City poured money into companies that spent with abandon to reach greater depths. By late 1878, twenty-two mines sported expensive steam-powered hoisting machinery to bring riches to the surface, and the booming town's startup newspaper cried: "Ho for Bodie!"2

Syndicate Mill in Bodie
The Syndicate mill crushed 1,000 tons of bonanza ore from the Bodie Mine in 1878, yielding an incredible $601,103 in one month. The results sent a thrill through the mining world. The 20-stamp Syndicate mill, first of Bodie's nine original stamp mills, is seen in 1903 with owner Warren Loose and wife. (Courtesy, Robert T. Bell)

Brash, Bold, Godless, Gold Town
People of all descriptions poured in to Bodie, each hoping to find a fortune. Their excitement gave rise to one of the West's wildest boomtowns, earning the nascent community a reputation for frontier violence that rivaled Tombstone, Deadwood, and Dodge City. "Saloons and gambling hells abound," reported San Francisco's Daily Alta California in June 1879. "There are at least sixty saloons in the place and not a single church."3
Stagecoach on Bodie's Main St. Two crowded stagecoaches halt on boomtown Bodie's bustling Main Street in 1880. "The stages come in loaded with passengers and go out loaded with bullion," reported the Daily Bodie Standard in February 1880. At the height of excitement in July, the Bodie Standard-News remarked, "the population, although estimated, is about 8,000." (Courtesy, California State Library)
Tall tales about "The Bad Man from Bodie" entertained readers nationwide, while seemingly daily stories of stagecoach holdups, shootouts, saloon brawls and other forms of deadly mayhem almost eclipsed reports of developments in the mines. "Goodbye, God; we are going to Bodie ..." was the bedtime prayer of a sweet little San Jose 3-year-old after she learned her family was moving to Bodie. An annoyed Bodie editor retorted that the girl had been misquoted. What she really said was "GOOD. By God we are going to Bodie ..."4 Miners, tradesmen, businessmen, wives and others, some desperate, all hopeful, flooded into the booming town until mid-1880, when residents estimated the population had grown to 7,000 or 8,000 and Main Street stretched more than a mile.5 Bodie also boasted a brass band, two banks, a Chinatown and a red-light district.
The Founder Has His Day
     Bodie's confirmed status as a gold-producing community inspired its historically-minded citizens to wonder about the unfortunate prospector who had succumbed in a snowstorm some 20 years earlier and become the town's namesake. They located his shallow grave and dug up his bones. One area pioneer said the remains were those of W.S. Body from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., but a former partner said he was William S. Bodey. The New York Times printed "Waterman." Historic records, however, say his name was really WAKEMAN S. BODY (sometimes spelled "Bodey"). Despite uncertainty, citizens organized a grand funeral procession and formally interred the bones in the town cemetery. But they failed to mark the new grave and quickly forgot its location.

Continue Bodie History