Bodie – Photograph a Gold Mining Ghost Town

Bodie Overview

A little girl wrote to the local newspaper about her family’s upcoming move to Bodie, California–the “wildest, toughest town in the West.” She wrote, “Goodbye, God, … I’m going to Bodie.” However, the newspaper headline read, “Good! By God, I’m going to Bodie!”

Many photographers are familiar with the Eastern Sierras from the work of great photographers such as Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell. Their images of the Alabama Hills, the Sierra lakes and peaks, and magnificent Mono Lake with its weird and wonderful tufa formations have made the region a must-see for landscape photographers worldwide.

Bodie State Historic Park, a gold mine in itself, is located in the same area. The town is situated at the bottom of a mountain bowl. The surrounding hills tell a tale of the hard-rock miners who worked the slopes for precious metals in a desperate quest for riches. During its heyday, over ten thousand people lived and worked in Bodie.

Not all of the local folks mined for gold, but they were all present because of it. Bodie boasted saloons and red-light districts. It earned its bad reputation. But bankers, storekeepers and their families were here as well. Numerous hotels and boarding houses crowded the streets.

Cain House

What’s left of the town of Bodie is carefully preserved. Artifacts fill the buildings, because when the gold boom was over, people picked up what they could carry and left the rest of their belongings. They moved on to the next town, the next rainbow, and—hopefully–the next pot of gold.

Photographers can still find that “pot of gold” in Bodie. A pair of spectacles sits on an open book in the Boone Store. A roulette wheel waits for a player. A vacant barber chair beckons to the next customer. The English billiard table that came around the tip of South America by ship and then overland by train and wagon is cued up, and the open coffin in the undertaker’s stands ready for the next shoot-out victim–be it outlaw or lawman.

What are some of the concerns awaiting a visitor or photographer entering Bodie for the first time? At the altitude of eight thousand three hundred feet, maintaining a high energy level is a problem—as is staying hydrated. The air is thin and the sun can be brutal. If you don’t have enough energy, you won’t see well to find your subjects and take your pictures. On my first visit, I carried so much photographic equipment into town from the cars that I was soon exhausted just dragging it around. The worst part was that I had to drag it back to the car.

If you’re going to spend a day in Bodie, take only one camera and one lens with you when you initially enter town. Shoot the exteriors of the buildings. Shoot the textures and patterns you find. Perhaps, in the morning, shoot only the buildings immediately around Green and Main streets. The Bodie Store is here as well as the Wheaton Hollis Hotel. Visit the Bodie Museum and Undertaker’s. Then go back to your car, drink some water, and rest for a bit. The town has been here since the 1880’s; it’ll wait for you.

View Through a Window

Roulette Wheel

Glasses in Boone Store

When you’ve had a break, return to town and enjoy looking into the windows building by building. If possible, join the ranger tour to the Standard Stamp Mill. The experience is worth the trouble. You’ll come back with a greater understanding of how difficult working in the mines and mill really was. Finish your day in Bodie with a walk to the cemetery. The light on the buildings in the afternoon is lovely. Sit near the grave of a young girl and think about what it must have been like living and dying in Bodie. You might be able to decide for yourself if that little girl was saying goodbye to God or if she truly was saying, “Good! By God, I’m going to Bodie!

by Noella Ballenger

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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