In Search of California Gold Rush Towns

It all started with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill near the northern California town of Coloma.  In 1848, James Marshall, a carpenter working for John Sutter’s sawmill, found some flakes of gold in the South Fork American River while working on providing water-generated power to the lumber mill.   Over the course of several years, more than 300,000 people migrated to California in search of their fortune.  Some were miners, but many others came to support the mining effort through selling supplies, operating stores, banks and hotels, and providing the basic necessities of life.

Placer gold was the most successful form of gold mining early on.  Placer gold was mined by separating out the gold from sand or gravel, often found in streambeds.  It required much less in the way of technology and tools.   The gold and other precious metals were isolated from the sand and gravel using tools as simple as a prospector’s pan to wash out the lighter particles of sand, leaving the heavier gold flakes and nuggets in the pan.  Over the years, methods to improve the extraction of gold from the sand bars were developed such as water powered sluice boxes, and eventually diesel powered dredges!

Lode mining, or hard rock mining, was the other type of mining employed during the gold rush years and beyond.  Lode mining involved tunneling into a mountain or hillside and was much more labor intensive.  Placer gold deposits often originated from one of these *lodes* or veins of gold in rock, and were exposed as a result of erosion from the elements – such as water running over these veins and depositing sand and gravel containing gold into streambeds.  Often times, when placer gold was discovered in a stream, the search for the source of that gold led to the discovery of veins in solid rock.  Lode mining began to really take over as a more industrial way to extract gold when placer gold mining ceased to be productive.

Forgive my over-simplification of the history of gold-mining in California, but I just wanted to give a brief introduction before delving into the really cool stuff!  The old mining towns!!  A superb example of a gold mining boomtown is Bodie, located southeast of Bridgeport, CA.  Bodie is a registered National Historic Landmark as well as a State Historic Landmark.


Bodie 31 Bodie Town signWe are just an hour south of the Bodie State Historic Park, and since I had been recommending this place as a *must see* to our camping guests I figured I should get there myself and check it out!  The town of Bodie was established more than 10 years after the initial gold rush started in California.  This is partly due to the fact that the initial discoveries of gold were on the western side of the Sierras.   When gold discoveries and mining started to decline in production in the western Sierras, people moved on over to the eastern side of the Sierras to try their luck.

In 1859, W.S. Bodey from Poughkeepsie, NY discovered gold in the hills surrounding what was to become the mining boomtown named after him.  He died in a blizzard near the site of the future town before he was able to see the gold industry here come to fruition, but his discovery started the influx of miners to the area.   At the height of the boom in Bodie between 1877-1881, there was estimated to be somewhere between 7,000 – 8,000 residents in the town.  Thirty mines operated in the countryside and 9 different stamp mills processed and extracted the gold from the rock hauled out of the nearby mines.

Bodie had a fairly civilized town population with merchants and miners, a school and several churches – including a Methodist Church still standing and a Catholic Church.

Bodie 28 Methodist Church
Methodist Church

It has been recorded through census reports that Bodie was an extremely diverse community comprised of many ethnic groups and nationalities.  Bodie even had its own Chinatown district where businesses such as general stores, laundries, saloons and boarding houses flourished.



Of course, as with many of these remote mining towns, in its early days, Bodie attracted a rougher element and gained a reputation for being a *wild* place.  It is reported in the history of the town that at one time there were more than 60 saloons and a *red light* district on Bonanza Street – often referred to as Virgin Alley and Maiden Lane!

During its heyday, there were several notable personalities who resided in Bodie.  Theodore Hoover, brother of President Herbert Hoover, was superintendent of the Standard mines for a period of about three years from 1903-1906.  He lived in one of the larger houses next to the Stamp Mill and eventually became head of the Mining and Metallurgy department at Stanford University.

hoover house
Hoover House near Stamp Mill

store front signThe Boone Store and Warehouse was owned and operated by Harvey Boone, a cousin of the legendary Daniel Boone.

Another well-known resident was Patrick Reddy, an aggressive Irish born attorney who represented the labor class.  He eventually became a California State Senator.

Mining continued in Bodie until 1942.  Over the years, gold production dropped and mines closed resulting in a dwindling population.  The onset of World War II also forced the shutdown of all non-essential gold mines due to the War Production Board order L-208.  Mining never resumed and the town was abandoned.

The family of the last and largest landowner in Bodie, James Cain, were concerned about looting and vandalism once the town was deserted.  They hired a caretaker to oversee the town until a better solution was forthcoming. James Stewart Cain

In 1962, the town was purchased by the California State Parks so that the historic buildings and artifacts could be preserved and shared with all.  The town is now maintained in a state of *arrested decay*.   Buildings are repaired to maintain the integrity of the roofs, windows and foundations but are not restored.   The buildings have been left as they were when abandoned.  As a result, you can peer into the windows of the buildings and see furniture, wallpaper, and various artifacts of daily living still present as they were left.  It truly is an eerie experience.

Only about 5 percent of the original buildings still remain.  The missing buildings fell victim to the elements over time, including at least two serious fires that partially destroyed the town.  Legend has it that one of the more serious fires in 1932 was caused by a two-year-old boy who was playing with matches.

We paid the extra money to have a guided tour of the Stamp Mill, which I highly recommend.  Our tour guide was a young man from Gardnerville who had been working for the park giving interpretive tours for just a few months.

Bodie 14 Stamp Mill
Stamp Mill

He did an excellent job of explaining the process used to extract gold from mined quartz and convert it into bullion bars.   He expertly guided us systematically from room to room in order to communicate a clear picture of the step by step process.  It was rather disturbing to hear about the chemical processes later developed to aid in the extraction of the gold.  No OSHA in those days!  Miners were routinely exposed to dangerous chemicals that significantly impacted their lifespan.  Oddly enough as I write this, it is Labor Rights Week 2016!

The stamp mill was originally powered by wood which was an enormous undertaking given the fact that this is the high desert and the town sits above the tree line.   Enormous amounts of wood had to be hauled into Bodie via wagon to fuel the machinery in the mills that produced the gold.

View from Stamp Mill towards town
View towards town from Stamp Mill

In an effort to become more efficient, one superintendent of the mines, Thomas Leggett decided to bring electricity to the mill.  The year was 1893.  The nearest hydroelectric plant was 13 miles away and he is credited with developing one of the first long distance transmission lines of alternating current in the country.  Reportedly, Tesla and General Electric served as consultants for the project.  I was particularly impressed with this historical anecdote.

We caught up with the tour guide later in the day and asked him about his job.  He told us he was one of a number of employees who stayed on site overnight during the days they were working, in several of the houses that were maintained in habitable condition.  In fact, he said he was staying in the very house that used to be owned by one of his ancestors who worked in the mines.

tour guide
Our tour guide

I thought that was really cool, and I could tell that he did too.   He confided to us that after the park closed for the day it was extremely quiet and peaceful.  The park is accessed by an 11-mile winding road with the last 3 miles on *washboard* dirt and gravel (and I can attest to the fact that it is the longest 3 miles you will ever travel!)  You can imagine the remoteness and solitude at night.  I envied him the opportunity to stay overnight in such a special place.  I’ve heard the night sky out there is incredible to experience.

Bodie is reputed to be a ghost town and several evening Ghost Walks are conducted each summer for those interested in experiencing the town at night.  I was chatting with a camper who was in the site next to us last week, and he said that he happened to visit Bodie on a day when it was open for nighttime tours.   He described it as awe-inspiring.  (a little side note – this camper was also a classical guitarist and we were treated to his stunning music each night while he was here in our campground!)

I would like to give credit to the Bodie Foundation and the folks who contributed the historical information for their published walking guide.  Many of the facts I’ve mentioned in this post come directly from this guide, which I highly recommend purchasing for a nominal fee.  The Bodie Foundation is a non-profit organization formed to support the preservation of this unique place.  Bodie has been named California’s Official Gold Rush Ghost Town and the foundation uses the money it collects from the walking guide, the Stamp Mill tours and the on-site museum  gift shop to help fund the protection of the town and  educate the public.

Bodie 27 Jim with saw blade
Jim examining saw blade on mill
Bodie 26 Swallow Nests
Swallow Nests
Bodie 22 Stone Warehouse
Remnants of Moyle Warehouse
Bodie 21 Stone Warehouse and Jail
Moyle Warehouse with Jail in background
Bodie 20 Schoolhouse Bell
Schoolhouse Bell
Bodie 13
Fire Station

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