Bodie: Unlikely Looking Gold Ground

 (Furnishings left behind in a home at Bodie.)

I'll be perfectly honest with you here. I've seen some pretty unlikely looking placer and lode gold ground in my day, but nothing compares to the area in and around the old mining boom town of Bodie on the east side of California's Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Few Indications

Situated to the east of Highway 395 (the main north/south motor route on the east side of the Sierras) south of Bridgeport, California and north of Mono Lake, Bodie is a real gold mining anomaly in my opinion. About the only other locale I can compare it to is the Cripple Creek District in Colorado. The terrain around Bodie left me scratching my head in puzzlement the first time I laid eyes on it. "Gold? Here at this spot? No way." Even the most seasoned of today's gold prospectors might have walked right past this rich strike because it simply doesn't conform to common preconceptions of what good gold ground should look like. There are no large or stunning ledges or outcrops to grab your attention at Bodie. Few of Ma Nature's geological indications of gold mineralization. Just gently rolling hills covered in high desert grasses and small drought resistant flora with higher peaks shadowing in the distance.

(The terrain around Bodie doesn't exactly scream "Gold!")

All this said, however, there were indications of gold near Bodie. Not all that far from Bodie, right off Highway 395, are the old Dogtown gold placers where it's said the largest placer nugget ever found on the east side of the Sierras was recovered back in the late 1850s. Dogtown wasn't much as far as gold strikes went, the placer gold played out quickly and the living conditions were miserable, so the miners gave up and moved on leaving another ghost town behind them. It's said that after the mini-boom all that were left at Dogtown were packs of feral dogs and the inevitable cemetery. Other small gold placers were worked around the same time as Dogtown at Monoville, south of Bridgeport. So yes, gold was in the general area of Bodie but still far enough away to make the usual prospecting correlations a tough nut to crack.

(You can see the old placer tailings at Dogtown from Highway 395 as you drive south.)

Bodie was a classic case of not judging a book by its cover as far as gold prospecting is concerned. It may not have looked like much, but it was rich gold ground. Very rich indeed. By the time all the mining hooplah was over, it's estimated that the lode gold mines at Bodie could have produced as much as 100 million dollars. A more conservative estimate is 30 million dollars. Either way, that's a shitload of gold, especially when the average per troy ounce at the time was somewhere around $22.00 USD. Later, during the Depression Area 1930s when a few of Bodie's used up mines were reworked, that price rose to $35.00 USD per troy ounce. So let's see...even the conservative estimate of 30 million in production would surpass old King Midas' wealth with $1,000+ per ounce gold prices factored in. We'd not only all be driving Lamborgini's but we'd probably be the new owners of the Lamborghini factory with that kind of folding green in our pockets.

Sometimes it Doesn't Pay to Be Lucky

William S. Bodie was both the luckiest and unluckiest man ever to tread gold ground. In the late 1850s Bodie was drawn to the placer gold strike at Monoville, where he hoped to strike it rich and become a man of substance. Like many would-be Argonauts, Bodie soon found that gold was hard to come by at Monoville and eventually he was reduced to subsistence living. One day in 1859 Bodie was hunting for rabbits to fill the empty, growling pit called his stomach. At the location that would soon bear his name, Bodie ended up trying to dig a wounded rabbit out of the hole it had fled into. What he pulled out instead of the hare was a large quartz rock that in fact, was more gold than quartz. Once the news got out (and it did, one way or the other) the area in and around Bodie's find was soon swarming with prospectors, miners, grifters, thieves, card sharps, whores, and a wide assortment of n'er-do-wells of every description. Thus, the gold boom town of Bodie was born. And what of our erstwhile hero, William S. Bodie? He froze to death while trying to reach his cabin at Bodie (elevation 8,375 feet) during a raging winter storm. Sometimes it doesn't pay to be lucky I guess. Bodie never realized his dream of becoming a wealthy man.

 (Bodie around 1890.)

But others became very wealthy as the years and decades passed. Those who sold their claims to the highest bidders accounted for a small portion of the noveau riche. As always, however, it was the large mining companies financed by already wealthy tycoons who reaped the true benefits of Bodie's gold. Mines like the Bunker Hill where claim owners Pete Essington and Lewis Lockwood struggled mightily for years trying to make a go of things until a cave-in in 1874 exposed nearly $40,000 in gold-laced ore. After cleaning this windfall up and processing it, Essington and Lockwood sold their claim to Standard Consolidated Mines for the princely sum of $65,000 USD and then hightailed it out of Bodie to finally escape the brutally cold winters and the equally brutal summers. Needless to say, Standard Consolidated went on to make millions off the Bunker Hill. Other rich mines at Bodie included the Rifle Club, the Champion, and the aptly named Bonanza.
"A Sea of Sin..."
So where was all that gold at Bodie? It was in narrow quartz veins hidden at times just a few feet beneath those desert grasses and scrubs I mentioned earlier. The gold ores at Bodie were free milling and laden with gold, ores so rich that the big mining company stamp mills ran ceaselessly pounding that quartz to a fine powder and freeing the gold within. After processing, gold ingots were cast and then hauled by freight wagon to cities like San Francisco, a good 36 hours away along bone rattling roads or to Carson City, Nevada where the U.S. Mint transformed some of that gold into quarter, half, and double eagle coins. Ditto for the San Francisco Mint which didn't shut down until 1937.

During its heyday, Bodie was called "A sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion." Not to be outdone by this poetic description, one miner at Bodie called it the "Devil's own play ground with the worst climate out of doors a feller ever could hope for." These descriptions could probably serve well for many gold strikes in the American West and Southwest, but Bodie outranked them all in most regards.

Now the boom town stands silent, a state historical park that remains much as it was during the height of its gold production days. It's said that when the gold finally ran out at Bodie, the last miners, shop owners, and citizens simply left without taking much of anything with them. Stores and shops still had plenty of merchandise on their shelves, whiskey bottles still lined the back walls of bars and saloons, and furnishings were left in place in homes and cabins. I believe this is true. When you tour Bodie (and I recommend you do) you'll soon see that it's probably the best preserved mining ghost town in the West, bar none.

Best to all of you.

(c) Jim Rocha (J.R.) 2015

Questions? E-mail me at


  1. For some reason, as many times as I've traveled on hwy 395; I never took the time to check out Bodie. I prospected in the El Pasos and the Inyos mostly. I guess life is too short to do it all.
    Rattlesnake Jim

  2. I love these old Ghost Towns. The picture or the area looks very much like the area around the Ghost Town of Bannock Montana. It doesn't "scream gold" either. In fact, last time I was there I looked around and asked myself "why here"? It doesn't look like a spot I've been taught to look for. I guess those guys must have tried a few pans anywhere they happened to wander through, if it looked good or not. You have more time riding by with your horse than you do riding by at 60 mph in your truck! There are so many old cabins around, most falling down with little left. I always wonder "why did they take the time to build here?" Homestead, mine camp, line camp for cattle, trapper's cabin, or something else? If only they could talk.......


Post a Comment