Bodie: Is Anyone Home?

By Gary Anthes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 2, 2005

It seems appropriate that a building in a ghost town should be haunted, and Noella Ballenger insists this one is. It's the former home of Lottie Johl, a Bodie, Calif., prostitute who entertained the town's gold miners in the late 1870s.

Ballenger, a professional photographer who conducts workshops in Bodie, suggests we offer Lottie a greeting as we enter her house. She says we'll suffer unspecified consequences otherwise, so even the skeptics among us say "Hi, Lottie" as we file in.

Ballenger says another workshop leader failed to do that and later discovered on his film a long sequence of blank pictures where images of Lottie's bedroom, kitchen and dining room ought to have been.

You don't have to be superstitious to be moved by the atmosphere in Bodie, billed as the best-preserved ghost town in America. You sense the vibrations in the earth coming from the old stamping mill, where enormous pistons driven by an eight-ton flywheel crushed gold ore around the clock but now are frozen in rust and time. You imagine the voices of little children reading from a board seen dimly through the Green Street schoolhouse window: "O Sam, see the pretty dog! The little dog has had a nap." And you can just about smell the whiskey in the dusty old bottles that still stand on bars and tables in the deserted saloons around town.

"From the very first time I walked in there it was as though I could hear footsteps, like I could hear echoes from the past," says Ballenger, who has been coming to Bodie for 18 years.

Bodie is most haunting at sunset, when a majority of visitors have left, the shadows march up into the high desert hills and the weathered wood buildings glow orange-red. Brad Sturdivant, who has worked at the ghost town 21 years, explains his love of it this way: "It's the remoteness, the quiet, the wind in the streets."

What was once the third-largest population center in California is now Bodie State Historic Park, maintained in "arrested decay" by supervising ranger Sturdivant, two other park rangers and a cadre of volunteers called the Friends of Bodie. The ghost town, sitting at the end of a 12-mile partially paved side road, is easy to overlook on your way to Lake Tahoe, 100 miles north, or to Yosemite National Park, 40 miles west over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It can be crowded on summer weekends, but it's nearly deserted the two weekdays I am there in early October.

Gold was discovered in the area in 1859 by W. S. Bodey (later mysteriously changed to Bodie). He was caught in a blizzard that year and froze to death, but in 1862 a mining camp at the site was established and named after him. A series of gold discoveries resulted in a wave of fortune seekers, and by 1879, miners, occasionally with families, were arriving at the rate of 30 a day.

"Goodbye, God; we are going to Bodie in the morning," a little girl in San Jose, Calif., reportedly wrote in her diary that year. Marguerite Sprague says in the historical account "Bodie's Gold" that the Bodie Standard newspaper replied in an editorial, "All right, pardner, but we have no particular use here for a god that confines himself to the limits of San Jose."

That pretty well sums up the moral climate in Bodie at the time, where every other building seems to have housed a saloon, dance hall, gambling hall, place of prostitution or opium den. Gun duels in the streets, and deaths from them, were common. The Bodie State Historic Park brochure says the town was "second to none for wickedness, bad men and 'the worst climate out of doors'," and it quotes a Rev. F.M. Warrington as calling Bodie in 1881 "a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion."

But Bodie's days of sin, and wealth, were brief. As gold declined, so did the population, falling from 10,000 in 1879 to less than 1,000 by 1900. The population continued to sink, approaching zero in 1942 when the federal government halted what little remained of mining because of the war. Bodie became a state park in 1962 and has been protected ever since.

The people who abandoned Bodie generally left with whatever possessions could be carried in a wagon or a two-wheeled cart pulled by a horse. A great deal stayed behind -- clothes hanging on bedroom walls, dishes on kitchen tables, beer bottles on bars, boxes of gunpowder on store shelves -- where it remains mostly undisturbed today.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company