I’m a geek for ruins. So when the last stretch of California State Route 270 turned into an unpaved road, and the gravel under our wheels was making us bob up and down in our seats, I was genuinely bouncing with excitement. Tucked away in these hills, less than 100 miles northeast of Yosemite National Park, is the “official” Gold Rush Ghost Town of California: Bodie.
I’ve seen my fair share of historical ruins and derelict buildings, but in all my years growing up in California, I’d never seen a real life Wild West ghost town. Driving over the final hill, the sight was glorious. The sun shone bright over the surviving houses, which from afar looked like a sparse collection of cabins surrounded by green shrub, unable to conceal the imposing blue mill in the background.
Now the Bodie State Historic Park, it was once a mining town with a peak estimated population of 8,000 during the 1880s. Bodie was named after W.S. Bodey–they spelled his last name wrong, how relatable–who first discovered gold there in 1859 with a group of prospectors, then died in a blizzard less than a year after.
The town experienced a short boom at the end of the 19th century but destruction from fire and the threat of unemployment from failing mines led to the steady abandonment of Bodie up to the 1940s. Only about 5 percent of Bodie still stands, and all that remains is preserved by California State Parks in “arrested decay.” Structures are not improved but only maintained in order to prevent major deterioration, successfully avoiding the dreaded “theme park” vibe.
Bodie showed me what a real ghost town looked like but I had seen something eerily similar before, in the quiet, empty streets of Brooklyn during lockdown. Amid a pandemic, I couldn’t help but think of our own cities experiencing a kind of abandonment. I thought about the exodus from New York, as the coronavirus spread like a fire through our boroughs, leaving our neighbors–often people of color–in mourning, and then denying so many of them their livelihoods.
That ghostly aura was quickly ruined by the fresh cow manure that littered the entire town. While the last person to permanently reside in Bodie was almost 80 years ago, the cow population appears to be thriving. Pro tip: Wear your masks.
Our DIY tour began on one end of the main road, a wide and empty dirt path dotted with crumbling buildings on either side–the type of scene I’d imagine having The Good, the Bad and the Ugly theme playing in the background (which was indeed already playing in my head and felt all the more appropriate with my hat, shades and mask combination). Truth be told, I felt kind of badass.
We went peering into 19th century homes like misplaced millennial bandits. Some interiors, minus the blanket of dust, looked like a glimpse directly into the past–multiplication tables written in chalk on the schoolhouse boards, general store walls stocked with spice jars next to a lone carton of Ghirardelli’s (same recognizable font!), a black-and-white portrait of George Washington overlooking the dining room table. Other places looked completely disheveled–mattresses slowly shriveling on bungled bed frames, living room chairs left upside down, wood planks strewn about the floor–shattering any romanticism.
Armed with one official brochure purchased from the main entrance, we diligently followed the path laid out on the self-guided tour that took us from house to house, teaching us a who’s who of this previously bustling town along the way. Our very first stop, for example, was a home on Green Street belonging to miner Donald McDonnell, his wife Mary, a postmistress, and their son Frank. Down the street, located on the corner of Green Street and Main, was the residence of James Stuart Cain, bigshot business owner and banker. His daughter, Ella M. Cain, became a historian-of-sort, publishing The Story of Bodie in 1956. The Cains practically owned Bodie. Dr. John A. Street of Green Street was a mining company physician who regularly attended to patients of all kinds of afflictions in his home. A house next to the Standard Mill belonged to a superintendent named Theodore Hoover–last name ring a bell? (He was Herbert’s big brother.)
According to the guide, people from foreign lands arrived to make a living in Bodie, too. Teamster Tom Miller was born in Canada–so were blacksmith Frank F. Quinville, assayer Lester E. Bell and miner Andrew P. Cameron. The Menesinis were of Italian heritage. Saloon owner Antone Maestretti and saloonkeeper August Seiler? Both Swiss. Of course, all those stories, and practically every stop on our self-guided tour, centered on white people.
In truth, most of those names didn’t mean much to me. I realized what interested me most about Bodie was what was missing.
A little more than halfway through our self-guided tour, we came to stop 29, labeled Masonic Hall Site/Chinese Laundry (or what we now simply call, laundry). We peeked in through the windows and saw an old washing machine in one room and a decaying ironing board in the other. There wasn’t an explanation for the laundry site nor why it was “Chinese.” Around the corner was the site of the former Bonanza Street at stop 34, and a block over on King Street at stop 35 was a big, empty, weeded patch of overgrowth labeled in our little brochure as Chinatown (site).
As we had deduced from the nothingness that existed before us, there had at one point been a large and lively Chinatown, filled with hundreds of Chinese people–God forbid we validate their existence in brochure guides with names–in close proximity to the town’s red light district on Bonanza Street, also known as Maiden Lane or Virgin Alley. Its location next to Chinatown was perhaps no coincidence, seeing as many young Chinese women were trafficked into prostitution–an unfortunate reality that led to the stereotype and hypersexualization of Asian women. But the circumstances surrounding Chinese migration to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries is hardly acknowledged.
In fact, the lives and contributions of people of color in Bodie (as it generally is in American history) are barely acknowledged, so much so that I didn’t stop to think if any of them really existed when we embarked on the beginning of the tour. Only when the brochure casually mentioned “16 African Americans,” “253 Chinese residents” and “35 native Paiutes,” did I really stop to think of the treasure trove of history lost. While most other stops named names of family members and their occupations living under one roof, the communities of color were reduced to four paragraphs over two stops. Where was the stop for the site of the Taoist temple or one of the alleged opium dens? Where was the stop for the huts of the displaced Paiutes? Where was the (site) for the home of William “Uncle Billy” O’Hara, “one of Bodie’s most well-known African Americans” who ran the Empire Mining Company’s boardhouse?
Aside from Sam Leon, a Chinese bar owner, the house of Paiute woman Rosie McDonald Moose (she was an “optional side trip”), a mention of “Captain Bob” and the story of “Uncle Billy” there was hardly any specificity given to people of color. There was not one word on Tong Sing Wo, whose house labeled on the map still remains amongst the Chinatown ruins, and who I later found out was the largest merchant and most influential man in Bodie’s Chinese community who had dealings with James S. Cain himself. There was no telling of the story of “Ling Loi,” the young Chinese woman allegedly kidnapped, robbed, and held hostage for eight days. There was no mention of E.S. “Black” Taylor, who was part-Cherokee and one of the first miners of the discovery site and knew W.S. Bodey himself. Further research on Bodie’s Chinatown detailed recreational facilities, extravagant New Year celebrations, and large funerals.
While plaques existed at the site of the burned-down bank or the home of the murdered sheriff, there was nothing to truly commemorate the cultural contributions of the Chinese, Native or Black communities, who were discriminated against and primarily served the white overclass. Not to mention a complete erasure of Latinos. There was hardly recognition of the historical context that California (formerly Mexico) had just been formally annexed to the United States, slavery was being abolished, and Black and Chinese laborers were building the railroads. Of course I knew this kind of erasure happened in our documentation of history often, but it nevertheless made me question what kind of narratives I had happily accepted at every historical site I had ever visited.
Why weren’t the stories of people of color worth commemorating? Whose stories do we value now? It irked me that, perhaps, the most exciting and fascinating parts of Bodie’s history had been summarily neglected and whitewashed. The richness of such a place could not only be in the gold ore they found there, but the people memorialized with it. Dedication to the stories of Bodie’s people of color would have only made it richer.