Roughest Mining District in the Far West
The California Gold Rush of 1849 brought a flood of prospectors to the Sierra Nevada foothills. Adventurous and searching for ever-bigger strikes, miners soon fanned east into the high desert country of Nevada and California. By the late 1850s, Gold Hill, Virginia City, and Silver City emerged as new bonanzas. Further south, following the forks of the Walker River and smaller creeks that flowed from the Sweetwater Range and Bodie Hills, prospectors chased gold and silver traces to their sources in hard rock veins.
Among the promising mining districts was Bodie, which grew from a fledgling camp in 1859 to a town of 10,000 people within two decades. Isolated at 8,375 feet in elevation, with 20-foot-high snow packs filling local canyons during minus 40-degree F winters, the area appeared an unlikely place for habitation. Rich veins of gold and silver, however, provided a lucrative incentive, quickly attracting every ilk of human being. In the 1881 words of the Rev. F.M. Warrington, Bodie was, "a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion." That lust led to $100 million in gold and silver production between 1861 and 1941.
Lust and passion also fed the wanton level of violence. The "Badman from Bodie" stories paralleled an endless string of murders. Masked gunmen robbed local Wells Fargo stagecoaches, street fighting was a regular sport, and rampant lawlessness ruled the early days of the boom. Hard work in the local mines, coupled with the isolation and solitary nature of prospecting, created an alcohol trade of 65 busy saloons and a long row of well-trafficked bordellos.
Bodie, like Virginia City, survived long enough to attract family life and a range of occupations, from hard rock miners and Chinese laborers to notable bankers, lawyers and merchants who built their reputations and bank accounts at Bodie. Bodie's normal social life included the Miner's Union Hall, which doubled for dances and holiday parties. Constructed in 1878, the hall represented Miners' Union Local 61 of the Western Federation of Miners. Officially organized on December 22, 1877, the local union was among the first in California. Pay ran as high as $4 per day for late 19th- and early 20th-Century union miners. By 1930, a Depression Era non-union miner earned $1 per day at Bodie.
Much like Virginia City, Bodie boasted innovative engineers who advanced technology. Bodie's Standard Company superintendent pioneered the first transmission of hydroelectric power in the world, inspired by a scarcity of local firewood for producing onsite steam power. The invention of cyanide gold extraction from tailings is also attributed to the Bodie Mining District. The process resulted from collaboration between Alex McCone and James S. Cain, owner of the Midnight Mine and, eventually, the Standard Company.
Home to the Rich and FamousLike other booming "camps" of the California Gold Rush and Nevada's Comstock Lode, Bodie attracted the colorful personages of the era. Well known regionally, Mark Twain wrote for the Territorial Enterprise at Virginia City. Few know that he also combed the hills near Aurora, Nevada, a Bodie neighbor, searching for that elusive gold strike.
The famous criminal and cause lawyer, Pat Reddy, was a local legend at Bodie. His clientele often included miners and others who lacked the financial leverage to confront 30 wealthy mine owners. On the other side of labor issues was Theodore Hoover, general manager of the Standard Consolidated Mining Company. After his stint at Bodie, Hoover, the brother of President Herbert Hoover, directed the Stanford University School of Mines. In similar fashion, Adolph Sutro became the Mayor of San Francisco after earning his mark as an engineer at Virginia City. These 19th-Century mining boomtowns, despite their extreme climates and roughness, attracted the world's best engineers, inventors and financial managers.