Arrested Decay: America’s Best Preserved Ghost Town

Bodie sits at the end of a bumpy dirt road not far from the eastern entrance of Yosemite National Park in California. The ghost town is a fraction of what it was in the 1860s, when it sprung into existence after a prospector named William Bodie discovered gold in the hills and the population quickly grew to 10,000.

Remains of the booming gold rush town.

When the gold strikes dried up, people left as quickly as they came. Newspapers and liquor bottles rest on dining room tables. Canned goods and boxes of flour sit on kitchen shelves. Coats hang casually on hooks. Beds were left unmade and chairs overturned as though the residents fled in a hurry, taking with them only what they wore.

Today, close to two hundred buildings remain standing, among them homes, saloons, the church, pharmacy, schoolhouse, and hotel. Visitors who wander the dusty streets and peer into the windows glimpse into eerily preserved lives of a bygone era.

Visitors walk Bodie’s boardwalk.


Schoolhouse science poster

As a state park, the town is protected by rangers, two of whom live in Bodie year round despite the fact that in winter, it’s reachable only by skis or snowshoes. But they have a little help preserving the place: the Bodie curse. A prominent sign at the entrance explains that visitors who opt to take a “souvenir”—say, a rusty nail, a shard of glass, or other artifacts scattered around town—are plagued with misfortunes like car crashes, illness, or financial ruin until the stolen object is returned to its rightful home.

Fresh from having watched the entire series of Deadwood, it was easy to imagine the sorts of lawless carousing that took place in these streets in the town’s heyday. It’s sometimes hard for a historical site to “speak” to visitors without the aid of explanatory placards that I barely take the time to read. Bodie doesn’t have placards. It doesn’t really need them. Its story is told by the artifacts left behind.


4 thoughts on “Arrested Decay: America’s Best Preserved Ghost Town

  1. I’m currently rewatching Deadwood and thought the same thing as I was reading this! Thanks for the lovely, evocative pictures.

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