Mining Firm Strikes a Vein of Concern in Historic Gold Town

Times Staff Writer

Goodby God, I’m going to Bodie. --From 1881 diary of little girl moving with her parents to the"wickedest town in the West.”

Howling winds bellowed down the mountain into town, flapping shingles on weathered homes and stores, tugging at walls and windows with fierce force, hurling dust through empty streets.

Nobody was home. Nobody but a park ranger is ever home in Bodie, abandoned since the 1930s.

Above the town, on Bodie Bluff, the wind had a different sound, a gusty sonorous whine mixed with the unceasing hum of three drilling rigs.


It is the discordant noise from the drilling rigs and the sight of mining equipment and trucks on the hill hovering over Old Bodie that has many people upset.

Ironically, fears are being voiced that this remote Mono County ghost town may be damaged or devastated by the very thing that created it--gold mining--and by the very family that fought to save it for posterity.

Busy Day and Night

Since last September, crews operating exploratory drilling rigs a few hundred feet above town have been busy day and night taking deep core samples. Galactic Resources, a Canadian mining company headquartered in Vancouver, is tracking veins of gold missed in the past, trying to determine whether the deposit is rich enough to mine.

“The mining company should not be here. People are sick about what’s happening. Bodie is in jeopardy. It disrupts the very essence of what the Bodie experience is all about,” lamented Donna Pozzi, 37, chairwoman of Save Bodie, a 6-month-old committee formed by the California State Park Rangers Assn. to protest the mining company’s presence.

The mining firm is doing its exploratory work immediately adjacent to the park, on 550 acres of private land.

A riotous gold camp, Bodie is best remembered for its reputation as the “wickedest town in the West” during its heyday in the 1870s to 1890s.

It was then that most of its 150 surviving structures were erected. The town boasted a population of more than 10,000--the biggest place between Sacramento and Salt Lake City.

Bodie had 65 saloons. It was the home of gunslingers like Three Finger Jack and Johnny Behind the Rocks. Killings, robberies, stage holdups and street fights were part of daily life. The red-light district along Virgin Alley and Maiden Lane and a huge Chinatown were part of the local scene. The Rev. F. M. Warrington wrote in 1881: “Bodie is a sea of sin, lashed by tempests of lust and passion.”

Only a Handful Remained

More than $500 million (today’s value) worth of gold and silver were gouged out of its diggings. By World War I, only a handful of people were left in the “top of the world” mining town, so called because of its 8,300-foot elevation.

The Cain family’s descendants were among the last to leave.

They had been there since J. S. (Jim) Cain, then 25, and his wife, Lile, moved to Bodie in 1879.

Jim Cain brought electricity to the town over the world’s first long-distance power line--13 miles from a hydroelectric plant. He made a fortune building a huge cyanide plant, one of the first of its kind, and extracting gold from the Bodie tailings with it. He wound up owning the town and the 550 acres of Bodie’s diggings when mining ceased and everyone left.

To his dying day, Jim Cain told his children and grandchildren never to sell Bodie Bluff and 9,000-foot-high Standard Hill overlooking the town because “there’s a lot more gold in the mountain waiting to be found.”

This admonition and a love for Bodie became the Cain family legacy.

You can hear it in the reflections of Jim Cain’s 71-year-old grandson, Walter, as he talks about the old one-room Bodie school.

“My desk with my name carved in it is still there,” he said, going on to describe the last days of Bodie.

“It was a three- or four-day wagon trip to the nearest railhead. Miners and their families carried only small items out with them when they left. It was cheaper to buy all new things than to pay the freight to haul their possessions out.”

All through the 1920s, ‘30s and early ‘40s, ghost towns like Bodie stood vacant, abandoned and ignored all over the West. But that quickly changed after World War II when scavengers discovered that there was money to be made on Old West relics. They descended on the old mining camps and carted away everything of value, ripping entire buildings out for timber.

Hired Watchmen

“It started to happen in Bodie. My family hired watchmen to prevent the looting,” Walter Cain recalled. “We realized Bodie was a special place and ought to be preserved as a historic monument. We spent years trying to get the state to set it aside as a park.”

Finally, in 1962, the state paid the Cains $65,000--one-fifth of the appraised value at the time--for the town, the huge mill where ore was crushed, mining equipment, all the buildings and everything in the buildings. Bodie became a state historic park.

But the J. S. Cain Corp., the family-owned firm, held fast to its founder’s admonition never to sell the 550 acres on Bodie Bluff and Standard Hill, convinced that an underground bonanza was there to be tapped.

Several years ago, the Cains leased the 550 acres to Homestake Gold Mining Co. of San Francisco. In 1987, Galactic Resources paid Homestake $31 million for the lease and announced plans to rework the old Bodie diggings if enough gold was found in exploratory tests to make it worthwhile.

The Cains, of course, were guaranteed a share in the riches from any strike.

Widespread Concern

This quest for gold has caused great concern to members of the California State Park Rangers Assn. and hundreds of people who have a special attachment to the unique ghost town tucked away in its hard-to-get-to corner of sparsely populated Mono County.

Walter Cain insisted that the family has been completely up front about its mining plans.

“In our agreement with the state when we sold the town of Bodie it was stipulated that someday mining might be resumed on our property up on the hill. The Parks Department knows that,” he said.

Cain said his family could have torn down Bodie or let others walk away with it but had too much affection for the old town and realized its historical value.

“We certainly don’t want anything detrimental to happen to Bodie because of the mining. We have been assured by Galactic that all the mining will be done on the other side of the hill, out of sight and sound from the park,” Cain said.

Mark Whitehead, 42, chief geologist for Bodie Consolidated Mining Co., a subsidiary of Galactic, has been appearing before groups in Mono County for several months to express the firm’s concerns about Bodie and to offer reassurances that the mining will not harm the old town, the local watershed or wildlife in the area.

‘Historic Treasure’

“I realize the uniqueness of Bodie. I’m a history buff myself,” Whitehead said. “There’s not another place like it. And it is my duty and the obligation of Galactic Resources to make certain nothing detrimental happens to this historic treasure.

“If we decide it is economically feasible to start mining, and we will know by the end of the year, under California’s strict environmental laws we must submit a plan of operation in great detail with Mono County and the Bureau of Land Management,” he said. “There will be public hearings on the matter and we will be seeking the advice of the public and the park before we proceed.”

During the last year, Galactic Resources has staked mining claims on 20,000 acres of additional BLM land surrounding Bodie. That cost Galactic $350,000. The company projects that it will spend $5 million on its exploratory effort this year.

Whitehead said Don Hardesty, a University of Nevada, Reno, professor and widely known authority on the mining history of the West, has been hired to locate and protect historic sites on Standard Hill. Wildlife biologists have been hired to assure the protection of sage grouse, deer, antelope, pika and other birds and animals that might be affected by mining activities.

“There are a dozen historic structures on the Cain property, including the remarkably preserved two-story Bodie Railroad Depot, that we will be glad to present to the park. We want to work with the park every way we can. We would hope visitors to Bodie would also visit our mining operations. We could set up a visitor center in the mining area,” Whitehead said.

Concern Over Open Pit

A major cause of concern is the prospect that the company may dig an open-pit mine. Company officials said that if they choose that option, the pit would be 1,100 feet wide and 2,000 feet long. Mining would continue for 15 or 20 years.

“We realize the public’s concerns because of the special nature of Bodie, but we want to reassure everyone that our mining activity will be invisible to Bodie. We will be out of sight,” Whitehead said. “If we decide to open-pit mine, the hole will not be seen from Bodie. You won’t be able to hear, smell or see any of our mining activities from the town. We’re willing to take out a performance bond to guarantee that.”

Noting that the operation would employ at least 50 miners and perhaps as many as 150, he said, “It will mean a big payroll to Mono County, provide a stable tax base, be a major economic boost to the area,”

During the exploratory phase, the mining company has set in place bales of straw to hide the body of the drilling rigs, but not the masts. They are visible from the town. Other mining equipment and trucks are also hidden by the straw, except when they are moved from one place to another.

Whitehead said that of the 160 sites selected for angle drilling to obtain 550-foot-deep core samples to track veins of gold, half were moved to avoid historic sites. “Any time we encounter a pile of tin cans, broken dishes or an accumulation of square nails, we know a tent or cabin was located there. We flag the site, don’t disturb it and drill at least 100 feet from it,” he said.

Could Taint Town

These assurances notwithstanding, there is growing concern that the search for gold inevitably will taint the vintage ghost town below.

“Nothing here has been restored or faked. Everything is as it was when people walked away from Bodie,” said Jack Shipley, 44, a state park ranger at Bodie for six years. “Noisy modern industry destroys the Bodie experience.”

Shipley’s fellow rangers share his concern.

“For years, we have fought hard to preserve the kind of haunting feeling experienced at Bodie, this unique look into the past,” said Don Murphy, 38, president of the California State Park Rangers Assn., a 25-year-old organization that works to preserve the integrity of state parks. “There is absolutely no place like Bodie on the face of the Earth.

“It’s not just the mining. It’s the whole human experience at Bodie, the hopes, dreams, desires of people, their way of life. This is what got California rolling in the first place. That heritage, all those things are important to preserve.”

The fear is that mining operations will shatter that atmosphere.

“Blasting and heavy equipment on the hill might weaken buildings. I worry about dust, about noise,” said Bob Macomber, 43, superintendent of the Sierra District of the parks department.

Save Bodie Campaign

In the forefront of the fight is the Save Bodie group, which launched a campaign that has prompted organizations throughout the United States to write the Mono County Board of Supervisors urging that no mining permits be granted.

“If the mine opens, there will be car pools, buses, traffic, a trailer village perhaps. I’m very much concerned about the sincerity of Galactic Resources,” Pozzi said.

Mono County Supervisor Bill Reid, a retired California Highway Patrol officer who owns a Bridgeport bar and restaurant, said he is withholding judgment.

“My mind is open,” he said. “The mine at Bodie would be important to our economy. There’s no doubt about it. It would be the third-biggest employer in the county.”

Reid said that he and others who are concerned about the issue are going on a tour of mining operations this month in California and Nevada to weigh environmental and social concerns.

“Let me assure you,” he said, “no one in the county wants to harm the town of Bodie in any way.”

As the dispute goes on, visitors stroll the streets of this time warp in the mountains.

The shelves of the Boone Store are filled with dust-covered products of the 1920s. Spider webs hang from the ceiling.

Across the street in an old hotel a 19th Century pool table sits in the lobby with an inch of dust waiting for players that never show. Like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Swazey Hotel looks like it will fall over any moment.

Coffins covered with dust and spider webs stand open and ready in the windows of the local undertaker.

Like a slice of history frozen in time, the town awaits a verdict.