- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

BODIE, Calif.

Cobwebbed houses and dusty stores dot the landscape in Bodie, an abandoned Wild West outpost high in the California mountains that has been frozen in time.

This eerie collection of about 200 buildings is one of the best examples of the many ghost towns throughout the Western United States, evoking images of an era when prospectors hunted for gold and pistol-packing outlaws roamed the land.

Unlike many ghost towns, however, which have been restored as tourist attractions populated by actors in period attire, Bodie has been preserved effectively by California park authorities for nearly half a century.

Since 1962, when the site was taken over by the state parks service, Bodie has stood unaltered, maintained in what is described by officials and historians as a state of “arrested decay.”

“If something was already falling down in 1962, we let it fall down. If it has started falling down since, we have restored it,” says Charlie Spiller, a maintenance mechanic for California State Parks. He is one of a handful of people who live in the town all year.

Mr. Spiller and his colleagues use photographs taken 45 years ago as their reference point for restoration work, which is carried out under the watchful eye of historians. “They have to approve everything we do,” Mr. Spiller says, strolling past a rusty mining car on one of Bodie’s deserted streets.

Authenticity is paramount whenever a building or artifact needs to be repaired, Mr. Spiller says. When glass window panes needed to be replaced, restoration workers looked to Germany to find an exact match.

“The problem is to keep the town as it is whilst at the same time preventing it from deteriorating,” Mr. Spiller says. That objective becomes particularly challenging when winter sets in, whipping the ghost town with blizzards and blanketing the landscape in snow.

A recent storm destroyed a water tower and several small wooden buildings, most of which were constructed in the 19th century and lack conventional foundations.

Founded in 1859, Bodie was a thriving community of 10,000 people by the 1880s, becoming California’s third most populous city behind San Francisco and Sacramento.

Outlaws, miners, store owners, bounty hunters and prostitutes all were frequent visitors to the town and its many saloons, brothels, gambling halls and opium dens. Shootouts, barroom brawls and stagecoach heists were regular occurrences.

As the gold rush drew to a close, Bodie started dying out. Two devastating fires ravaged the settlement. The second, in 1932, left just about 10 percent of the original town standing.

About 200,000 tourists visit the site each year, drawn by its desolate beauty and haunting atmosphere.

Among the town’s notable landmarks is an old schoolhouse where ancient maps line the walls of classrooms that feature row after row of wooden desks, their inkwells long ago dried up. Just up the street, a grocery store is stocked with tea chests, chocolate boxes and bottles of aspirin.

“Bodie is unique,” says Laird Johnson of the Friends of Bodie association. “There’s no other thing like it. We want to keep it this way. It’s also an essential witness to our recent history.”

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