December 2003 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts



Memories of Bodie Christmas

by Cecile Page Vargo

Oh dusty town of Bodie!
How still we see the lie;
Below thy mines and old stamp mills
The miners ghosts go by;
Yet in thy old board buildings
Creaking with the wind;
The sweat and tears and miners' fears
Are with us at road's end.

How silently, how silently,
Our vehicles drive to!
As we depart from city life,
And wander from the new.
We're searching for the history,
Of the times of old;
We yearn to know about the time,
When men mined your hills for gold.

Oh little town of Bodie,
Arrested in decay!
What were you really like,
In your big heyday?
The bad men and the miners
The women who serviced them;
We can only imagine,
What times were like back then. 

It's Christmas time in Bodie,
The winds howling through old boards,
The snows have drifted to second floors,
No more visitors in hoards.
Park rangers in their snowcats,
The curious on skis and sleds
Are all that left to hear us
"Merry Christmases" are said!


Christmas of 1859, the mining camp that was to become  Bodie was barely a glimmer in the eyes of the few prospectors that had wandered up the hills in search of gold. For Black Taylor, perhaps alone in a tiny cabin on a gulch named after him, it would have been a somber one.  Thoughts of his partner, W. S. Bodey whom he had buried in the deep snow after he collapsed and died in the fierce November blizzards, would have haunted him.  It would be May of the following year, before Taylor was finally able to return to the spot where Bodey had been abandoned.  Scattered bones were all that remained for Taylor to bury in the ground near where they were found.   As more prospectors inhabited the area, it became Bodey’s Diggings, and by July 10, 1860 , the “Body” Mining District was formed.

            In the mid 1860’s Bodie was a typical mining camp, with most of its fifty residents men who were miners.  They lived up on the hill close to the mines.  There were no stores or restaurants.  Supplies were brought in from Monoville or Aurora. One can only imagine the harsh and lonely winters these miners survived. As the mines became prosperous, the population expanded and Bodie slowly grew into a real town. 


             It was not  until 1877, that the post office, telegraph office, and newspaper arrived.  Families and children were common enough to create a school district. The Miners Union was organized and their great hall was built.  The first of what was to become many Christmas parties was held in the hall,  complete with Christmas tree, Santa, and gifts for everyone. The Christmas tree was lit with candles, while men stood by with wet sponges held on long poles, in case of fire.

            The newspaper reported of  LIVELY TIMES IN BODIE: “ Main Street has presented a lively sight during this past week.  The weather has been all that could be asked for, and out of door work has been pushed in every direction.  The stores, shops and saloons have been doing a big trade, especially in the last five days, with nearly $70,000 in miner’s wages circulating around.  Wagons, long trains and stages arriving daily with freight and passengers; interested crowds eagerly discussing the latest strike, or some new discovery; capitalists and prospectors joining forces or driving quick, business-like bargains; the rush and stir of superintendents hurrying their winter supplies to safe and convenient shelter while the favorable weather lasts; all these are the sights and sounds of a prosperous growing mining town, on a solid substantial basis.”


             By 1878, Bodie had become a boomtown, with reports of 3,000 people, 20 saloons, and 2 newspapers. Wood was the most precious commodity, for all the building that was going on, and for heat in the severe winter.   Thousands of board  feet  was on hand in the lumber yards, with more arriving each day.  One man at the south end of town “borrowed”  from a neighbor’s stock pile.  It burnt very well until the giant powder cartridge in the end of the wood went off along with the stove and a section of his cabin roof.  The neighbor was said to be laughing in his sleep as this happened.  Meantime, as the holidays approached, the Miners Union Hall was the site of  an invitational entertainment by 50 young men of  the Bienvenu Club.  Pistol lovers amused themselves  by firing off shots as they stood in the streets.  Families enjoyed Santa’s arrival by sleigh at the Miner’s Union Hall, and children were delighted to receive stockings filled with candy.

            Tragic events reported on December 17th in the Bodie Standard News, with stories of  failing brakes  on a cage holding a car of tools in the Mono Shaft.  Lawrence Sheridan was crushed by the falling cage. 


             As the year 1879 approached,  the population of Bodie soared  to 5,000.  Main  Street was a mile long, and lots were staked all over the hillside. One traveling Grass Valley businessman wrote of  the 47 saloons, 10 faro tables, 2 banking houses,  and 5 wholesale stores that were amongst the “accessories of civilization” that could be found in the Eastern Sierra mining camp.  Three days before Christmas The Daily Bodie Standard reported the population had swollen to 7,000 with no deaths for nearly two weeks, which was good news indeed, as the previous days had been filled with a serious pneumonia outbreak.

            The first snowfalls of December 1879 came a few days before Christmas.  A young store clerk and sports enthusiast saw this as a chance to try out his winter athletic skills at last.  Anxious to apply what he had first learned in a San Jose flower garden, the man donned his new pair of shoes as he stood at one of the mines.  The snow was soft and smooth for the first 100 yards or so as he started the gradual descent towards Main Street , Bodie.   Suddenly, the hill grew steeper, and the snow harder, and the snowshoes decided to take on a mind of their own.  For a couple of hundred yards, the young man traveled at breakneck speeds, and he managed to hold his balance until he came to the stable.  Just as he was to collide in to the stable he made a 25 foot leap and crashed through the roof, nearly scaring the poor resident cow to death.  Upon his rescue, he replied “Too smart, too cunning, and write on my tombstone:  He died in a successful attempt to put a skylight in a cow shed.”

            The night before Christmas of 1879, the Grand Central, Bodie’s finest hostelry, held it’s opening banquet. The men and women of Bodie celebrated with an abundance of food and wine while a quartet played Christmas Carols in the background.  Songs, merriment and dancing went on well into the night.  From there many may have gone on to celebrate the opening of the Noonday Mining Company’s new 30 stamp mill on Christmas Day.  A group of ladies sounded the whistle for a prolonged time as the machinery started up for the first time.  Corks popped, champagne passed around, and toasts were made in celebration.  The week following Christmas snows closed most of the mines in what later became known as “The Great Storm”.  The winter that followed was long and hard, with no traffic able to come in or out of camp for months.  Heating stove wood was guarded carefully, and thieves were fore-warned that giant powder cartridges would be hiding  in their wood piles as they had the year before.


             The Music Hall Roller Skating Rink opened sometime in November of 1881, so it can be imagined that many young and old alike enjoyed roller skating during the month of December.  The Bodie saloons, however lost a bit business, as the unpopular  Sunday  law forced them to close one day a week for the first time in history.  A. I. Weiler kept his cigar store open in spite of the law  and was soon sent to the judge.

Santa Brings A Grandpa

            The San Francisco Call of December 25, 1898 , tells the story of  Christmas Eve in 1889 when two Bodie men traveled through snow falling so thick they could barely see.  They were headed for mining property 28 miles away, and managed to travel for at least 10 miles before being thrown out of the sleigh when  the horses jumped to one side to avoid a man lying in the snow.  Although the man appeared to be dead, efforts to resuscitate him proved successful.  The man had been traveling to Lundy when he became exhausted and had given up in despair He was very distraught, and kept telling his rescuers that he had no friends and would be much better off dead.  The two men pulled him into their sleigh, intending to take him to his original destination which just happened to be on the way to theirs.  With the added weight of an additional passenger the horses moved considerably slower.  At 9PM that evening they found themselves at the junction of the main road and Mill Road , where the George Barnes and his family lived.  Here they were granted permission to spend the night.  Meantime, they watched as Mrs. Barnes decorated the family Christmas tree, after her husband and daughter had retired for the night.  She also cooked supper for her three weary guests, and prepared bed and blankets for them. 

            Early Christmas morning, the two Bodie men watched as the little Barnes girl opened her presents.  The older man, who had been bedded down in the barn for the night, was brought in with the others for breakfast.  The girl intrigued by the old man, began sharing her toys with him.  She showed him a book with her name Jessie Barnes, inscribed in it.  As her father, George walked in, the older man stood up and held out his hand.  “Don’t you know me?” he said.  “If you are the son of Jessie and Richard Barnes, you ought not to have forgotten my face.”  George immediately put his arms around the old man’s neck and called out “Father!”

            It had been twenty years since father and son had seen each other.  George was happy to care for his father in his old age, and little Jessie noted that Santa Claus not only brought lots of presents, but a grandfather, too.

 Winter in the 1930’s

             As time wore on  Bodie went through booms and busts, and a few disastrous fires.  By the 1930’s  little activity was going on in the mining camp, and the few citizens were hoping for better times.  Leasers came in to work the old mining properties and the Standard mill was being used for reducing and extracting gold and silver values.  Those who did  remain spent winters skiing, sleigh riding, and congregating at friends homes.  Preparations began in advance to keep families through the long season.  Arena Bell Lewis’s family would go to Reno before the snow started to buy fruit and salmon for the winter ahead.  Parents would ski great distances to pick a Christmas tree, tie it to their backs and bring it back to the failing mining town of Bodie. 

            In 1936, Mrs. Zady Kriel came home from college for Christmas in Bodie with her parents Clyde and Annis Harvey.  She hopped on the Greyhound bus to Bridgeport and  hitched a ride with the postman on his sled.  A kerosene lantern under a lap robe kept their feet warm, as they traveled through the deep snows to Bodie.   That night in her parents living room, she slept on the guest couch, all toasty and warm with several comforters and an oil stove burning nearby.  A traditional fierce winter storm raged outside.  She watched as snow blew  in the front door keyhole, and spots of frost on the wallpaper marked the nail heads in the walls.

            In 1962 the abandoned town of  Bodie was turned over to the state park system destined  to forever remain in arrested decay for people from all over the world to get a glimpse of the what it once  was, and what it had now become.  The great winter storms arrive most years, preventing anyone but a few ranger caretakers, hearty skiers and snowmobilers and the ghosts of the past from enjoying a Bodie Christmas.


Big Bad Bodie: High Sierra Ghost Town

by James Watson & Doug Brodie

Robert D. Reed Publishers


Bodie Bonanza: The True Story of a Flamboyant Past

by Warren Loose

Exposition Press


Bodie’s Gold: Tall Tales & True History From A California Mining Town

by Marguerite Sprague

University of Nevada Press


Bodie Boom Town-Gold Town !

by Douglas McDonald

Friends of Bodie

Nevada Publications


East of the High Sierra, The Ghost Town of Bodie-A California State Park

by Russ and Anne Johnson

Chalfant Press, Inc.


Mining Camp Days

by Emil W. Billeb

Nevada Publications


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