June 2006 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts




Mojave Expedition (11-12-05) photo gallery--Click the photo to go to the gallery



Burro Schmidt's

Tunnel Update

Burro Schmidt's "Famous Tunnel" now has a group of "friends" trying to preserve and protect the site.   

Click the photo to visit  their Website.



Click on the photo below to read more about Cerro Gordo.

Cerro Gordo now has its own Web site. Click the link below to visit.




The Panamint Breeze is a new publication highlighting the history and legends California and Nevada.  

Click on the logo for details.

Memories of Mono Mills


The Bodie Railway

 by Cecile Page Vargo

          The treeless gold mining town of Bodie , California , boomed in the 1880's, and the demand for lumber was great. Wagons hauled construction timber from the sawmills in Bridgeport and Mono Lake , and enterprising Chinamen on burros packed cordwood to fuel mining machinery and heating stoves.  The town would boast some 10,000 citizens during this time, and the wood couldn't be brought in fast enough to take care of all of their needs, particularly during the harsh winters. In 1881, the Bodie Railway & Lumber Company was created to resolve that problem. A three foot gauge line was built from Bodie to the Mono Saw Mills. A modern visitor to the site at the southern side of Mono Basin would be hard pressed to imagine the railroad shops, lumber mills and logging camps that once stood in the ravine below the historical marker off of modern day highway 120. 

A few old ties remain on the Bodie Railroad right of way. View is looking north to Mono Mills.

The  Saw Mill Operations

          Emil Billeb, was a key player in both Bodie & Mono Mills history. We borrow stories from his book Mining Camp Days to take us back to the early 1900's when these places were still hanging on to life.  He uses newspaper quotes  from a journalist who visited Mono Mills in 1882 to help us picture the actual mill operations during both time periods:

          "The saw mill, being the chief object of interest to a new arrival, the reporter immediately proceeded to inspect the machinery and its general workings. This is a large and well equipped mill - one of the best on the coast. It is located about five miles and a quarter from the bank of the lake in a small ravine. The upper story of the building is on level with the surrounding country, so there is no trouble whatever in rolling the logs into the mill.

          The logs are first passed through the upper and lower saws, which are fifty-four inches in size… There are three other saws in the mill - one being a forty-four inch pony and two cut-off saws…

          The machinery of the mill is propelled by an engine with a sixteen inch cylinder. These saws have a capacity of turning out 80,000 feet of lumber every ten hours…The water supply is brought from springs in a two inch pipe and there is enough for all practical purposes.

          The company's lumber tract embraces 12,000 acres and some of it is covered with immense pine. From the mill site a pretty view can be obtained of the lake and altogether the  location is inviting"  (Weekly Standard News, October 12, 1881 .)

"Please Pass The Turkey "

          In the spring of 1908, Billeb traveled from Tonopah, seven miles by train, 35 miles by Concord stage, to find the once thriving town of Bodie diminished to a population of 300. The Bodie Railroad & Lumber Company was under new management and he was to be the representative. Both the railroad and Mono Saw Mill were in considerable disrepair, and would be refurbished to run much longer than most antiquated operations of it's kind would have.  During Billeb's stay, the days of the "bad man of Bodie"  were gone, but there were still plenty of shenanigans going on amongst those who lived and worked there.. 

          The company saloon at Mono Mills  was operated in connection with the commissary and gambling and drinking provided most of the entertainment. On payday, a good portion of hard earned payroll went to the bar., and the usual liquor induced brawls took place. The liquor business came to it's death, however, after someone was almost killed. Thereafter, potables were smuggled into camp.

          " Turkey " became the password thirsty Mono Mills workers would use for a bottle of bourbon during the company's prohibition period. As he passed through camp on his way to Bishop, one of the men asked the store clerk if he could bring him anything when he came through again. " Turkey " was the clerks reply. It was late at night several days later, when the man returned. The following morning when the clerk asked of he had remembered to bring the "turkey", the man assured him that he had and it was well hidden in the barn. The clerk went to the barn, with thoughts of a good shot of whiskey to whet his whistle. As he opened the barn door, much to his surprise a live bird flew out past him and into a tree. The cuss words must have  flown out of the clerks mouth as fast as the  turkey did!

The Chinese Cooks

          The boarding house at Mono Mills often hired Chinese cooks. One, known as Chan Yee, was known for his drinking abilities, and often became the brunt of practical jokes. He made a point of being the first at the company commissary each morning as it opened, so he could start his day off with a good stiff drink of whiskey.  If Chan didn't get his whiskey there would be no breakfast. One morning as Chan came in for his usual drink, he was poured a large water size glass full by the clerk. Chan gulped down the entire glass, cussing in his native tongue immediately afterwards. The whiskey was vinegar. No one was served breakfast at the boarding house that morning! Yet another morning, following a particularly hard bout of drinking, Chan Yee discovered himself on the wooden floor of the blacksmith shop with his queue stapled to the floor. After much screaming and hollering, help arrived. Chan swore to kill the pranksters, but fortunately for them, he never discovered who they were. Needless to say the boarders at Mono Mills went hungry once again.

          Chinese cook, Tim, spent a summer at the Mono logging operations cooking for the boarding house, also. He got along well with the large crew of loggers, teamsters and others that he had to cook for. By and by complaints started coming to Tom Miller at the Mono Mills store. It seems that all Tim was cooking was stew, and the crew was hankering for something more. An investigation soon revealed that steaks, roasts and other variety of meats were sent to the boarding house, but Tim and his Indian friends were enjoying them instead. His indulgences left him short of good meat for the boarding house so he had been trapping the chipmunks that hung around the stable and plopped them into the stew instead. It was Emil Billeb's job to fire him and hurry him out of the logging camp before he was beaten by the crew.

Indian Pursuit

          A colony of Paiute Indians spent summers at Mono Mills, living in wickiups, and working for the railroad company. Many were good workers, but they enjoyed gambling and drinking. It was common for them to lose their entire paycheck, saddles, and horses at one sitting. They also enjoyed firewater when they could get it. One particularly good workman, would go to a Chinaman in Bodie for dope or hop, when he couldn't get alcohol. If there was no train available he would walk the thirty long track up into the Bodie Hills and into town. Often he got into trouble with the law. On one early morning trek,  as he was being taken by the constable to the Bodie town jail, this Indian managed to break away from the constable. He ran up the hill toward the lumber yard, the law officer following him. As the constable fired a shot at him, the Indian increased his running speed. He sat down and removed his shoes, put them under his arm and headed through the brush on his bare feet. The constable encouraged him on his way with a few more shots.

The Robbery

          Charlie Cease was clerk at the Mono Mills store in 1915. He got to work early one morning to find out that the safe had been broken into and $100 or so in company funds had been stolen from it. The envelopes of funds left by mill workers for safe keeping were untouched. Emil Billeb was called to investigate. He asked Charlie to keep the theft to himself, but to check outside the store near the door for footprints and any other clues he could find. As the clerk did so, the boarding house cook known as "Fat" McLaughlin came for breakfast supplies and asked what Charlie was looking for. Charlie made up a story about a twenty dollar gold piece that had been dropped by one of his customers. Instead of deterring Fat's interest in the what he was doing, it made him more curious. Fat got his supplies and cooked the crews breakfast as usual, but couldn't wait to get back to the store and start looking for the twenty dollar gold piece. He set up a screen similar to one used for mixing mortar, and began shoveling sand against it to sift out the gold piece. He spent a hot day shoveling volcanic pumice and sand, but the more he shoveled it became obvious that there was no coin to be found. Charlie was now afraid that he would be beat by Fat if he told him what he had really been looking for early that morning. No one ever told the cook the truth, and no clues were ever found about the missing company funds. The thief of Mono Mills store got away with his crime, $100 richer for it.

Snow Train Trek

          The route back and forth from Bodie to Mono Mills by train was difficult, particularly in the fall and winter before snows fell and work crews were reduced. In December of 1910 one train took five miles to traverse the 32 miles. This train consisted of an engine with a v-type snowplow on the pilot, a car of fuel wood, and two flat cars loaded with a gasoline engine and other equipment.  On the first day out, a car jumped the track and had to be returned to Mono Mills. The second day, a few miles north of Lime kiln, deep snow drifts slowed travel and it was late afternoon before the high trestle eight miles from Bodie was reached. The train bucked snow which became deeper and deeper the steeper the grade got. At midnight ,  the only car still coupled to the engine started to slide down the side of the canyon, and had to be dropped. 

           The four man crew and two passengers huddled about the boiler of the engine cab to thaw out, as temperatures dipped to twenty below zero. When steam pressure dropped, the engine stopped, and everyone would climb out to clear the track, shovel snow into the tender, and look for ties hidden in the snow that could be used for fuel. Within 10 minutes of leaving the cab, everyone's clothes had frozen stiff.  The engine completely stalled, two hours later, four miles short of the Bodie terminal. From here everyone got out and walked through waist deep snow. It was another three days before the engine would reach the roundhouse. Water and fuel was hauled by sleigh, and additional help was obtained to clear the track.

          Spring time created difficulties for the train as well. As winter ended, the snow would melt during the day, but freeze up again at night. After dark a sleigh load of lumber or wood traveled over the crusted snow easily, but after sunrise  the melting ice crust was impassable. Most early spring deliveries were made between midnight and sunrise.

Ghosts of the Sagebrush

          Today Mono Mills is one of many ghosts of the sage brush in the Mono Basin area. Join us as we discover those ghosts first hand during our Land of Volcanoes tour, June 24-26, 2006, which includes a portion of the Ghost of the Sagebrush tour put on by the Mono Basin Historical Society.  

           For more information, see Terri Geissinger's story below.


Mining Camp Days

by Emil W. Billeb

Howell-North Books

Berkeley , California 1968



Mono Mills to Bodie

 by Robert C. Likes

          Situated in a tranquil setting on the desert side of the Sierra Nevada , Mono Lake has been referred to as “the Dead Sea of America.” This large brackish body of water contains a high percentage of sodium sulphate, two small islands, no marine life, and very little vegetation on its shoreline. The soil of the surrounding terrain is largely volcanic sand and pumice which barely supports the growth of sagebrush, and in places, is devoid of any growth.

          The paradox to this picture is the forests of Jeffrey and lodgepole pine a few miles south of Mono Lake. It is surprising that this country could bear trees, and incredible that they would mature to four feet in diameter. However, the country does, and the trees did, and therein lies the birth of a railroad.

Mono Lake at sunset looking west to the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

          Huddled in the sagebrush-covered mountain, 30 miles north of Mono Lake, was the brawling, boisterous, gold mining town of Bodie, California. With a soaring population of nearly 12,000, the town’s need for lumber to build homes, timber for shoring mines, and wood for fuel was tremendous. teamsters could not begin to meet the enormous appetite Bodie had for consuming wood. The stage was set for the obvious answer to the problem - build a railroad to the large timber stands south of Mono Lake .

Bodie, California as seen from the cemetery.

          The Bodie Railway and Lumber Co. was organized on February 18, 1881, and shortly afterwards, J. T. Oliver surveyed the route from Bodie to the mill site five miles south of Mono Lake.  When completed, the proposed 31.7 miles of roadbed was to descend the 2,000 foot drop in elevation and traverse the alkali flats on the eastern shore of Mono Lake. Thomas Holt, an engineer, was selected to ramrod the project. In addition to this task, Holt was operating a five-ton steamship and several barges on which materials and supplies were transported across Mono Lake to the railroad construction crews.

          While the sawmill was being built, grading for the roadbed was started at the top of Bodie Bluff in May, 1881. With the aid of two switchbacks, many cuts, and a 260-foot trestle, the steep and circuitous grade down to lake elevation was accomplished, and by mid-July, the first 20 miles of roadbed had been graded.

          The first shipment of rails arrived in August, and as they were being spiked into place, the final five miles of grading was completed to the new mill. In all, some 2,00 tons of rails, spikes and other supplies were used. The total cost of the road reached $450,931. In addition, $81,390 was spent for equipment that included 4 engines, 12 service cars, 51 flat cars, and one caboose. The “last spike” was driven on November 14, 1881 , and a two-car lumber train arrived afterwards to officially open the road.

          The following weeks saw the new railway quite active with a scheduled train leaving Bodie each day at 6:30 A.M. and arriving at Mono Mills at 10:00 A.M. The train departed the mill at 2 o’clock each afternoon, and arrived back at Bodie by 6:00 P.M. The ten - to twelve-car train was broken up into three sections prior to the final approach to Bodie in order to negotiate the switchbacks and 3.8% grades. In addition to the problems caused by the sharp turns and steep grades, the rolling stock was not equipped with air rakes. Two brakemen were kept busy hopping from car to car setting the hand brakes whenever the train began to gain momentum. There were many derailments, but no fatalities among the crewmen were ever recorded.

          The southern terminus at Mono Mills, while not a large settlement, was a busy one. There were 200 men employed in the wood and lumber business, and the aroma of fresh sawdust was everywhere. Two large boarding houses and six smaller dwellings were located near the mill. The single store supplied all the necessary goods required by the residents, and was operated by Gilchrist, Sharp & Company, who also had 40 mules packing wood, and two large ox teams hauling lots to the mill.

Remains of structures at Mono Mills today.

          The well equipped mill was one of the best in the state. Located in a small ravine, the second floor was level with the surrounding country so the heavy logs could be easily rolled into the mill where 54 inch circular saws quickly reduced their size. One 44 inch “pony” and two smaller cut off saws completed the task of transforming logs to lumber. The machinery was powered by a steam engine, and water was obtained from springs and transported to the mill by 2-inch pipe. The mill had the capacity for turning out 80,000 board feet every ten hours.  

Drawing of Mono Mills and Bodie RR trackage by Robert C. Likes.

          The greatest portion of Mono Mills output was in cordwood. This relatively poor quality of wood was used as fuel to produce steam power for the hoists and stamp mills at the Bodie mines. This demand kept the flat cars loaded to capacity and helped offset the low yield of only 8,000 board feet per acre for construction lumber. The “last run” of the season was made on January 7, 188, after which the railroad closed down for the winter.

Read More



How Do You Burn 300 Cords of Wood a Day?

 by Terri Geissinger

          Easy. You build a mining town in the 1800’s when steam engines powered everything. Two important elements for steam…wood and water. Bodie had neither. At the height of Bodie’s population and mining production, the town was consuming an impressive amount of wood. In fact, wood became as valuable as the gold. The town that grew to be the second largest city in California in 1880, is located at 8375 feet elevation with not a tree in sight and other then a snow fed creek, not much water either.

          The miners dug deep into Bodie Bluff for gold and silver. The precious rock was brought up out if the mines with huge steam operated hoists. These hoists were fed nine to 12 cords each per day. There were 32 active mines and nearly 60 miles of tunnels underground. Large timbers were needed to shore up the walls of the mines to keep them from caving in. Giant pumps were set in place to keep the water from filling in the deep mines. These impressive pumps could pump 800,000 gallons of water every 24 hours. Each large pump consumed 24 cords of wood per day. Nine powerful stamp mills crushed rock as fine as cinnamon. The fine powder was then introduced to the mercury process where the gold and silver would separate from the waste rock. These stamp mills required lots of wood to operate. The Standard Mill alone used 24 cords a day. Gosh, we haven’t even discussed the 2000 buildings that once stood in the old town. Not to mention the wood needed for cooking and heating. (Last week, the temp. dipped -18...it’s a mild winter).

          Now lets say you lived back in those days and you’re in the business of making money…You might invest in the mines or set up general store, could get into the freighting business, you would certainly do well with a saloon. No matter where you decided to invest your money, there was one commodity that was obvious; every person that lived in that town, or anywhere else for that matter, needed one thing. Wood.

          I imagine it was over a whiskey when the men got together to discuss the idea of acquiring the vast amount of land east of Mono Lake . This group of influential men had names you might recognize today. Yerington, Bliss, Ralston, Haney along with the Cook brothers were among others who would ultimately acquire 12,000 acres of prime timber land. This area was heavily forested with Jeffrey pine. In 1881, this group officially formed the Bodie Railway and Timber Company.

          Mono Mills was completed in August 1881. The powerful mill had state of the art machinery and was larger then the famous mill of Carson& Tahoe and Fluming Company. The capacity of the new mill was estimated to be 15 million feet of lumber and 100,000 cords per year. The sound of the steam engines could be heard for miles as the saws turned out 80,000 feet of lumber every 10 hours. Over 200 men were eventually employed by the company and a settlement was established around the mill. Company boarding houses, management houses, a store and no surprise, a saloon was soon frequented by the employees.

          The first order to complete was the ties for the railroad that would reach 32 miles up to Bodie. The ties measured were six by eight inches and seven feet in length. During the month of September, 29,000 were cut. November 14, 1881 the last spike was driven and the railway was complete. It had cost the company $460,000. The railway consisted of four steam locomotives, 30 flatcars, a tank car and five logging cars.

          As you well imagine, the history of this place is fascinating. The people, the place, the incredible hard work and the investment alone is enough to fill a book or two. If you are interested in learning more about this great place in history, I invite you to join us on June 24, 2006 where we will honor the history of this historic site. The Mono Basin Historical Society is holding its 4th Annual Ghosts of the Sagebrush Tour at Mono Mills. This is a fund raising event to benefit the Schoolhouse Museum in Lee Vining. Because there is so much history to this place we have plenty of help to put this day together. Friends of Bodie, U.S. Forest Service, Friends of Bodie Railway and the Mono Lake Committee will join and co-sponsor this event. Tickets are $15 per person

           For more information contact Terri at Bodie State Historic Park, (760) 647-6445.


Tour Information--REVISED 6/06

We're back on the road again! 

Our 2006 permits are preliminarily approved.

Our LAND OF VOLCANOES tour, June 24-26 is on.

Please click on the photo for tour details.

Please contact us at info@explorehistoricalif.com for additional information or reservations.


Explore Historic California!

     Not too many years ago, the family station wagon was the magic carpet to adventure. Today, that family station wagon is likely to be a four wheel drive sport utility vehicle or pick up truck. SUV's and other 4x4's are one of the best selling classes of vehicles. Ironically, industry statistics show that once purchased, few owners will dare to drive their vehicles off the paved highway. Click your mouse through our website and enjoy our armchair adventures and the histories behind them. If you are interested in taking one of our guided tours with your vehicle, please contact us at: info@explorehistoricalif.com.

     Several years ago, we bought our first SUV. We went to a one-night class at a local community college entitled "How to 4-Wheel Drive" by Harry Lewellyn. The following weekend we attended the hands-on day tour. We liked what we were doing so much that we began going out nearly every weekend and learned how to negotiate a variety of dirt roads. Our spare time was spent doing research on the history and ecology of our favorite areas. A one-day outing turned into 16 years of leading others on mini-vacations throughout Southern California and the Owens Valley.

     Our 4WD outings involve driving on easy to moderate dirt roads and are ideally suited to novice and intermediate level drivers. All tours are suitable for stock vehicles in good condition, although some tours do have vehicle size restrictions.

     Our tours are operated under permits issued by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and other authorities.

     We share our knowledge of the backcountry over the CB radio with our guests. We frequently stop to explore mining areas, old and new, and ponder the rocks, plants and animals we may encounter. We'll occasionally visit an old cabin or deserted mountain lookout.

     California has a fascinating history, from geologic unrest and prehistoric petroglyph scribes to the "Radium Queen of the Mojave" and the "Human Mole of Black Mountain." Load up your 4X, fasten your seatbelts and get ready to explore historic California.

Roger, Cecile and Marty


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