May 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.

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.

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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’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

We're back on the road again! 

Click on the photo for our preliminary 2006 schedule details.

Thanks to all who joined us on our dirt road travels.

Please contact us at 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:

     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.

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