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REACH OUT AND TOUCH NO ONE
The Wooden Legacy
Of The Bodie & Benton
by David A. Wright

The Mono Basin. It is a stark, interminable, and a lonesome place. If you dare to wander the few paths east of the lake, compound the above descriptions three-fold; for there the mustang, sagebrush, piercing hush of the silent landscape and the endless azure sky are dominant.

Within man's mind is the ability to forget. The past, lives of men, women, and children of generations long ago; at times tend to be forgotten, especially if that individual is one who sees only the conspicuous and overlooks the subtle. The Mono Basin is ideal for that person. It hides the surreptitious with an everlasting vista that encompasses gentle, pastel lines and coloration. There an individual can be truly solitary. Minimal imprints of man are perceptible: an indistinct dirt road, an infrequent jet trail, and the distant sight of Lee Vining can be easily overlooked in the widespread vista. That panorama sweeps mountains, lake, endless sagebrush, tranquillity, and perhaps some cumulous clouds on a summer day. One may survey the appealing scene and never grasp that there the shadows of a age long ago lay at their feet, concealed. Only the determined explorer will be rewarded with traces of a time not long ago when the Basin was a busy middleman in the affairs of a once industrious city, itself hidden from view; and the supplier of its exigency.

Ramble the eastern region across the lake from what civilization there is. Here the space engulfs, effectively dwindling oneself to infinity. Pressing in all around is the ceaseless sagebrush, profuse, head high or greater. One tends to feel lost, claustrophobic, eagerly looking for landmarks to plot a course. But look, there ... what is that? A gradient of some kind! Is that a timber half buried in it? It appears to be ... yes! It is an old weathered railroad tie! See there! A spike is still embedded in it! Excitedly, your eyes quickly scan ahead, and look! The subtle difference in the shape and color of the sagebrush ... the gradient continues on ... yes! There it goes ... on and on as far as the eye can see! That cannot be a natural phenomenon; no, it has to be man made ... it has to be an old railroad bed! But ... out here?

Surveying this scene, the mind of an ideologue like myself can now evanesce back in time, and with our figurative ears and eyes, hear the sounds and see the apparition of an 0-6-0 Baldwin rumbling along steel rail; steam forcing giant pistons, propelling large rods driving wheels of steel; the lumbering locomotive gently rocking back and forth against worn flanges; its stack pouring forth enormous clouds of smoke and soot; lugging a payload of lumber piled high; all of this energy and motion having taken place a generation ago on top of this very hump.

In the not too distant past, For nearly 40 years; it was not an apparition. It was a verity, part of an era that belonged to our grandfathers and great-grandfathers. The sounds of mechanical and human activity broke the silence and the sky was not so clear. There was ardent life at opposite ends of the Basin. To the north was Bodie. Her stamp mills and humanity pulsed the ground above, while her bedrock below was honeycombed by the quest For gold and silver. Bodie had many needs and vises, but there was two in which she did not have the provisions easily at hand. Bodie liked to smoke. She also needed braces. These were not the human vice and craving, but a sustenance in which her very life depended on. The smoke emitting from her furnaces, boilers, stacks, and chimneys denoted that she was alive. Under her enormous weight, she needed braces to keep her miners safe. But her cupboards did not posses these supplies. Promptly her eyes began to search.

She scrutinized the country to the south, across the Mono Basin, to the abundant stands of pine. There she began to fabricate a small but animated camp to satisfy her, with the accouterments upon which she could grow. The impact of her search reached far into the woods for miles as man harvested the forest, extracting from the ground another sort of gold, that of cherished timber. Her provider was Mono Mills, inaugurated on the edge of the timber storehouse to supply Madame Bodie. The thread that tied these was a dual strand Of 60 pound rail, 32 miles long.

Bodie was ravenous for gold and timber. Without the first, she could not obtain the latter. Gold meant jobs, coin, food, and whiskey. Timber supplied jobs, coin, food, and whiskey; and also provided the necessities of warmth, shelter, and safety. Critical to Bodie's survival, wood assured that she was warm against the winter chill, the stamps to crush the ore would continue to pummel and rock the town 24 hours a day, and underground her miners would be safe.

Bodie had an abundance of gold and silver, but not that of timber. Only the ever present sagebrush enhances her property; and it was no good for anything except to cram into the woodstove in a pinch for warmth. She needed timber for fabricating her houses and businesses, for her woodstoves, to energize her mills, to smelt her ore, to make the labyrinth carved beneath her durable and trustworthy, and to outfit the home.

Early in her life, Chinese and Paiute laborers dispersed throughout the meager stands of pinyon on the lower slopes of the Bodie Hills to bring that compulsory commodity for her to consume. They eked out a gaunt living supplying wooden gold to the people of Bodie, to the professional and the layman. People purchased the wood of this race, but hated their birthright enough to segregate them to their little corner on the fringes of town. Nevertheless these people were industrious men and women, for by the fall of 1878, there lay on the ground over 18,000 cords of wood piled in the pinyon belt on the lower slopes of the Bodie Hills. But as Bodie matured, demand far outgrew the supply; so eyes jealously began to be cast south of Mono Lake to the vast forests of Jeffrey pine.

That was enough cordage to supply the modest little hamlet that Bodie was in her youth; but upon reaching puberty in 1877, her growth escalated so much that she required her adult daily requirement of timber; which increased with each citizen that now suddenly streamed in daily to join the mad frenzy of humanity, trying to cash in on her fabulous wealth. That situation warrants a closer examination as to why Bodie had such an insatiable appetite for wood; in the home, for the home, for the mills, and underground.

 

Feeding a Fresh and Blossoming Bodie

A primary incentive was the construction of Bodie. In the budding days of the camp, before 1865, huts of sod and stone along with a few dugouts satisfied the housing need in the tiny camp. Bodie's growth was stunted then, because her older sister Aurora collared all the devotion. But by 1877, Bodie's growth accelerated. Buildings began to appear at breakneck speed. As a result, this placed a mammoth strain on the dwindling reserve of lumber hauled into the camp. She was desperate for timber to gird her growing bones.

By the next year, most of the old stone and sod dugouts began to disappear to make way for more substantial new buildings of lumber; totaling about 800 by the end of the year. Early 1879 brought another influx of humanity as the first bonanza of Virginia City became borrasca and the excess population headed down to Bodie. The feverish construction boom to house and cater to these people propagated upward of thirty buildings a day. The Daily Standard of September 10th of that year claimed that all this impetuous building produced a total of "fifteen hundred to two thousand in the town proper, and about one thousand on the 'Hill' where are situated the mines."

The consumption of wood not only meant the building of structures, but also the construction of wooden sidewalks, poles upon which were draped wires for the telegraph and later the telephone, fencing, culverts, shoring, and the manufacture of wooden implements such as wagons, cabinets, tubs, and furniture. While Bodie's older sister Aurora declared her adulthood with grand brick buildings; Bodie just consumed more wood. Brick homes and businesses never really caught on in Bodie, and only a few were built.

At the pinnacle of her life, the enormous figure of architecture that she possessed may startle those who gaze upon her now. Two major fires; one in July of 1892, and another in June of 1932; have diminished her to about 10% of her foregoing self during her maturity. Back then, she sprawled throughout the entire valley, even had a suburb of sorts to the southeast; mining structures and dwellings were profuse on Bodie Bluff, Silver Hill, and overflowed into the steppe east of the saddle between them.

Fueling the Home Fires

Next, contemplate wood use in the Bodie home. As in any town, they came in all shapes and sizes, though none had any great opulence like many of her richer neighbors; an example, the great mansions of Virginia City. However the small commonplace laborer's shack, the mine superintendent's house, the merchant's store, and the banker's unpretentious home were all besieged by Bodie weather; a region in which has been described by Mark Twain as possessing but two seasons, "the breaking up of one winter, and the beginning of the next."

Picture in your mind the image of the ordinary Bodie laborer, huddled around a small sheet iron stove; inside his inferior shack, merely a fraction larger than a Sears & Roebuck metal storage shed that may grace your back yard, and about as well insulated. Toss in a cold night, perhaps after a snow storm has departed and frigid air plummets into Bodie Bowl; dropping the mercury to say, -20ļ or so. His little stove will devour a ceaseless supply of firewood, while his little uninsulated shack will first roast, then cool to a refrigerated chill. It is no wonder, then, that he prefers the warm fires of the saloon and the whiskey after a long day down in the mines.

Picture the business owner. He may have a large, cavernous building, with a lofty ceiling. With his woodstove ablaze, he struggle to keep the building warm against the zephyr driven snow as customers wander in and out. Often the door gets left open, and the wind and snow blows in unabated; while the heat obtained by strenuous means, floats out into the arctic world.

The wealthier society, even though their homes were fairly plush; those newspaper stuffed walls did not have copious insulation that is our privilege today. Their stoves were not airtight such as ours may be; and those stoves had a voracious appetite.

Those baroque parlor stoves that we often lust over when seen in the antique shops ravenously gobbled wood when the mercury sank out of sight. The cheap little sheet iron stoves of those of lesser means took less to fill, but gave up heat in a flash; requiring ever more wood to keep the uninsulated shacks tolerable.

Then there was the cook stove. The little lady did not have our contemporary conveniences of instant oatmeal or a box Of Super-Sugar-Frosted-Chocklit-Gut-Bombs to serve for breakfast, nor could she have her husband and kids grab lunch at McFastFood; and then finish off her day by popping in a microwave pizza for dinner. She prepared her family three squares a day, moreover she usually baked other delectables in between. The kitchen stove did double duty by aiding the parlor woodstove in heating the home. She had to chop her own wood. She had to haul it in. And she lit it with paper and match. She was not privileged in turning the knob to ignite coils or flame. That liberty came latter in Bodie history, and then only the wealthier could afford one of those temperamental things in their early stages. Since firing the woodstove was so tedious and the warmth provided by that stove was needed, the missus usually kept it burning around the clock.

 

The Colossal Fire Within Her Heart

Then there were the mills. Those mills ran on power supplied by steam propelled engines of huge proportions. They also ran around the clock. Those boilers required colossal amounts of cordwood to create and keep a head of steam. Even though the use of wood in the home tapered off during the warmer months (though summer nights in Bodie are seldom above freezing), the amount of wood required to run a mill remained constant throughout the year.

The great mills in Bodie's mature years were the Standard, the Syndicate, the Bechtel-Bodie, The Miners, the Standard-Bulwer, the Noonday, the Spaulding, the Silver Hill, and the Bodie Tunnel Company mills. The more stamps they had, the larger the engine needed to run the mill. The larger the engine, the more wood needed to feed it.

Consider for example, the Standard Mill. It had two 54 inch boilers, driving a 125 horsepower steam engine with a 18" bore or cylinder, and a 36" stroke. An average engine of today's automobile displaces about an eighth or less of that. The crankshaft of those giant pistons connect with a large flywheel to keep that cranky device spinning. Compared to the flywheel of a modern V-8 engine that is around two feet in diameter, the Standard's flywheel had an eighteen foot diameter and weighed 17,000 pounds.

The typical mill steam engine ran a variety of objects within the mill. The Standard's engine ran not only the stamps, but also a large lathe, drills, feeders, various heating duties, China pumps; and powered a 2,500 foot long tramway from the mine.

The Noonday mill had an even larger power generating plant, with a 350 horsepower steam engine; requiring three boilers a bit larger than the Standard's. The engine's flywheel weighed 36,000 pounds. Imagine the amount of boiling water heated by wood, needed to generate the required steam, enough to create the energy to spin the equivalent weight of nine Cadillacs at 60 revolutions per minute!

 

Bracing a Leg to Stand On

The ground beneath Bodie was literally perforated through with a maze of tunnels that ran off in every direction. To make these tunnels safe required more timber. For the protection of the miners, these needed bolstering against cave in. To provide the prop, hefty timbers were the favorite means of safeguard. A timbering system developed on the Comstock, called square set, was the favorite system used. This system looked similar to a crate. It used heavy timbers, with upright braces about five feet apart, set the width of the tunnel, and timbers set upon them. These were usually 8"x10" to 12"xl2", and then lined with 2" lumber.

 

What It All Adds Up To

You have doubtless come to the conclusion that Bodie had an insatiable appetite for timber, and that it had to be imported. The pinyon forests of the lower Bodie Hills were not able to supply sufficient cordwood for heating, building, shoring, and the mills in her maturity. The cost of wood and lumber from outside the district was becoming increasingly prohibitive for it to be hauled in. It was clear that a reasonable means of procuring lumber and cordwood was needed -- and soon.

Another problem cropped up too: isolated Bodie wanted to visit distant friends and family. She reasoned that any solution that could satisfy her appetite for wood could also fill her need to mingle.

 

Bring In The Iron Horse!

On February 18, 1881, the Bodie Railway & Lumber Company was organized in San Francisco; its sole purpose in the beginning to deliver wood to the town. The company also had rights cut timber and operate a saw mill. It's principal commanders in surveying and construction were Thomas Holt, superintendent; and J.T. Oliver, who was responsible for the engineering of the Carson & Colorado Railway; which was still under construction at the time. Surveys took a short time. Originally the thought of running the railroad along the western shore of Mono Lake was entertained so that the Lundy district could be serviced.

 

Oh, What A Start!

High hopes in Bodie fueled the desire for expeditious construction of the railroad. Townsfolk happily looked forward to an immediate drop in firewood prices, mill owners could foresee consistency in supply and their prices lowered. But things were changing in Bodie, and the coming of the railroad was just one of them. And some surly ones didn't like it.

Developments were happening that were not immediately noticeable. As happens, the same thing common to all towns whose economy is based on the fickle glitter of precious metals, Bodie's boom was breaking. First to pick up those subtle signals are those who make their living off of others: gamblers, the keepers of the faro and keno tables, prostitutes, and panhandlers. They followed the excited rush to all the boomtowns throughout the west, to ply their trade for a fleeting moment, grab the money, and run. Next to go were the men who are deemed excess employees, their employers realizing that expenditure on their payrolls are eating too big a hole in their profits. Idle hands, they say, make the Devilís heart glad. He must have been delirious manipulating Bodie.

As previously mentioned, some people in Bodie were prejudice against other races and nationalities, and Bodie was a great mixing bowl. Along with those ingredients, there was added others, such as the increasing unemployment, idle troublemakers, abundant liquor, pseudo-patriotism, and hatred. Add all these elements together and whip into a froth. The results was one hot and spicy picnic.

The picnic began with the commencement of railroad construction. Ads began to appear in the newspapers of Thomas Holt offering $1.25 a day and boarding to fabricate the railroad. Being an increasing amount of unemployment in town, a couple of hundred men showed up to take the offer, many of them Chinese. A good miner could make $3 to $4 daily then - if he could find a job - and this wage was insulting to the white men of the gang. Having to work with a Chinaman to boot, well, that was just too much for some prides to bear.

The picnic began to spice up as a mob formed of these hot heads in the night at the Miners Union Hall. Higher wages and the elimination of the Chinese workers was their goal, and as the evening wore on and they became thoroughly "likkered" up, they set out to the construction camps populated by Chinaman to reek havoc. But somebody tipped off the foremen down in the Basin that trouble was brewing and to get the Chinese workers to safety. So, as the picnic got going real good, it got ruined by rain and ants. The mob ran out of the necessary ingredient required to keep the frothy head of rebellious racial hatred. Eventually, they ran out of liquor. The lack of liquor caused the pangs in their bellies to be felt a little more intensely as their once pickled brains sobered up. Everyone left the ruined picnic despondent. (See sidebar article "Trouble Aboard the 'Orient Express"')

 

Pushing Ahead, Over The Edge

The builders could once again get on with the business of building a railroad. The call was put out For men to build it, be they white or Chinese. Any man who showed up at company headquarters requesting a job would have it. Grading began to advance at a breakneck pace. Grading was started at Bodie near the Mono Mine, while other grading teams were spread out at various other points along the proposed route. The smooth plain of the Mono Basin allowed an easy task, and grading went swiftly. Soon rails could be spiked to ties. At that time, a used locomotive was secured from the Eureka & Palisade Railroad in Nevada came in by teams from Hawthorne to be placed in service as a construction locomotive. Ten miles of rail and three additional locomotives were ordered.

But grading in other places was not easily accomplished. There was the plummet that would drop the railroad over two thousand feet into Mono Basin. There the engineers who designed the road had to do their homework to ease the route without steep grades and sharp curves. A locomotive climbing up the grade just cannot drop it in low gear and let horsepower do its job in lugging the load uphill. With a train heading downhill, the engineer just does not rest his foot lightly on a brake pedal with power boosting while easily maintaining a safe speed. The designers of the route had to shrink-fit that ribbon of steel, molding it to each sagebrush covered contour that would ease it on down to the plain below. And that required some tricks up their sleeve, such as trestles, twists, and a pair of switchbacks.

Other groups of workers were busy grading roads into the woods in search of the big trees to supply Bodie's appetite. And the cornerstone for the planned mill of exceptional proportions was laid. The planned mill and community of Mono Mills was instrumental, for it would Feed the activity of railroad building and feed Bodie's insatiable appetite combined.

Red Light, Green Light

Each mile of rail also required 352 rails, each thirty Feet long. During this era in history, there were shortages of steel and iron. Railroads were still a novel mode of transportation, the only rapid transit system available. Especially in the west, where towns popped up like spring wildflowers, railroad magnates jumped at the opportunity to be the first to serve each thriving community with steel wheels. However, this newfangled method of travel was being fabricated at such a tremendous pace all over the country, that the steel was being gobbled up faster than it was produced.

Some little unknown corporation building a railroad out West just couldnít get any consideration over the Crocker's and Hunnington's, who were sinking their steel roots into the American soil and spreading iron branches across the American landscape. Imagine the finagling that Mr. Holt must have had to do to acquire the rail necessary to complete merely the mainline to the woods, let alone enough for spurs, sidings, and any attempt at connecting with the outside world. This was in an age before telephones and FAX'S. A mad rush across town to telegraph a message to manufacturers often resulted in a negative response. Imagine the stress he must have felt upon hearing word that a shipload of rail bound for the layers sink in transit, only a quick plea to borrow from the Central Pacific and the Carson & Colorado (which was at that time only partially constructed) resulted in enough rail to edge a little closer to the timber stands. Even though the big mill down at Mono Mills was pumping out plenty of wood ties and the graders were finished with their jobs, the task of spiking rails to those ties was subject to numerous delays.

 

At Last! A Railroad ... Sort Of

Yet eventually project began to flesh out, and though the road was not quite complete, there was enough rail on the ground for a locomotive to make the trip from Bodie to Mono Mills, 31.74 miles by steel ribbon away. An event like that was not overlooked by the newspapers, and the description of the railroad was vividly given by the Weekly Standard-News of August 10 and October 12, 1881. Its description gives us some insight of the job that was tackled in this land of basin and range: "The train started about half past nine a.m. and was soon winding about among the hills on its way to the valley below. The constant changes of scene and variety of views render this part of the route quite picturesque." The grade as it began to make its drop over the side of the Bodie Hills was ... "very steep ... many turns that are made around the hills ..." dropping the railroad two hundred feet to the mile, for a gradient of 3.8%, steep by railroad standards. As the reporter continued on, he came upon "... the first switchback and about a mile and a half further is the second and only other one on the road. Between these two points trains have to be backed both going down and coming up. Two miles beyond by the-railroad rout, and only three quarters of a mile direct, there was a great deal of heavy work done. Deep cuts had to be made in many places and considerable filling had to be done .... A trestle work was built 260 feet in length and 50 feet deep ..." (see sidebar article "The Switchback")

When the train was safely down on the basin floor, he noted that "Mono Lake soon came in view with its solitary islands and its mountain-ringed basin ... The Lime Kiln station is at the bottom of the grade twelve miles From Bodie and twenty and one-half from the Mills ... From this point on, the track runs over a comparatively level plain ... About five miles from the Mills is a station ... at which are the Warm Springs. Here the little steamboat Rocket [the same one used to transport the Chinese to safety on Paoha Island] has been hauled up on shore... In ten miles and a quarter the timber is reached and the sweet odor of pine and the aroma of fresh sawdust reminds that he is a long way from Bodie. Here everything is life and activity and quite a little town has sprung up."

November 8, 1881 was a notable day for Bodie. For the first time the sound of a locomotive whistle was heard in downtown Bodie. It caused a hush in town among the townspeople, but scared horses silly. One team with a wagon took off careening all over town, causing people to dive for cover into stores and saloons.

The last spike of the main line (there were still no sidings or spur tracks because of the rail shortage) was driven at 3pm Monday, November 14, 1881. Bodie reveled, blasting every whistle in the camp. The town paraded up to the hilltop to the beat of the towns brass band. Amid much speech making, the four little engines were christened with the names Inyo, Mono, Bodie, and Tybo. With that, to wild cheers, they steamed off to the wilds of southern Mono Basin.

By the end of the day, a train with two cars of lumber for the Standard Mine came in. Superintendent Holt arranged a big turkey dinner for the company workers and invited guests. The editor of the Free Press proclaimed that Bodie was now "the terminus of an important railway system."

High aspiration indeed! In spite of the fact that the railroad was largely incomplete, and that those rails were not to be found anywhere near town. Rails and all railroad activity lay neatly out of sight over the saddle between Bodie Bluff and Silver Hill in the next valley east of Bodie Bowl, an often strenuous Ĺ mile climb from downtown Bodie. However the line was built initially as a primary source of wood and to that end it began to fill that service well.

When the railroad was placed in operation, there was great activity in Bodie and in the Mono Basin. Each day, trains of ten to twelve cars of lumber and wood were hauled into Bodie bound for their various destinations. When rail became available, a spur dropped over the saddle between Bodie Bluff and Silver Hill and into Bodie to the Standard Mill, and soon the area behind the mill was full of cordwood.

 

Reach Out and Touch No-One

Now that the mainline to the timber was finished, Bodie felt the need to step out of the isolation that she felt, hemmed in by the little bowl she was cradled in on the wrong side of the Sierra. Superintendent Holt began procuring any rail he could get his hands on, borrowing from the Central Pacific and the still under construction Carson & Colorado, so that plans to expand could begin.

Grandiose plans were made to connect the road with other towns and cities of importance. The Carson & Colorado Railway was had laid its rails as far as the south end of Walker Lake, only 35 or so miles away from Bodie, plated out a town, christening it Hawthorne. The only other easy target for steel rails from Bodie was Benton, at that time a vying with Bodie to be the largest and most influential town in Mono County. The builders of the Carson & Colorado had just recently abandoned their plans to continue building their road southeast through the vicinity of Silver Peak and southward to the Colorado River in the vicinity of Fort Mohave, north of Needles. Instead, in response to competition who was eyeballing the eastern California mining areas; they decided to swing over the state line with their sights set on Benton and Cerro Gordo, the latter getting thinner by the day, but still pumping out a goodly amount of silver bullion.

With Benton in the C&Cís aim, the railroad company celebrated and changed its corporate title to the Bodie & Benton Railway and Commercial Company. Holt ordered surveys and then commissioned the grading to Benton to begin.

With winter coming on, the railroad would hibernate for the duration of the season. The task of the little railroad bucking all that snow would be too great to profitably make a run For it. The company bean counters spent the winter reviewing the progress made by the road, its profitability, and looking at the plans for the future. It looked good, real good. So with those results announced to the population, they spent the winter dreaming of the chance to travel by comfortable and swift means, hobnobbing with friends and family in such metropolitan places such as Virginia City, Carson City, Reno, San Francisco, and even onward to New York and the east coast.

In addition to such dreams, word reached town that Bodie was proposed to become a destination of several railroads. The Carson & Colorado entertained the thought of sending out a tentacle that way from Hawthorne (it ended up at the foot of Lucky Boy Grade, becoming a spur to the pinyon belt as a source of fuel for the locomotives). On the other side of the Sierra, promoters in the Bay Area had their eyes peeking over at the rich ground east of the Sierra crest, and then created the California & Nevada Railroad, to build from Berkeley, with Bodie as a goal. That would have been a formidable task, plans were to build the grade up the general route now occupied by Highway 108 (Sonora Pass road), with a tunnel drilled through the Sierra granite under Sonora Pass.

After the winter gave way to spring, the railroad reopened to the task at hand of restocking those depleted supplies of wood and work began on creating the exit route to Benton. The dreams of promise became more intense with each mile of tilled earth that fill the newspaper each day. But the reality of the present situation that of a railroad to nowhere was nearly in sight, and definitely within earshot. The locomotive whistles each day taunted the townspeople, as the railroad busily went on with its business. Bodie's lumberyards were filling rapidly, so was the cordwood pile behind the Standard and other mills. But, alas, it just wasn't good enough. Like an anxious child just dying to play with its new toy, Bodie wanted those bright, brassy locomotives pulling up into town, destination to wherever they wanted to go.

The balloon popped. Suddenly, without warning and no reason officially given, Holt called a halt to the grading, the course of freshly tilled earth stopping at the small body of water called Black Lake, just over the rocky hill west of Benton. No word was given as to why the sudden stop of work. Of many opinions expressed as to why the sudden change of corporate heart, one stands up to reason. Simply, there would be too much competition. The parent companies of the Bodie & Benton and the Carson & Colorado Railroads were primarily in the lumber business. The C&C's parent company, the Virginia & Truckee, had extensive timber rights and mills in the Lake Tahoe region, and the C&C's responsibility would be to deliver lumber to the mining camps it served, then bring back ore to be treated by the huge mills in the Virginia City and Carson River areas, delivering the resulting product to the outside world via the V&T and the Central Pacific.

These railroad companies would, in effect, cancel each other out. Mono Mills was larger than the Tahoe lumbering mills, it being closer to the southern end of the proposed route of the C&C would corner the southern end of the market. Likewise, the large ore treating mills at Bodie could sap the coffers of the big kings that manipulated the economy of Bodie's northern neighbors.

 

Party's Over, Time To Face Reality

Sigh. The railroad started nowhere and ended nowhere. The office and depot was over the hill and didn't serve the town. The end of the line was out in the woods. The population was still stuck in the bowl, miles from nowhere. The stagecoach was still the only reasonably safe and expedient means to get out, and a rough and dusty way to go at that. As the summer progressed, events that had started the previous year, culminated in such a way as to ensure that stage was often filled to capacity with those anxious to get out of town. Bodie herself, once fat with throngs of humanity, was now thinning. She was loosing her touch, her short time in the limelight singing the siren song had ended. Fewer folks hang around to care if the handsome and brassy locomotives would ever roll into town.

With the Benton arm severed before it fully formed, the railroad proceeded with its assigned task, that of building up the piles of wood and lumber. That it did in its own unassuming way, monotonously transporting carloads of products from the trees.

 

Bodie and Her Railroad Become Feeble

However those who were purchasing were dwindling. By the end of 1882, about a third of the work force was unemployed. During 1883, fifteen more mines closed down; most of them located on the southern end of the town. Many of the men left town for rich strikes in Tombstone and other promising locations in the West.

Another type of lumber industry began to perk up by 1883, and it didn't profit the Bodie & Benton one bit. Instead, in an indirect way, the Carson & Colorado Railroad did. With the expiring of many of the mining companies, many miners left houses and many former business owners moved out their stock and left the building for sale, or simply left it. What were once prime properties were selling for pennies on the dollar of their original exchange. Buildings were becoming vacant throughout town, especially on the south end. Those miners who lived in that end of town and were still employed by the Standard and a few other north end mines took up residence in buildings they could newly afford in what was once the more affluent neighborhoods. Those who were still in business down that way likewise moved uptown to where the buildings clustered around the Standard, knowing there would be more traffic to come through their doors. In one such instance, a once proud building, the former Mono County Bank, became a humble shoe store.

Lumber mined from these forfeited homes kept a few dollars in the pockets of those laid off by the mines. The south end of town began to disappear, only to reappear over in Hawthorne, Nevada, where the composers of the Carson & Colorado had recently created a nice little city to mark a division point for its brassy little engines.

Those left unemployed by the mines and mills probably got another perverted sort of revenge. Their demise provided additional lumber and machinery to be hauled off. Just as many of the Bodie's mills were hauled in from dying Virginia City; the tables were once again turned, and it was time to move on. The machinery from the Noonday Mill was hauled off to Montana, its buildings hauled off with it as far as Hawthorne; the Silver Hill Mill made it as far as Aurora; the Miner's Mill ended up high in the Sweetwater Mountains above Bridgeport.

Enough folks remained in town to keep the trains running for the rest of the decade; supplying cordwood for the town and the Standard Mill, and a bit of lumber to patch up remaining buildings about town. Times were definitely on the wane, and the rails began to loose their burnished shine. This period became so bad, some folks began to burn more than cordwood; they torched their homes and businesses to collect what they could from the insurance, or to avoid taxes. The future looked grim for the health of the Bodie & Benton; and in 1890, it went into a coma.

 

High Technology Pumps Now Life Into The Old Gal

Two high tech operations were pioneered in Bodie that revived the comatose railroad that ran nowhere. Oddly enough, the first of these should have killed the railroad instantly. But these important developments and a major fire brought new people to town, and provided a fresh inducement for those who stayed; once again creating the need for lumber.

Two years after the cessation of railroad activities, a fire broke out in the kitchen of a restaurant on Main Street. Flames lit up the early morning darkness as men ran to the hose carts. The fire jumped the street and soon the whole of the Bodie business district was ablaze. When the hydrants were turned on, no water came out. it looked hopeless. It was feared that all of Bodie would be lost. Fortunately, a valve was found closed and so was opened, a stream of water shot from fire hoses. Bodie would be saved. But Main Street from the Miner's Hall to the Bodie Bank (virtually the same area as the 1932 fire) lay smoldering by dawn. There were still enough people and activity in town to require its rebuilding, maybe enough to reactivate the railroad.

However many buildings on back streets were empty, and these were moved onto Main. The town appeared badly shrunken from its sprawling appearance prior to the blaze. It was deemed that the makeshift reshuffling of the townís buildings was sufficient to deal with the needs of the rebuilding the town, so the boilers in the locomotives stayed cold.

Shortly after the big fire, the first of the new technologies would come to Bodie. The locomotives were still slumbering on their sidings on the hilltop in 1892 when the theory of shocking Bodie out of her unhealthy condition came to a couple of Bodie's worried Fathers. That concept in itself should have exterminated the railroad. Electricity would eliminate the need for the wood in which to create the flames, to heat the water, which would create steam, creating energy to drive the pistons, which caused spinning of the shafts, therefore lifting the stamps, resulting in crushed ore. To run a railroad simply to fill the wood piles for a few hundred woodstoves would just not put black ink on the bottom line.

Thomas Legett and James S. Cain caught word of a newfangled way to harness electricity and use it gainfully. The creation of power by means of hydroelectricity was new technology, and it had never been tried to transmit it over long distances. Legett and Cain reasoned that it could be done, and furthermore, they speculated that it could be profitably used to pump new life and profits into the aging Standard Mill and Bodie.

A site over on Green Creek was selected to build a small hydroelectric plant, a small dam was built to create a reservoir that was and still is called Dynamo Pond. Because distribution of electricity was so unknown, there was speculation that any deviation from a straight line would cause power to jump off into the air and be lost. So the line was run straight as possible, even vertically over the terrain; using high poles in the gulches, and short poles on hilltops. The Standard Mill was temporarily shut down, while electric motors, switches, and generators were installed to take the place of the steam powered equipment.

Soon, the big day came. Word was telegraphed to Green Creek, water was diverted into the Pelton Wheel, and everyone's breath was held in anticipation. At Dynamo Pond, large wheels began to spin, needles on archaic gauging devices quivered. At Bodie, a large crowd had gathered to see if Legett and Cain were the fools that some felt they were. There, switches were thrown and slowly, motors began to vibrate. Eager eyes watched them as they then began to hum, then speed up to a steady spin. A celebration of back-slapping, tossing hats, and christening of a spinning electric motor with a bottle of champagne (that in itself should have been an "electrifying" experience) took place among the jubilant crowd that had gathered to witness "Legett's Folly."

Legett and his men went on to be hosted the world over for their engineering success. They were eventually asked by the British government to operate for them and they built hydro plants throughout the British Empire. The use of electricity in the Standard Mill reduced the dependency on wood to nothing. The transformation was a complete success, shrinking the cost to its owners and inflating the profits. Cain later invested in other properties where power plants were later built - Lundy, Jordan, Silver Lake, Lee Vining Canyon - and he became a wealthy man. Throughout the celebrating, though the money flowed, Bodie & Bentonís little locomotives still sat up on the hill; iron rusting, brass tarnishing.

Two years later, still riding the wave of success, Cain decided to apply another new technology that he had heard about being developed down under in Australia. Leaching ore with a solution of potassium cyanide was found to extract gold out of the rock, even microscopic bits, and could greatly increase the profitability picture as well. Suddenly, all old tailing piles throughout the entire region looked golden to miners eyes, and a large cyanide plant was built. Oddly enough, it was this booster shot in Bodie's arm that rekindled the fires in the four little locomotives.

Summer of 1895, the locomotives once again descended the switchbacks for the run across the basin to Mono Mills, under the corporate title of Bodie Railway & Lumber Company (identical to the original title); filling their rolling stock with lumber and cordwood to replenish Bodie. At that time, the once great forests east of the Mono Craters was thinning from the previous years of once feverish wood cutting activities. So an additional four miles of track was built into the forest.

Bodie herself was a bit skinny, but still very much alive. She continued to crave her vices, though her needs reduced, it was barely enough to keep those trains running down to Mono Mills and back. By 1897, about 600 residents kept eight saloons and twelve stores in town, 140 children were learning the "3-R's" at the schoolhouse. A few Chinese were living in Chinatown and running a limited amount of business there, a few red lanterns were hanging up Bonanza Street. Business was kept alive by the Standard, the Bodie Tunnel, and the Syndicate mines.

October 1898 came, and with it came fire once again to Bodie. The Standard Mill, the dominant sight in town, went up in flames. But, electricity and cyanide came to its rescue; it was deemed worthy enough to rebuild it to the present sheet iron form that it still carries to this day.

 

Into the 20th Century

Bodie herself had gained a little of her weight back at the turn of the century. The 1900 census showed that there were 800 people living in town. Of them, 235 single miners kept what saloons there was in business, also keeping a couple of red lanterns burning. Only a handful of Chinese were left in town by then, their stormy mistreatment of years past quieted. The school house still rang with the gleeful shout of children, the few stores were still doing business. The US and Occidental Hotels catered to the traveler, a doctor cared for the sick and injured, the Post Office delivered the mail, Wells Fargo carried funds and coin safely; these funds still passing over the counter and were snug in the vault of the Bodie Bank. There were still plenty of woodstoves to fill each winter, but by and large, Bodie was slowly giving up her smoking habit.

The Bodie Railway clung to life as the century turned, but it was aging fast. Little revenue was gained, no money was spent on repairs or rebuilding. There certainly seemed to be no place to go, and no money to get there with. A contraption that would eventually spell the end of many a short line railroad came to Bodie on June 12, 1905, in the form of a cranky beast prone to flat tires called the "horseless carriage." To operate a railroad as a corporation was no longer economically feasible. The line was finally leased to a private operator named Reese, who managed a meager living supplying Bodie's wooden needs.

But after 1901 things began to look a lot brighter, this being after the results of Jim Butlerís jackass shenanigans at a place he dubbed Tonopah began to fill a lot of coin purses and make a rich dessert for those who were shrewd enough to invest wisely. That was immediately topped with the golden icing of the Goldfield district. The whole region of central and southern Nevada, along with eastern and southeaster California got taken up in the giant whirlwind that turned over each and every loose rock from Steamboat to Searchlight, between Mojave and Minerva.

Bodie felt some of the backwash from that feverish activity. On the road to Hawthorne, where countless hooves, boots, and wagon wheels traveled, the Lucky Boy Mines created a new town. New interest in the old and decaying Aurora District sent a new wave of miners probing there and on into Bodie. Tailing piles from old and played out mines were fair game, each able to give up riches from rock thrown out by men decades ago without the new technology.

In 1906, a man by the name of Charles E. Knox, who had established wealth and fame as the president of the Montana Tonopah Mining Company and a member of the Board of Directors of the Tonopah & Goldfield Railroad, took interest in the little railroad in general, and the vast acreage of timber that it tapped in particular. In their visions, they could see long strings of lumber cars towed with big engines of the Tonopah & Goldfield Railroad, the galaxy of mining towns in the universe of Nevada their destination. They devised a plan in which the Bodie Railway would receive T&G locomotives and rolling stock, including passenger coaches, as part of the buyout. Their visions soon were embraced by Bodie's inhabitants as this transaction would possibly mean that brassy engines would be pulling onto Main Street with destinations far and wide via the B&B, C&C, and the T&G.

Knox's original plan was to build a line from Mono Mills eastward to link up with the T&G/C&C common line at Sodaville, Nevada. Just south of that site (it being approximately 3Ĺ miles south of Mina, Nevada) at a desolate spot on a dry lake, a station called Tonopah Junction was put on the map so that the T&G and C&C could part ways; the T&G ran off into the barrens to reach the remote cities of Tonopah and Goldfield; the C&C climbed over Montgomery Pass to get its foot into the green pastures of Owens Valley.

The capital to incorporate the T&G and the B&B did not come, but Knox was not a man to give up. During 1908 and 1909, surveys and reconnaissance trips were made over the hilly region around Anchorite Summit, through Whiskey Flat, and over the Excelsior Mountains into Sodaville. Steep grades and problems of surveying the region in the deep snows of winter caused the abandonment of that idea. Another attempt to run the line via Tonopah Junction amounted to much the same thing.

Yet additional attempts to connect Bodie with Tonopah and the world was tried, Basalt and Coaldale eyed as a terminus, utilizing much of the original Benton extension grade to run Bodie locomotives. This had its own set of problems too, and finally the respective companies decided to sit down and think it over to see if it all was really worth it. But Knox was still working at it and began to spread news that the line would tie in at Mina. Unfortunately, it all came to naught, and the Tonopah interests forgot the whole affair.

Even though the Bodie Railway stayed a stunted railroad, it still was a useful tool when the first decade of the 20th Century was through. In 1912, Aurora started to boom with the construction of the huge facilities of the Aurora Consolidated Mining Company by Jesse Knight of Provo, Utah. The mill was stationed outside of the old town of Aurora, and a suburb of sorts built up around the mill called Mangum. Old dwellings and businesses were refurbished at the Aurora townsite, new houses sprang up in between; and at the Mangum site new buildings appeared. Mangum was to be a "dry" town, void of liquor, so Aurora took up the slack with more than the usual amount of saloons. The railroad built a planing mill at the Bodie yards to help lessen the demand on Mono Mills, and strings of teams were hauling wagons piled high with lumber daily for Aurora. With the start of the war in Europe, Bodie's new light began to fade. In 1914, the Standard Mill closed and put a big crimp in Bodie's economy. Aurora was still going fairly strong, especially after the Goldfield Consolidated Company took over the Knight interests at Mangum. The trains still ran for their short stint each summer, but the end was definitely in sight. Bits and pieces were sold off to help defray the costs involved with managing a worn out old railroad.

 

The End Of The Line

By the summer of 1917, the forest was stripped of trees everywhere there were rails in close proximity. It was apparent that the railroad would have to have yet another extension if there were to be any more harvesting. By that time, there were few customers. Aurora had finally given up its last riches that year, miners and stockbrokers were leaving daily.

It was hopeless to continue. The railroad and its equipment was shot. Bodie's pulse was slowing down, Aurora was hemorrhaging. The automobile by this time had become more than just a cranky and undependable toy, more people in Bodie and Aurora were now using these to get around. Trucks and the newfangled big Caterpillar tractors were proving more viable for hauling big loads than a worn out railroad, and they could travel pretty much where they pleased, not being confined to running along ribbons of steel. It was obvious that a railroad was not needed, nor could it be justified financially for that matter. On September 6, 1917, the California Railroad Commission approved abandonment. Emil Billeb, the railroad companyís last man in charge from 1908 to the end, was awarded the contract to take up the rail and sell it. At its death, the railroad had measured about 38 miles, counting all sidings, and spurs into the woods. Gus Hess, who had served as master mechanic on the railroad for many years, was in charge of the dismantling crews. Work of dismantling started at the Bodie end of the line in late July 1918. Rails were sent down to Mono Mills to be stacked, loaded on trucks, and shipped out to Benton Station on the Southern Pacific (ex-Carson & Colorado) narrow gauge. By September, all the rail was stripped off the ground, leaving a string of rotting ties to mark the route of a once proud and hopeful little railroad. There were 2300 tons of rail and scrap iron left from cut up rolling stock and locomotives ready to be shipped out of Mono Mills. The memories that these iron bits could tell, they were lost to the blast furnaces of the industrial Orient.

 

The Last Whistle

As for the those who once depended upon the services of the Bodie & Benton, Bodie died a slow and painful death. She had lived a long life, her smoking habit increasing and decreasing with her health. When she lost the source of her smoking material, modern conveniences had by that time started to filter into her homes. Gas and electric stoves had replaced her home fires; her residents could now gather their own firewood with their own vehicles with rubber tires and gasoline engines; her remaining miners could run their small mills with electricity. She was badly injured in 1932 when fire burned her almost beyond recognition. What was left had a feeble pulse, she was put on life support just before World War 2 when her post office closed. A few hopefuls, though the number slowly declining each successive year, clung on to Bodie until professional help arrived in the form of the California State Parks in 1962. Bodie was cloaked in State Park status in 1964. It is interesting to note, there are those who believe that golden treasure still lies under Bodie Bluff, and modern technology may once again come to her aid, for now a handsome profit can be made with even microscopic flakes of gold. But even if successful, new life will never be infused into the old town, no trains will ever again rumble to the old station on the hill.

Mono Mills disintegrated to the four winds. Cabins scattered over the Mono Basin, the timbers of the sawmill lingered about, rotting. Small odds and ends were thrown into countless campfires and trunks of cars by those who thought they found a treasure. Today, only a Forest Service sign marks the site of Mono Mills, and the last time I came by, that was nearly destroyed as well.

Aurora died a quick and sudden death, and scavengers have scattered her remains. She lost her Post Office in 1919, by the end of the twenties no one remained. Her massive skeleton lay exposed to those who wished to view it for many years. Her fine brick buildings, though, were too much a temptation, and the scavenger birds came and carried off her skeleton. No stone marks her burial plot. Few modern souls morn. It is ironic that when the railroad was built, Aurora was going through a mid-life crisis and was of no value to the railroad. But she recovered, and was instrumental for keeping the road alive beyond what owners would have believed.

Today, only a string of weathered ties, buried under the ever present sagebrush mark the path of the Bodie & Benton, furnishing plenty of the stuff that ideologues like myself can create our daydreams with.

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William Russell
A California State Park ranger gives a tour of the inside of the depot of the Bodie & Benton Railroad. August 1998.Bob Haslam
A view out of a window of the Bodie & Benton Railroad depot to the nearby water tower. August 1998.
The Bodie & Benton Railroad grade in the Bodie Hills. October 1990.



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