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Bodie and Murphys California: Brief Histories

State and national parks and historical attractions have long been a favorite destination for Liz, and she loves sharing them.

A really old building in Murphys.  I'm guessing: it looks to have originally been either a bank or a jail.

A really old building in Murphys. I'm guessing: it looks to have originally been either a bank or a jail.

Have You Ever Heard of Murphys, CA?

Most people have not. This unassuming small town gets overshadowed in California history lessons by the major gold rush of 1949...from whence came the name, 'the forty-niners.'

However, two brothers, John and Daniel Murphy arrived in the area a year earlier, in 1848, being part of a party that was the first to successfully get wagons over the imposing Sierra-Nevada Mountain range.

The Murphy brothers gave the town its name, but history is unclear as to whether it was so dubbed by the brothers themselves, or by the townsfolk as an honorific. At any rate, it was among the richest gold mining areas in all of California, and among the earliest discovered.

During 1852, the brothers took out $2,000,000 (that's two million) in gold, thus becoming millionaires before they were 25 years old! Adjusted for the 165 years worth of inflation since then, that would amount to $ 59,426,791 in today's money!

Murphys "diggins" was one of the state's richest gold veins, realizing $5,000,000 in one winter! Being such a rich area made it a fine target for the likes of Joaquin Murietta and Black Bart, who were known to frequent the town.

In its heyday, Murphys rivaled San Francisco for population and the gold mining craze. San Francisco, however, was merely the jumping-off point for folks heading to the gold mines farther north, while Murphys was an actual mining town, with a placer mining operation not far from the hotel that stands today.

Old Murphys, CA

Boom town gone bust,

your glory days are gone.

The economy changed,


life ambles.

Excitement now

consists of spinning yarns

of the old days

Into the willing ears

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of tourists.

Nothing more to do here

but sit, and grow old and fat;

Dreaming of the days that were;

days before your time.

Boom Town Back Story

This poem was brought about by the lazy, dusty ambiance of old Murphys, California on one of my many travels through the Golden State. Being a native, I've always been interested in the history of this state, and have traveled much of it.

At the time I drove through, the ambiance was very much as described in the poem. However, the town has reinvented itself, being a popular tourist destination, with upscale shops and amenities. All the while, however, they have managed to keep the old town's historic charm.

Murphys, CA

Main Street in Murphys in the modern era; the parked cars and paved street the only giveaway that it's not the 1800s.

Main Street in Murphys in the modern era; the parked cars and paved street the only giveaway that it's not the 1800s.

An old shack surrounded by weeds; seeming old, but looks well-kept up

An old shack surrounded by weeds; seeming old, but looks well-kept up

Perhaps You've Heard of Bodie?

Then again, probably not. Murphys is along a major state highway; you can't miss it if you're driving any distance to the east on Highway 4.

Bodie, on the other hand, is a 13-mile detour on a challenging dirt road that runs off from US Highway 395, east of the Sierra-Nevada Mountains.

Like Murphys, Bodie was a mining town. The big difference is that Bodie was even less accessible in its time than Murphys, and nothing has changed. There has been no resurgence of mining; the area is just as remote today.

Founded when 4 prospectors left the California Mother Lode to try their luck elsewhere, they stumbled upon this small valley north of Mono Lake. Some "diggins" were attempted, and some gold was found, but it was at first unimpressive.

One of these men was W.S. Body, and he died in a winter blizzard in the first year. Afterwards, the town that sprang up was given his name. It underwent several spelling changes, finally ending up as "Bodie," as it is still known today.

A few other miners came in, and tried placer mining as well as dry mining, as well as digging shafts and tunnels. Not much came of this, until one of the mine tunnels in the Bunker Hill mine collapsed in 1875, revealing a rich vein of gold.

That set the match to the fireworks, and speculators, gold seekers, and corporations came seeking gold. The large corporate interests built stamp mills, and brought out as much as $784,523 in gold and silver bullion in 1877.

That was the big difference between Bodie and most of the other California mines: Bodie also had silver. The majority of the silver mines were in neighboring Nevada.

Prosperity brought people, and people brought every imaginable sort of vice. There were 'easy women,' gambling halls, saloons galore, and it was said to have been as rough and tumble a town as there ever was. It rivaled such other famous Wild West places as Deadwood, Tombstone, and Dodge City for violence on a daily basis.

Out In The Middle Of Nowhere!


Ghost Town

Bodie's gone, decayed:

Tourists, Peeping-Toms at windows

Disturb private pasts.


Ghost Town Back Story

This was written on an 11 day trek through the state in the company of my geology classmates. It was a field lab class, and we all had a great time while learning much. Bodie, as you can see from the map above, is pretty much out in the middle of nowhere.

It is accessed via a 13-mile-drive on the original dirt road--a road that is so deep in dust that you must keep at least a football field's distance between yourself and the car ahead in order to see where you are going.

Unlike other parks, this one has not been at all restored. All that is happening is maintaining the buildings as they were, in what the Park Service calls, "A state of arrested decay." They will shore things up to keep them from collapsing, but are not retro-fitting or in any way rebuilding or fixing.

Most of the buildings are unsafe to enter, and the views must be had through the ancient, dirty windows. There are still bits of people's lives to be seen inside: tables, chairs, bedsprings, sometimes a bottle or can on a shelf. It is this eerie 'they just picked up and left' feeling that gave rise to the poem.

© 2010 Liz Elias

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