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Whiskey Tales

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History and Whiskey:

The Ghost Town of Bodie, CA

June 2020

If you went to grade school in the United States, then you know the significance of January 24th, 1848 and James Marshall discovering gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, CA. The ensuing Gold Rush brought over 300,000 people from other parts of the country to strike it rich by hitting the mother lode. Of course, there is the stereo type of the weary prospector entering a dusty saloon and ordering two bits worth of whiskey as outlaw gunplay echoes in the streets outside. Even though Kentucky serves as the epicenter of American whiskey, there is a very strong connection to the history of the west during the mid to late 1800’s.  

The Gold Rush is still a very vibrant part of the California landscape, most notably the decaying camps and ghost towns that dot the landscape. In particular, there is a ghost town nestled in the Bodie Hills east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The road is partially paved and turns to dirt for the final miles before you see the remnants of Bodie, CA. At an altitude of 8,000+ feet, there are formidable winters even in the face of modern creature comforts. It’s only 75 miles southeast of Lake Tahoe, via State Route 395 that runs along the eastern edge of California and beyond. 

The town is named after W.S. Bodey, a prospector who started a small mining camp but perished in a blizzard during a supply run. The discovery of a very rich vein of gold led to that small mining camp becoming a notorious boomtown of the Gold Rush era.  At the peak of its boom (1877 to circa 1880), there were 5,000 to 7,000 people and 2,000 buildings and approximately $30+ million worth of gold was pulled from the area. 

By historical accounts, Main Street in town (only a mile long) at one time had 65 saloons and was a scene out of only the wildest imagination of lawlessness… murder, robbery, brawls, and all other manner of debauchery. The red light district was a safe distance away on the north end of town and enjoyed its own brand of success in the special way of Gold Rush boomtowns. Many anecdotes, legends and stories confirm that prospectors consumed copious amounts of whiskey and it played a strong role in the bad behavior on Main Street and the red light district.

What exactly were they drinking in Bodie? There is a nexus of three factors that contributed to the profile of whiskey of the Gold Rush era:

  • The Transcontinental Railroad was established in October of 1869, making it possible to transport larger quantities from the popular distillers out East 

  • It is said that there were 15 distilleries active in California by 1880, with numerous wholesalers locally distributing individually bottled and labeled whiskey

  • The Bottled in Bond Act was enacted in 1897

Much of the “good stuff” coming from the east ended up in the San Francisco, CA area to fill the popular bars in the city. Basically, this meant that the whiskey of the time were produced without any sort of aging process and were diluted with water. In addition, purity and quality were inconsistent depending on the source. That’s probably why it was called rotgut. 

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The Ghost town of Bodie, CA isn’t a mainstream tourist attraction, but there are those who take the time to visit the remnants of this historical place. There is an undeniable link to the history of our country and the drink we all enjoy. Though, while the modern version of whiskey we celebrate today has the same origins it is a completely different finished product. Next time you partake, think of the ghosts of Bodie and the mayhem on Main Street. They’ll raise a glass and celebrate a drink of whiskey with you – but yours will taste quite a bit better. The rest, as they say, is history.

Cheers, 

Mark

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