Researching Historical Fiction

When you can’t go to Bodie in person…

I recently stumbled on “Gold Rush Ghost Towns,” an episode in the History Channel’s Save Our History series hosted by Steve Thomas (of “This Old House” fame).

It’s a fascinating mix of old photos and modern-day footage of the ghost towns of Bodie, Calif., and Bannack and Garnet in Montana. And it offers a treasure trove of details a writer can use. It’s a great way to “experience” a bit of what life was like in gold mining towns, with that big Western sky above and all that wide-open space—that is, until you have to go hundreds of feet underground or spend your day in a stamping mill.

Haunting, beautiful Bodie, Calif. Photo by Jon Sullivan,
Haunting, beautiful Bodie, Calif. Photo by Jon Sullivan,

With the help of historians, preservationists, re-enactors of sorts and mining engineers, Thomas tries his hand at placer mining (which I always thought was pronounced with a long “a” but now know is not). It required standing nearly waist deep in ice cold water with the sun beating on your head for hours on end and for very little return.

Thomas follows the progression of mining technology and even goes into a gold mine with an engineer to drill holes in the rocks, fill them with dynamite and then explode the walls into stones that can be transported back to the surface for stamping.

So naturally, he then has to find a stamping mill, a small hand-crank, gas-powered one that an enthusiast had restored and was happy to fire up. It was a wonderful way to hear what a stamping mill sounded like (magnify exponentially in your mind to approximate the din of 24-hour stamping mills in a booming gold town in the late 1800s).

Thomas also showed how people are restoring miners’ cabins in Garnet, Mont., which are rotting from the bottom up—and they’re using some historic tools to do it. The goal is to maintain the buildings in a state of arrested decay (love that phrase).

He concludes by saying that preserving these ghost towns is the way to keep the story of America’s West alive. I certainly can’t argue with that. Being able to wander around a historic site in person or via DVD can enhance your understanding of a place and time exponentially.

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