One of the United States’ richest placer mining camps once lured people to Virginia City, where visitors now flock to see treasures from the past.
By Gerald C. Hammon, F275831
Have you ever wished you’d lived in the gold rush era of the 1800s? Have you wanted to feel the thrill of picking nuggets of gold out of a rushing stream? Have you envied men and women who grabbed their own destiny and controlled it, instead of waiting for the years of Social Security and Medicare to “enjoy” life? Is there something hypnotic about the words, “Gold, gold, gold?”
Of course, the naysayers and the dream crushers are quick to remind us that not everyone got rich during the gold rush days of the American West. In fact, very few people did. But that doesn’t change the allure of the dream. The thought of rich golden traces at the bottom of our pan or along the ripple strips of a Long Tom (a trough for washing gold-bearing earth) keep us from remembering how terribly far away from family, friends, and home gold rush towns tended to be. The reality is that gold mining today is done as a hobby or by faceless, anonymous corporations “” not by prospectors barely out of their teens.
Although the great gold rushes of the 1800s are over, many of the United States’ old mining towns can be visited. Not all were in California or Colorado. The state of Montana had its share, too.
Virginia City, Montana, was once a name spoken with reverence. From 1863 to 1865, at the height of the Civil War, more than $30 million in gold was washed out of the rich gravel of Alder Gulch. Virginia City grew up on the slopes above the creek. Other communities, including Nevada City, quickly sprang to life downstream.
Virginia City’s story includes a chance discovery of gold, a crooked sheriff who ran a gang of road agents who preyed on miners, a multiple hanging by vigilantes, a brief stint as capital of the Montana Territory, a husband and wife who used their personal fortune in an amazing way, and a state government that took a risk and preserved the legacy of Montana’s territorial days.
As you walk the streets of Virginia City and peruse its museums, you will envy the six prospectors who had intended to head for the Yellowstone area but were turned back by Crow Indians and just happened to dig along unknown Alder Gulch. They uncovered a bonanza.
Virginia City’s history also involves people like Henry Plummer, a California ex-convict who successfully ran for sheriff in Montana’s first capital, Bannack, and then recruited former cellmates and gang members from California to plunder travelers between Bannack and Virginia City. Then there was Clubfoot George Lane, who had the misfortune of being one of five members of Plummer’s gang to be hung in Virginia City. Years later, Lane’s club foot led to the identification of the burial ground or “boot hill” where the criminals were buried. You can see his foot at one of the local museums.
Not everyone connected to Virginia City was lucky or notorious. Charles and Sue Bovey found the town in the dark days of the 1940s, after President Franklin Roosevelt declared mining to be a non-essential industry during wartime and the last ore had been scooped from Alder Gulch. Only 400 or so souls were left in town. Beautiful old buildings were empty and on the verge of collapse. The Boveys had been successful ranchers for years, and Charles served in the Montana legislature. Virginia City captivated them and launched them on a long struggle to preserve what was left. Using their own fortune, they bought and restored property after property.
A mile-and-a-half downstream from Virginia City, on the site of what had once been Nevada City, the Boveys relocated other old buildings that had played a role in Montana’s rich history. Virginia City had never had a railroad, and old-timers were quick to cite that as the reason the town had failed to become the state capital. The Boveys built their own narrow-gauge railroad between Virginia City and Nevada City and even obtained a beautiful old steam engine to pull trains back and forth. In 1997 their son convinced the state of Montana to buy the Bovey properties in both towns and to set aside $3 million for further restoration.
Today Virginia City is a wonderful combination of past and present, and the past is 100 percent authentic. For example, in the dark days of the town’s decline, several business owners simply walked away, leaving merchandise still on the shelves. One business owner was Mary McGovern, who, in the late 1930s, reportedly posted an “Out To Lunch” sign to tell the community she had retired. The Boveys bought the store “” lock, stock, and all. The Buford Store and the reconstructed Dance and Stuart store display old-time groceries, as well as patent medicines guaranteed to cure man or beast that no resident could have done without in 1920.
Old horse-drawn wagons around town are reminders of an age when a 20-mile trip took all day. Two museums preserve everything from Clubfoot George’s foot to his original grave marker. The Hangman’s Building commemorates the actual place where Clubfoot George and his four fellow road agents met their demise. The hanging took place January 14, 1864. Being practical folks, the vigilantes made use of a ceiling joist in this unfinished building instead of holding the event outside in the cold and snow.
But Virginia City is more than a museum. You can eat at the Roadmaster Café, sitting at one of the tables tucked between the front fenders of a 1957 Chevrolet or the signature fins of a Cadillac. It’s easy to find “” just follow your nose to their outdoor barbecue cooker.
Across the street, homemade ice cream is mixed in mechanical freezers linked to a small gasoline motor. It isn’t hand-cranked, but we heard no complaints. An old-fashioned candy store a few doors down will complete the destruction of your diet with out-of-this-world fudge.
Live entertainment also awaits you. At the Opera House, cheer for the hero and boo the villain during a rollicking vaudeville-type variety show. The Opera House building once was a livery stable, and some of the elegant old coaches and wagons are still stored up the street. At the H.S. Gilbert Brewery, Montana’s first brewery, the Brewery Follies Players put on a popular program.
If you venture off the main street, you will find a number of beautifully restored homes that date back to Virginia City’s glory days. You can tour on foot if you don’t mind climbing up and down hills, or you can hop aboard an authentic antique fire engine or a stagecoach and get a narrated tour that also takes you to the boot hill burial ground on the bluff above town.
When you’ve “done” Virginia City, the Alder Gulch Shortline train offers an easy round trip down to Nevada City. Although you can drive this route, the train offers a much better experience. Volunteers share the history of the gulch as the locomotive clanks along the narrow tracks. On most days, a gasoline-powered engine pulls the diminutive cars, but during the summer months, you may find yourself in luck and ride behind the beautiful steam engine, Number 12.
You travel past the tailings left by the huge dredges that worked the gulch during the 1920s and 1930s. Buy the combination ticket, which allows you to enter the large selection of historic buildings moved to Nevada City by the Boveys. During the summer, docents stationed at several of the buildings talk about the various trades represented as well as the history of the buildings themselves. In all, Nevada City has more than 100 original historic buildings.
Start your tour at the information center located in the 1895 railroad depot where you also can buy tickets for the Alder Gulch Shortline. Walking tour guidebooks are available there, along with more information about both Virginia City and Nevada City. The staff also can give you information about restaurants in town.
Don’t forget your quarters for the wonderful display of working music machines in Nevada City’s Music Hall. You won’t believe the cacophony of sound some of those old machines can produce. The building itself, circa 1910, was once the recreation hall in Yellowstone National Park before being moved to this site.
Today Montana’s greatest treasure may be its history “” one that everyone can enjoy.
Virginia City is approximately 85 miles from West Yellowstone and Yellowstone National Park. From the park, travel northwest on U.S. 287 to Ennis; then turn west on State Route 287 and travel 15 miles. The town also can be reached from Interstate 15 at Dillon by taking State Route 41 north to Twin Bridges and State Route 287 east to Virginia City. Nevada City is 1.5 miles west of Virginia City on State Route 287.
For more information, contact:
Virginia City, Montana Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 218
Virginia City, MT 59755
Gold West Country Regional Tourism Office
1155 Main St.
Deer Lodge, MT 59722
Other helpful Web sites include:
The following is not a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory or FMCA’s Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at www.fmca.com, for additional listings.
Alder/Virginia City KOA
2280 Highway 287
Alder, MT 59710
(800) 562-1898 (Reservations)
Camper Corner RV
P.O. Box 155
Ennis, MT 59729
735 West Park
Dillon, MT 59725
(800) 562-2751 (Reservations)
Ennis RV Village
5034 U.S. 287 N.
Ennis, MT 59729
Virginia City RV Park
1302 E. Wallace St.
Virginia City, MT 59755
Lionshead RV Resort, C8152
1545 Targhee Pass Highway
West Yellowstone, MT 59758
Yellowstone Grizzly RV Park, C7411
210 S. Electric St.
West Yellowstone, MT 59758