Discover Virginia City and Nevada City, two Montana ghost towns where memories of the 1863 Gold Rush and visions of the Old West come alive.
Guest Post by June Russell-Chamberlin
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Two Montana Ghost Towns
When prospectors William Fairweather and Henry Edgar struck gold on May 26, 1863, along an alder-lined creek in Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains, they must have known their luck had finally changed.
Since leaving the mining camp of Bannack in the Idaho Territory in February, their party of six prospectors had been captured by a band of Crow warriors and chased along the Yellowstone River as they made their escape. They had lost most of their supplies and gotten lost themselves.
But on that spring afternoon, the first pan yielded $2.40 worth of gold—around $45 in today’s dollars. Fairweather and Edgar’s wildest dreams had finally come true. They had stumbled upon the richest placer (riverbed) gold strike in the Rocky Mountains.
I had heard the story long before our family road trip took us to the Gold Rush-era ghost town of Virginia City, Montana, the town Fairweather founded just a few weeks after he discovered gold in Alder Gulch.
He had intended to name the town Varina, after the wife of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States. But the judge who received the town charter was a Union supporter, and changed the name to Virginia.
We picked up round-trip train tickets and walking maps in the neighboring ghost town of Nevada City, where we had rooms for the night. It is one of nine boomtowns that appeared almost overnight in the gulch.
A 20-minute ride on the Alder Gulch Shortline Railroad brought us to the depot at Virginia City, the largest and most prosperous of the area’s boomtowns. Few original buildings of the other towns remain.
By 1864, Virginia City offered everything a gold dust-carrying miner needed or desired. Word of Fairweather and Edgar’s gold strike had spread like wildfire, and an estimated 10,000 people had swarmed the area. Saloons, dance halls, and brothels offered entertainment; a variety of shops and restaurants supplied everything else.
For a few years Virginia City flourished, even becoming the territorial capital in 1865. Stagecoach lines soon consolidated under Wells Fargo and connected the town to Walla Walla to the west, Salt Lake City in the south and cities to the east.
But five years after the gold strike, the gold accessible by placer mining had been exhausted. The miners left. The businesses followed, and in 1875 the territorial government moved to Helena.
Over the next 70 years, residents abandoned the once-thriving frontier metropolis, slowly turning it into a ghost town. By World War II, no more than 100 people called Virginia City home.
The town might have suffered the fate of the other boomtowns along Alder Gulch, were it not for efforts of history buff and philanthropist Charles Bovey and his wife, Sue. When Bovey first visited Virginia City in the 1940s, he found abandoned, dilapidated buildings lining the streets. Some buildings had been lost to fire, while others were being torn down for firewood.
The place fascinated Bovey. For the next 20 years he purchased and restored buildings in Virginia City and moved other Gold-Rush era buildings he had collected to nearby Nevada City.
Buildings that had been lost to fire or decay were meticulously reconstructed down to the smallest architectural detail. Some shops still had their original merchandise; others he filled with antiques. As the historic buildings in this Gold Rush-era boomtown regained their original appearance, tourists started to come.
Today, Virginia City is one of the best-preserved placer mining boomtowns in the Rocky Mountains. Rough wooden buildings along Wallace Street still stand much as they did at the height of the gold rush, their tall false fronts emblazoned with hand-painted signs and vintage goods on display behind shop windows.
Nearly 500,000 people stroll the boardwalks every year during the summer months, when visitors have their pick of Gold Rush-themed tours and activities.
Among the restaurants, souvenir and gift shops in the storefronts along Wallace Street are several museum-style shops, filled with goods and fashions from the 1860s. Narrow, pointed Victorian ladies’ shoes fill one window. Coffee grinders and a variety of goods fills another.
One storefront offers a glimpse into the barbershop. Another’s open door invites visitors into a grocery store, filled with faux produce, vintage cans of coffee, and other goods. It looks as if the shopkeeper has just stepped away.
The Montana Post print shop, at the corner of Wallace and Jackson streets, is one of the buildings that was lost to fire and reconstructed. It is one of the museum-style displays.
The newspaper began publishing in 1864, bringing the miners and shopkeepers news of the Civil War and local happenings, including the activities of the Vigilantes, a group of men who practiced frontier justice on “road agents” who robbed and killed miners for their gold.
Twenty-four men were convicted and hanged by the Vigilantes over a four-month period, including Henry Plummer, the local sheriff, and his deputies. The Montana Post editor, Thomas J. Dimsdale, gathered his articles about the Vigilantes and turned them into a book. In 1866 “The Vigilantes of Montana” became the first book published in the Montana Territory.
We caught the train for the mile and a half ride back to Nevada City, enthralled with the conductor’s tales of the Vigilantes and gold fever.
The entrance to the Nevada City Museum is in the Music Hall, across the road from the train depot, next to the Nevada City Hotel. On summer weekends, living history reenactors bring the town to life, but we visited on a weekday, and the reimagined ghost town was nearly deserted.
Bovey did more than just reconstruct and preserve buildings in Virginia City; he also rescued buildings from the Gold Rush era throughout Montana and Wyoming. As Virginia City came back to life, Bovey bought the townsite of neighboring Nevada City and its remaining 12 buildings.
He rescued nearly 100 other historic buildings, moved them to the site and arranged them on grassy streets. Bovey filled those, too, with antiques. One cavernous building he filled with his collection of music making machines. With the exception of the Nevada City Hotel and the Star Bakery Restaurant, the entire town is a museum.
At the entrance we picked up the free story map of the town for a self-guided tour. The map and signs on the buildings tell the history of each building and anecdotes about the people who once lived and worked in these places.
Some buildings have their original contents, and others Bovey filled with antiques. The Nevada City Museum features one of the largest collections of Old West artifacts outside the Smithsonian Institute.
One of the first buildings we came to was the barber shop from Elkhorn, a silver mining town south of Helena that boomed in the 1870s. The barber shop was moved to the Nevada City Museum with most of its original furnishings intact.
Homes and businesses dating from the 1860s to early 1900s line the streets of the Nevada City Museum. The Basin Fire Station houses a collection of vintage fire equipment.
In the days of horse and carriages, every town had at least one blacksmith shop. This one belonged to Smoky Eberl, a blacksmith in Augusta, Montana.
The E.S. Dupuis house, built in 1871, narrowly escaped becoming firewood, the fate of many Gold Rush-era log homes. Finding the home already torn down, Bovey rescued and reconstructed it in 1976. The house was later used to train families selected for the 2001 PBS TV series “Frontier House.”
General merchandise stores flourished in mining boomtowns. Furnished with goods dating to c. 1914, the Applebound and Crabb store was used in the movie “Little Big Man.” Dustin Hoffman played Jack Crabb.
The Twin Bridges school is believed to be Montana’s oldest standing public school, serving students from 1867 until 1873. Students shared in chores, including cleaning and fetching water and firewood.
When a federal postal inspector visited the Iron Rod Post Office in 1873, he found the mail had been dumped on the floor. Patrons dug through the pile and took what they wanted. The postmaster was reportedly out hunting gold.
After exploring the town, we ate lunch on the deck behind the restaurant portion of the Star Bakery Restaurant, which occupies one of the few original buildings in Nevada City. It is the only restaurant in town.
An advertisement in an 1864 edition of the Montana Post for the original Star Bakery and Saloon reads, “Here is the place to get an honest loaf, a cake or pie, and something to wash it down.”
It still offers pies and pastries, but for beer you will have to head to the restaurant half of the building or Virginia City’s Bale of Hay Saloon. We could not leave without trying a few of the pastries for ourselves.
The Nevada City Hotel looks just like the photograph of the original hotel, though it is cobbled together from an 1860s stage office and what used to be a staff dormitory at Yellowstone National Park.
You know you are at a classy 1860s hotel when there is a two-story outhouse at the end of the hall.
We had wanted an authentic Gold Rush-era place to spend the night, and who can resist a night in a ghost town? Still, I will admit we were relieved that the antique-filled Victorian suites we had booked included their own compact bathrooms.
The two-story outhouse came from a home in Virginia City. The hotel also offers motel-style rooms and log cabins from the Gold Rush era.
It is the only lodging in Nevada City, but Virginia City offers a variety of restaurants and accommodations, including the Fairweather Inn.
Like the gold rush, our visit to Virginia City and Nevada City seemed much too short. Someday we will return once again to these Montana ghost towns, where memories of the Old West still linger and gold dust was king.
The Montana Heritage Commission website posts current information regarding day passes, train tickets, lodging, and package deals for planning your visit to two Montana ghost towns.
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