I know of few places in the United States that can honestly claim that they moved between three territories over the mere course of a decade. First, it was part of Washington. Then it was part of Idaho. And then, when copious glittering metals were discovered lying at the bottom of its gravelly streams, it found itself moved once again – this time to the newly formed Montana Territory. The town itself did not move, of course; just the territorial boundary lines. And as far as the average townsperson was concerned, whether they lived in Idaho, Washington or Montana was of little relevance – they were still in the middle of nowhere, and there was a fortune to be made. The place is Virginia City, Montana – the richest placer strike in the United States, the former Montana territorial capital, and a locally-known (though as yet nationally undiscovered) weekend getaway destination.
Resting in a comfortable valley at scarcely over a mile’s elevation, between the glaciated Tobacco Root and Greenhorn Ranges, Virginia City is the sole living reminder of over a dozen towns, camps, and shantytowns that once lined the babbling creeks of Alder Gulch (with nearby Junction City, Adobetown, Central City, Bear Town, French Town, and Summit all either plowed under by dredges, destroyed by fire, or broken down for salvage by locals who used the buildings as a free-for-the-taking Home Depot.) Together with the nearby reconstructed “ghost town” of Nevada City, the Virginia City area is now a National Historic Landmark District, and home to 196 hardy souls and a handful of active mining operations that continue to extract substantial sums from the gravel and hard rock deposits chiseled into the slopes of Baldy Mountain further up the gulch. Although no longer Montana’s capital (having lost the battle for the crown to another gold rush city far to the north) it remains the county seat for sparsely populated Madison County’s 7,000 residents. As such, Virginia City citizens grimace when outsiders call Virginia City a “ghost town.” It is hardly such. There have been, and always will be, times when this Old West time capsule’s pulse slows to comatose levels, but it has never stopped beating altogether. Its history continues to be written, and its residents perceive themselves to hold a close kinship with the men and women who settled here 160 years ago. It remains a treasure that offers a precious window into the boundless, inspiring perseverance that lies at the heart of the Montana story.
It was in May, 1863 that a group of weary men arrived at a forested gulch 80 miles from Bannack – the nearest settlement of size, which in these parts doesn’t take much to be considered such. Having been lost, pursued, imprisoned, and threatened with death at the hands of local indians (whether it was the Sioux or the Crow tribe that was responsible is disputed), the fact they were alive was a minor miracle brought at the hands of Bill Fairweather.
As recounted by local historian, Dick Pace, when the group of prospectors was herded into the center of camp, being certain that death was near and willing to take drastic action to secure some slight likelihood of survival, Fairweather, “blessed with the ability to handle poisonous snakes without danger to himself… picked up two rattlesnakes and shoved them into his shirt. When the Indians circled around them making threatening gestures, Fairweather pulled out the snakes. This startled not only the Indians, but also Fairweather’s comrades, who were afraid he would push the Indians to some show of force. This didn’t bother Fairweather; he stood at the center of a circle of gesticulating Indians looking quite pleased with himself.”
The Indians were obviously disturbed by Fairweather’s inexplicable behavior, and hauled the prisoners into a medicine lodge. The local chiefs commiserated, delivering speeches debating what should be done with the men. The younger chiefs and braves craved the taste of blood and sought to have them killed. Elder chiefs counseled otherwise. Pace continues: “Following every little speech, a brave would grab each of the prisoners and parade him around a bush in the center of the lodge. After one of the trips, Fairweather leaned to a comrade and muttered something to the effect of ‘Once more and I pull that bush up by its roots.’ He was good as his word; even better because he not only pulled it up, but he also hit a medicine man with it.”
Certain that death was now imminent, the prisoners clustered themselves, and the braves once again began madly gesticulating. A party member who claimed to understand the language claimed that the braves and medicine men were certain that Fairweather was crazy, and that killing him would release the demon that was driving him to perform such acts. Whatever the reason, the party was released, and not wishing to tempt fate any further, they decided to return to Bannack.
It was on this return trip that Fairweather and his comrades entered Alder Gulch, making camp on May 25. Being prospectors by trade, it was an expected yet fateful decision when they broke out the pan and went down to the stream. That night, Scotsman Henry Edgar, a member of the expedition, scrawled in his diary the words that would become the stuff of local legend for centuries to come:
May 26 – Off again; horse pretty lame and Bill leading him out of the timber; fine grassy hills and lots of quartz; some antelope in sight; down a long ridge to a creek and camp; had dinner, and Rodgers, Sweeney, Barney, and Cover go up the creek to prospect. It was Bill’s and my turn to guard the camp and look after the horses. We washed and doctored the horse’s leg. Bill went across to a bar to see or look for a place to stake the horses. When he came back to camp he said, “there is a piece of rimrock sticking out of the bar over there. Get the tools and we will go and prospect it.” Bill got the pick and shovel and I the pan and went over. Bill dug the dirt and filled the pan. “Now go,” he says, “and wash that pan and see if you can get enough to buy some tobacco when we get to town.”
That first pan held $12.30 in gold (in 1863 money, which at the time was a sizable sum). The men staked their claims, returned to Bannack, went on a conspicuous spending spree, and returned a few weeks later… with 200 suspicious men tailing their trail.
153 years later, the tale of the Fairweather party’s discovery is mere prologue to an entire anthology of true (and debated) stories hailing from a time when 30,000 men (and a fractional share of women and children) descended on the 14-mile town of Alder Gulch. The unlikely saga of Bummer Dan, the macabre fate of Jack Slade, the humble origin of Calamity Jane, the era of Freemason-imposed Vigilantism, the defeat of the “Road Agent” bandits, and the Chinese men who discovered ingenious ways to fool the sheriff into releasing their friends… all are tales that could very easily lend their narratives to an entire serial of classic western movies – tales whose reality is very easily imagined when walking the wooden boardwalks and peering into the blacksmith shops, saloons, and general stores that line the town’s main streets.
Visitors to Virginia City will discover a four-block stretch of original and reconstructed false-front buildings (as well as other historic structures scattered along the residential streets on either side of town), replete with plaques describing the stories of each one of them. Some – including an old miner’s cabin complete with sod roof, a saloon, a mercantile, and several restaurants – continue to serve guests in their original capacities; the floorboards creak, the plate glass windows are cracked, and an aged aroma are evident and the authenticity is clear. Others – including an ice cream parlor, old time photo studio, candy shop, museums, and a live theater – populate structures whose shell is hardly changed from its original state. Still others, hiding in alcoves between operating businesses, cradle “snapshot” moments of what once occupied the structure – including a general store where ladies’ shoe-boxes still contain unworn high-button shoes and uneaten canned goods – and are frozen in time.
The past is thus interlaced with the present needs of a living town, as well as the touristy implements one would expect to discover at a vacation spot. The town’s displays themselves are open to all courtesy of the State of Montana, but in order to fully unlock the history spoken of above, as well as to gain an appreciation for the full romance of this place, one must necessarily seek out one or more of the following offerings:
Montana Heritage Commission Sponsored Experiences
Available from Memorial Day through Labor Day
Nevada City Living History Museum: Although little remains of the original Nevada City, the dozens of structures that populate its streets today are representative of what this city might have looked like at the height of the Alder Gulch gold rush. Reconstructed through the generosity of Charles and Sue Bovey (whose story is a modern day epilogue to the fascinating tales of yesteryear), the buildings were relocated here from various sites across Montana, and include Montana’s first schoolhouse, post office, and a number of structures of interest. Many of these buildings are open such that visitors can explore inside, and nearly all are filled with relics of Americana (indeed, according to tour guides, the collection of artifacts housed in Nevada and Virginia City’s state-owned collection is second in scope and number only to the Smithsonian) – including some more of curious interest than of historic veracity (the music machine collection, for instance). In totality, in spite of mostly being a reconstruction, Nevada City’s ghost town presents an immersive, comprehensive experience to its visitors – an authenticity and completeness missing from similar “ghost town” museums scattered across the American West.
The most significant feature of Nevada City, and the one that draws the most visitors, is the fact that on summer weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day the town comes to life with Living History Interpreters – an old west version of Colonial Williamsburg’s program, and just as in depth and immersive as that east coast counterpart’s. Volunteers perform roles that aim to provide visitors with a glimpse of what life was like on the 1860s frontier, and invite guests to learn period games, perform period chores, and “shoot the breeze” on “contemporary” issues such as women’s suffrage and the Lincoln presidency. The program is delightful – so much so that yours truly has been roped into it…
They even shot me on a couple of occasions last summer. But I guess that’s better than being hanged.
Admission to the Nevada City Museum is $10 on weekends and $8 on weekdays for adults, and $8 on weekends and $6 on weekdays for children and seniors. Package deals that include the Alder Gulch Railroad and River of Gold Panning Experience (described below), as well as local “Stay and Play” hotel packages, are also available.
Alder Gulch Railroad: As is readily discerned from reading Virginia City literature, a railroad never reached Virginia or Nevada City – the richest lodes having played out before the railroad could be built there. However, when the Bovey family sought to reinvigorate the Gulch as a historic park of sorts, a railroad finally arrived in the form of a 1.5 mile long narrow gauge excursion train. The tiny conveyance’s end points don’t really take you anywhere you wouldn’t be able to drive through anyway, but it does provide a unique vantage point with which to view Alder Creek’s expansive dredge tailing piles, beaver ponds, and a few old buildings. The tour is accompanied by informative narration by the train conductor, who relates some of the gulch’s stories to passengers (Bummer Dan’s is a popular one, as well as the Bovey family’s restoration efforts).
The trip takes about 25 minutes each direction, and is an inexpensive and fun means of picking up some basic area history while traveling between Virginia City and Nevada City, and offers sufficient context that casual visitors find it indispensable. Additionally, the railroad line provides other curiosities – The Nevada City Depot, in particular, contains a large train barn in which a beautiful steam engine and other rail vehicles may be viewed, as well as a small museum honoring the Bovey family. Both of these are located directly across from Nevada City itself. Should you take the train from Virginia City and seek to visit Nevada City before your return trip, allow yourself at least an hour (possibly two on weekends) before your return time. Reservations are required for the return trip and may be made at the time of purchase.
Round Trip train ride tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for children and seniors, while one-way rides are $8 and $6 respectively. Package deals that include the Nevada City Museum and River of Gold Panning Experience, as well as local “Stay and Play” hotel packages, are also available.
River of Gold Panning Experience: Rounding out the triumvirate of experiences provided courtesy of the State of Montana’s Heritage Commission is this classic gamble. Containing a mining museum and situated at a bend of Alder Creek, the River of Gold might be an acquired taste for many – more of a child’s attraction than anything else, but a fun one nonetheless. Here, as is implied by its moniker, guests pan black sand (taken from an actual, working Alder Gulch placer mine) for gold, almost always finding a generous bundle of garnets, an occasional sapphire, and, if lucky, gold dust. Attendants teach neophytes the ropes, and if you are patient and enjoy the pursuit, and don’t mind getting “skunked,” it is a fun means of rounding out a complete “living history” experience.
Gold Panning costs $8 per person and includes a vial for your discoveries. Package deals that include the Alder Gulch Railroad and Nevada City Museum, as well as local “Stay and Play” hotel packages, are also available.
Available from Memorial Day through Labor Day
Alder Gulch Summit Tours: If you only have time for one tour during your visit to Virginia City, this is the one to take. Touting itself as using the “largest off road tour truck in Montana” (I’m pretty sure it’s the largest off road tour truck anywhere), Nelson Studios whisks patrons aboard a giant retired M923 military transport vehicle that probably saw service in Desert Storm and carries them from the Virginia City Depot high into the gulch, reaching about 8,000 feet in elevation. The hour-plus long tour provides mountain views and is surprisingly smooth in spite of the rockiness of the road. Ken, the guide and proprietor, accompanies the trip with a well-researched history of the gulch’s mining provenance, offering stories that delve far beyond the commonly related Fairweather discovery described above. The tales are true, the views are spectacular, and the adventure unforgettable – the juxtaposition of mining relics, open pits, shafts, verdant scenery, and the occasional bear make for an entirely unique experience.
On summer evenings, when demand is high enough, Ken also offers a “Ghost Tour” that plunges into the brooding darkness of the gulch, accompanied by testimony about some of the creepier (and, again, entirely true) mine shafts… and some of the terrifying mining disasters that have plagued the gulch over the years. A resident ghost expert rides along on these tours, and strange sightings are not uncommon. This tour also covers ground that is bypassed on the daytime tour, covering some very rickety side roads. Small children might find themselves downright terrified, so plan accordingly. Taking both tours is highly recommended.
Adult tickets are $20 and children under 12 are $10. Tours meet in front of the Virginia City Depot. Call ahead at (406) 546-9787 for ghost tour information or to make a reservation.
Historic Fire Truck Tour: For those who are more pressed for time or seek to learn more about Virginia City’s urban culture rather than its mining history, or want to visit Boot Hill while hearing some of the townsfolk’s more fascinating stories (such as the fate of Jack Slade), the 35-minute fire truck tour offers a light-hearted look at some of the notable town sites located off the main drag. Jovially narrated with a hint of irony, the tours are quite popular, run hourly, and are suitable for all ages. Visitors should note that the Fire Truck and Summit Tours cover entirely separate spheres of local history, and as such one is not a substitute for the other.
Adult tickets are $9 and children under 12 are $6. Tours meet at Content’s Corner across from the Hangman’s Building, halfway up Wallace Street.
Being a full-fledged town in addition to a popular tourist destination, Virginia City offers far more than the historic structures and museums that are usually expected in such a district. A dozen independent shops and galleries, as well as seven restaurants and eleven separate lodging options, plus a smattering of other points of interest, round out a roster sufficient to fill a leisurely weekend’s itinerary. The following digest is not exhaustive, and only mentions those elements I have personally experienced, and neglects to include several significant attractions, including the Brewery Follies, the Bale of Hay Saloon, and Ghost Walk Tours among others. However, the following 10 businesses and sites are some of those which I have deemed well worth a visit in their own right.
Virginia City Players – Housed in a converted livery stable at the edge of town, whose old stone barn once housed horses in relative comfort, the Virginia City Players return each season to perform a series of single and double act vintage melodramatic plays. Although not original to the site, the Opera House is designed with the same creaky authenticity that much of the rest of the town possesses, and the performances themselves – for what they lack in dramatic subtlety (2015’s non-musical Phantom of the Opera was a bit too self-aware and indulgent in its emotional power for its own good) they make up for with vivaciousness, each performance followed by an extended collection of vaudeville style skit performances that is worth the price of admission on its own. Audience members are routinely brought on stage to partake in the frivolity, and the college-aged thespians seem to get great joy out of their job, and thus a great time is generally had by all. The 2016 season saw Sleeping Beauty and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow hit the stage. Check their web site ahead of time to see what’s playing during your visit.
Performances take place every day except Monday, and tickets run $20 for adults, $17 for seniors and $10 for children 17 and under.
Montana Picture Gallery – According to the proprietress, this creaky storefront is thought to be the world’s first old time photo studio. Although photographers have maintained a presence in Virginia City since 1865, it was only in 1920 that this studio began offering costume photos. An extensive library of outfits – including the usual suspects of dance hall girl of varying (for the era) smuttiness, cowboy, and extending to gay nineties and other attire – pair beautifully with a variety of sets.
The most popular location, however, is the old west saloon set attached to the photography shop itself. The proprietress has a fantastic eye for directing subjects into period-correct poses (which is perhaps where the true value of the experience comes in), and the more the merrier – lots of family and group photos are made here. It’s a gimmicky little attraction, but a lot of fun for all ages. I must confess I have yet to appear in one of their photos myself… but that will change soon enough.
Wells Fargo Steakhouse – As with much of Virginia City, the site which this restaurant now occupies had several lives; first as a restaurant, then as a post office, a mercantile, and even a bowling alley before finally becoming home to the Wells Fargo Co. That original office was eventually torn down and replaced with the present structure at the turn of the 20th century, which was subsequently abandoned in the teens. By 1945, the building took on a second life thanks to the Bovey restoration efforts, and once again became a restaurant.
Housing an impressive horseshoe bar and a ballroom-sized dining room lined with cabinets containing a portion of Virginia City’s massive collection of Americana, the restaurant – although not in itself authentic to the period – maintains a roughhewn elegance. Its present italian-steakhouse influenced menu is delicious (and reasonably priced to boot… steaks seldom break $30 and even then only when you want a huge one). The Bolognese Papardelle, at $16, was among the best pasta dishes I’ve found anywhere, as was the Chicken Marsala (also at $16). Huge bowls of mussels, olive oil cake, and a sumptuous Burrata Cheese – each item sampled was easily repeatable… indeed, I ate here twice over the course of a week. The wine list is a bit on the small side, but their Dark and Stormy more than made up for that (properly served up in a frosty copper mug) In truth, it is Virginia City’s only true “fine dining” spot, but it is also its best dining spot, period.
Reservations are recommended. Expect to spend about $30 per person for three courses.
Cousin’s Candy Shop – Although its current owners are rumored to be on the way out this season, Cousin’s Candy Shop is still deserving of mention. It was originally a menswear store and, later, a small grocery store (the latter’s heritage remains visible in the shop’s current decor.) Today, the shop is the most traditionally “touristy” shop in town. Indeed, with locations in Old Town San Diego and Seaport Village (also in San Diego) the proprietors seem to have a knack for choosing locations that invite tourist traffic, and understand that motion and color (and old time costumes) are the best ways to get people through the door (they make their taffy in the front window, which seems to stop pedestrian traffic with regularity). Their offerings range from the traditional sugary junk you’d find in a mall candy store to throwback specialties (Skybars for days), yummy regional fudge (Huckleberry Cheesecake… spectacular), a very satisfying taffy, and even a few truffles. Hopefully some things stay the same should ownership change in the near future. Well worth a stop whether you’re pulling a kid in tow or not.
Virginia City Creamery – For some reason one of the things Montana does better than most anywhere else is ice cream. Apparently the frozen yogurt fixation hasn’t taken root up here yet, and the state is all the better for it. Instead, super premium ice creams (high butter fat, not a lot of air) and creative flavors abound – the sort of frozen dessert that those of us who don’t give a rat’s behind about fat content rejoice over. This one might very well be the best if National Geographic and myself have anything to say about it; I first enjoyed this creamery’s product at the Tap Into Ennis Festival back in 2015… this, in spite of the fact it was 40 degrees out that day… and it was incredible. And it still is. Here, in a building that lacks much historical significance (one of the few post-1940s structures) designed to blend in seamlessly with the rest of the street, the Creamery offers up the best Huckleberry Ice Cream in the state. When enjoyed in a homemade waffle bowl, its perfection is self evident.
Star Bakery – The only restaurant in Nevada City, and therefore the best in Nevada City, actually has a winning bakery. The menu changes daily depending on what the proprietress feels like baking, but fruity bear claws and flaky orange rolls… and cookies with a star pressed into them… bespeak of homemade goodness.
A breakfast and lunch menu is available for table service dining, much of which is just fine; the pulled pork sandwich, for what it lacks in smokiness, does have a satisfying Virginia Barbecue style sauce, while the fries tend to come out over-seasoned in a cajun dust (ask for them plain). The eclectic menu also integrates items like coconut shrimp and chicken ciabatta sandwiches – the last of these being the best thing on the menu. My girlfriend is always right about these things.
Rank’s Mercantile – This storefront provides the most extensive library of books available for purchase in town, and is strangely the only place where some of the quintessential works of Virginia City literature are available (Look for Dick Pace’s Golden Gulch: The Story of Montana’s Fabulous Alder Gulch here, as well as the oft-cited account of the Montana Vigilantes by Dimsdale.) Alternate accounts of nearly every age of Virginia City history are available here, as well as a massive selection of period dress, souvenirs, and a tiny grocerystore in the back. Rank’s remains one of the select operating businesses that still performs the same business it always has at its given location – it was on the back steps of this general store that Jack Slade met his unfortunate end… a tale I encourage you to investigate for yourself once you arrive.
Dancing Buffalo Gallery – As mentioned earlier, there was never a railroad in Virginia City until the addition of Bovey’s short line to Nevada City. As a result, this relocated Northern Pacific Railroad Depot from Harrison Montana is technically anachronistic, actually standing on the former site of Virginia City’s Chinatown. While one half of the building serves as the Montana Heritage Commission’s visitor center, the other half serves as home to the Dancing Buffalo Gallery. The proprietor, Jack, offers an eclectic assortment of Montana inspired artwork – mostly Native in style.
From oil paintings to bas relief to prints to chinaware, everything here is of utmost quality and is specifically chosen for its nature as a conversation piece, its evocative characteristics, or the fact that it is just plain fun.
St Paul’s Episcopal Church – With its Tiffany windows and English Gothic construction that would seem more at home on the rolling hills of the Isle of Man than a dusty Montana hillside, St. Paul’s is the only true church building in town (for the fundamentalists among us, “Cowboy Services” are held out of a canvas tent on a hill above Nevada City), but would be an architectural point of interest even if the other five churches from Virginia City’s height survived the march of decades.
The current church was built in 1902, its interior resplendent with all the implements of a great Anglican Cathedral, including velvet-lined choirs and polished dark oak pews. An active and welcoming Parish, it remains an object of pride and a place of quietude and repose – a counterpoint to the boisterous wildness of the mining camp’s history.
Boot Hill – Cresting above town lies a windy hilltop that all evidence suggests is the last resting place of the five infamous “road agents” that terrorized the entire gulch with mayhem, murder, and extortion. The story of the Road Agents, as well as the Vigilantes, are tales well worth investigating upon your arrival – most accounts are as dramatic as any great western movie. Hung after a perfunctory hearing at the hands of the local Vigilance Committee and buried here, the presence of their bodies was enough to encourage the local townspeople to set up a new cemetery for respectable folk – going so far as to exhume and move their more peaceable relatives’ caskets to the other end of the hill in order to maintain sufficient distance between the criminal and the law abiding citizens. Today, stylized grave markers (and a pair of sagging cowboy boots) are placed at the most likely location where the five agents are buried (as determined via yet another grotesque moment in local history… be sure to ask around about Clubfoot George), and the site is one of the most photographed locations in town.
Grave markers aside, the view from Boot Hill provides a 360 degree panorama of town and the gulch – well worth a visit for both the macabre atmosphere and the tremendous view alike. Perhaps nowhere else in town offers as evocative an immersion into history than this breezy promontory; indeed, come sunset, when the Ruby Valley is bathed in orange and purple light and the cupolas and false fronts of Virginia City’s centuries-old buildings fall into shadow, the gulf separating the region’s present day slumber from its boisterous heyday doesn’t seem very large at all.
There is a sense of promise and imminence at the heart of the Montana experience – a sense that has been present since its earliest history. It is a sense expressed in the relentless perseverance of its people, who dare to will their dreams into reality against the strikingly beautiful yet pitilessly wild earthen canvas they inhabit; making peace with bitter weather, quaking ground, uncertain economics, and untamed nature while searching to capture each generation’s own manifestation of the glittering rock. Today, the legacy of Fairweather’s tobacco money extends far beyond the net worth generated by the hundreds of claims scattered along the gulch so many decades ago – it extends to encompass a legendarium of the Old West as it truly was and a living town of people who treasure their uniquely Western heritage. It is a legacy that leaves Montana with a place where time stands still, and sometimes marches backward; where the boundaries between the material world and the metaphysical, the past and the present, seem blurred. Truly, here may be found treasures to be seen and lessons to be learned – all that is inspiring and elemental, tragic and colorful about the American story wrapped up in one tumbled fourteen-mile stretch of Montana gravel.
Header Photo: Virginia City from Boot Hill, photo by Michael J. Gordon