Nevada City Montana - A Ghost Town Worth Seeing

Nevada City, Montana has a fun and interesting history. Like its close neighbor, Virginia City, its origins are tied to the Alder City gold rush of 1863. Unlike Virginia City, which I covered in my last post, Nevada City is the quintessential ghost town.

If you have visited many ghost towns, you know to use the term quite loosely. A ‘ghost town’ can be anything from an old-looking town filled with tourist traps to a few falling down buildings filled with packrat and cobwebs.

Nevada City falls somewhere in between. While a handful of hardy merchants ply their trade in a smattering of old buildings (old ones where pack rats sometimes share the space!), the majority of the ‘town’ is a collection of beautifully arranged and restored buildings from near and far.

A town map, available for .pdf download from Virginia City’s website), gives one a bird’s eye view of this amazing collection. Forty-seven buildings laid out on ‘platted’ streets reflect the original Nevada City era. Many buildings have been brought in from other areas. Some have been transformed from their original use. Yet all nicely represent the area’s numerous little towns which garnered the name ‘Fourteen Mile City’.

PLEASE NOTE: The photos which follow do not belong to me. I took many pictures. I cannot access any! Thankfully my wonderful friend shared her photos so this blog could become a reality. Thus - enjoy, but, please, do NOT copy any of the photos in this post.

It seems appropriate the Nevada City tour begins at the Music Hall. The tunes which flow from this fine collection of old instruments sets just the right tone. This photo (taken by Jim Stettner) shows one of the many beautiful instruments which grace this collection - the largest in North America.

Were it not for two families - the Frank Finney family (see below) and the Charles Bovey family (whose collection of all things old - buildings and etc. - formed the basis for modern-day Nevada City - this lovely ghost town would not exist. In fact, had Bovey not been asked to move his collection from the Great Falls area in 1959, Nevada City’s memory might have blown into oblivion.

In 1997 Montana state purchased the Bovey’s holdings in Virginia City and Nevada City, forever protecting them from destruction. While the process is slow, each year improvements are made. And, from the dust of distant days rises a town filled with memories of the homes, people, and livelihoods upon which Montana is built.

One fine example of a ‘gentleman’s house’ is the Frank Finney house. The home’s unpainted clapboard siding blends beautifully with the circling cottonwoods. This home’s prominent place is very appropriate. Not only does it reflect the finer life enjoyed by some, were it not for the Finney family, Nevada City might have gone the way of so many ghost towns - fading into the past like a dried up leaf whose memory shattered and disappeared altogether.

This buggy which likely traveled many miles in its first life now resides in Nevada City’s wagon shop. While I am not certain, it is possible this vehicle is a remnant from the Butte Carriage Works. The wagon shop has an interesting history - but not what one might expect. This huge building, the largest in town, once served as a dining room for visitors to Yellowstone Park’s Canyon Lodge.

From 1911 until 1959, Park guests dined in this large structure. Thankfully, instead of disappearing into Yellowstone’s dust or being condemned to the fire, this old building found a new purpose in modern-day Nevada City.

Several old vehicles - both from the horse and buggy days and a few newer models - grace the grounds or can be found in the area barns. While I know nothing about this old car, the Dimsdale School is a Nevada City original. This dug-out building housed the town’s first school. Named after Edward Dimsdale, a gentle, quiet Englishman who died at a mere 35 years old, this vintage 1863 building served as the educational center for local children.

The Iron Rod Post Office came from the now-defunct town of Iron Rod (near present day Silver Star, Montana). It has an interesting history - so interesting I will quote directly from the Nevada City map linked to above:

“In 1873 a federal postal inspector stopped at the Iron Rod Post Office and was aghast to find the local mail facilities sandwiched between a salon and a fargo bank. The mail was brought in and dumped on the floor, and everyone took what they wanted. The agent, inquiring for the postmaster, was told by the bartender that the postmaster was out hunting gold. The official then demanded the keys to the post office, and the bartender took a candle box, containing what mail was left over, kicked it out the door, and told the agent in no uncertain terms, “There’s your post office, now get!” He ‘got’, but Iron Rod lost its post office until 1876.”

As you can tell, the town’s ‘history’ has been brought to life, not just by the buildings and their furnishing, but also by the descriptive stories and vignettes from the area’s past one finds on the Nevada City Map.

Not only does Nevada City boast a town-worth collection of old buildings, many of the buildings are furnished with time-appropriate items - some in significant detail. This old school came from Twin Bridges. It is reputed to be the oldest standing public school.

Since this school was in operation from 1867 to 1873, Nevada City’s school system obviously was not connected to the Montana public school system - or the system had not yet been organized (perhaps because the area was still a territory) - in 1863. The Dimsdale school building, which stands nearby, is older - but does not carry this piece of ‘renown.’

Perhaps the most photographed building in Nevada City is the two-story outhouse, fondly nicknamed “Big John.” Another Nevada City original Big John is attached to the Nevada City Hotel. While the original hotel burned (a common problem in these wooden villages), the outhouse appears to have survived.

The thought of using a two-story outhouse makes me quite uncomfortable - unless, of course, I have access to the upper unit. However, these old outhouses were quite ingenious. The lower occupant did not have to wear combat gear as the upstairs deposits funneled down a shoot behind the lower seat. Nonetheless, wood doesn’t seem to be the best or most sanitary conductor of waste. Thus I suspect, if nothing else, the smell could be quite overpowering - particularly in the lower chamber.

This ‘hotel unit’ is one of several old cabins moved in from nearby locations. All original pioneer cabins built between 1863 to 1900, they offer a nice look at pioneer living conditions. This one seems a bit ‘damp’ for Montana’s wet springs. Notice, however, the cactus intermingled with the native grasses. That’s one way to keep the kids off the roof!

The Eberl blacksmith shop is another vintage building brought in from elsewhere. Smoky Eberl worked in Augusta, Montana. One of his many blacksmithing talents included creating brands for local ranchers. Because he always tried out his creations on the buildings doors and walls, this blacksmith shop is well-branded!

No town is complete without a graveyard. After all, everyone ends up occupying some space somewhere. Furthermore, tombstones often reveal much about the lives there memorialized. While Nevada City does not have a cemetery, Boot Hill in nearby Virginia City is worth a look.

The remains of five outlaws rest herein - but, what seems more than odd is the grave of a couple - William and Clara Dalton - also mark this hilltop. Is there a connection? Were they notorious criminals as well?

No. This humble grave, unmarked for many years, is merely the final resting place of a Maine couple who traveled with their family to Montana gold fields via California. Sadly enough, they died soon after arriving, leaving their four children to fend for themselves in this difficult time and place!

Obviously this town plays a role now which is, perhaps, even more important than its original. Every one of the structures preserved in present-day Nevada City represents an important piece of our past. Charles and Sue Bovey were visionaries before their time. Their efforts (which are now continued by the state) have created a living, breathing town which transports its visitors back a hundred years and more. I recommend it highly!

Lady of the Lake

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