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Visiting Virginia City
“It was about four o'clock in the afternoon on May 26, 1863, when a ragged, trail-weary party of six men decided to make camp beside a mountain stream whose course they had been following since early morning. The men knew they were only a few days away from the gold camp of Bannack, which they had left in early February. Since leaving Bannack, they had experienced a series of ill-fated adventures; including their failure to rendezvous with a larger party of prospectors led by James Stuart, and being captured by warriors of the Crow nation. After selecting their campsite, four of the men walked back upstream to do some gold prospecting before dinner. Bill Fairweather and Henry Edgar remained behind to take their turn at "camp duty." Bill walked a short way downstream to look for a good spot to picket the party's horses for the night. Bill soon returned to camp and told Henry that he had noticed a site where a piece of bedrock was exposed along the creek bank. Fairweather asked Edgar to help him prospect the site and, as Edgar recalled, "Bill got the pick and shovel and I the pan and went over." Fairweather led the way to the site, shoveled some dirt into the pan Edgar was holding, and told him: "Now go' he says, 'and wash that pan and see if you can get enough to buy some tobacco when we get to town.'" What Bill had discovered would prove to be one of the richest gold deposits in North America, and would be the seminal event in the history of Montana.” (From the Anaconda Standard - Sept 5, 1899)
From these simple, even accidental roots, sprang the then-bustling Virginia City and Nevada City. During their peak in 1864, Virginia City boasted a population over 10,000. When one walks the semi-deserted streets of this quiet town during the off season, it takes a lot to imagine it ever being the largest town in the inland Northwest. Yet it was!
A rare mid-summer break led to an unexpected outing to our ‘resident’ ghost towns: Virginia City and Nevada City. While I can’t imagine anyone calling Madison County’s seat a ‘ghost town’, with a current population of around 130 people, it is definitely closer to a has-been than a bustling, modern metropolis. Nevada City, on the other hand, is the quintessential ghost town - and a very nicely restored one at that.
The towns are close neighbors with barely a break as you leave the one and enter the other. However, the difference is stark. Virginia City, especially during the summer months, retains the look and feel of a ‘live’ community. When the tourists go home, things definitely quiet down, but even then, freshly painted buildings, electric lights, and shiny vehicles set a contemporary context.
However, as one browses the streets of town - even when they are teaming with other sight-seers - history comes alive around every corner. Perhaps the most striking difference between Virginia City and a town like Ennis (don’t get me wrong, I really like Ennis), is Ennis’ historic feel has been ‘created’. Virginia City just ‘is’ what it has always been - a city with deeply historic roots.
Take the courthouse. The Virginia City Courthouse which houses the Madison County seat was dedicated in 1876. In fact, it is the oldest working courthouse in the state. In spite of the ongoing need for improvements and repairs, this old building is loved by its people.
Certainly St. Paul’s Episcopal Church is a must-see. The large and numerous stained-glass windows (reputedly by Tiffany) and the beautiful pipe organ stand in sharp contrast to the rougher side of the old mining town. I found it even more interesting to learn the funds for construction came, primarily, from a Mrs. Henry Elling as a memorial to her late husband. I found it hard to imagine one person funding this grand structure. In a town replete with memories of a rougher side, it definitely stands as a monument to man’s higher nature.
President Grant named an Ohio resident, Benjamin F. Potts, Montana’s territorial governor in 1870. While the mountains must have seemed huge to an Ohioan, the house had to seem small to the large man. Yet, this simple, unassuming house, served as the “Governor’s Mansion” for the first of Potts’ twelve year term as governor.
Next door one finds the Lewis/McKay house (also called the McKay / McNulty house). While of a simpler design, at the time of its construction by J.M. Lewis, its modern construction (an incorporation of log and planed lumber) marked it as innovative. Originally there were two homes (when built in 1864). In the 1870's a central addition joined them to create one larger home.
Miner Alex McKay, a Scottish imigrant settled his family into this home in the 1870s. They were some of the first families to settle in the Alder Gulch area. And, the adventurous genes did not stop with the parents. One of Alex’s daughters, Flora McNulty, became one of Montana Territory’s first woman doctors. She left her mark not only in her pioneering spirit but also in her philanthropic efforts to preserve the area’s history and send young people to college.
However, what might be considered the most prestigious home in this section of town housed the butcher, George Gohn! Constructed in 1892, this lovely dwelling incorporated stonework and interior finishes of oak and walnut.
This might not be the home in which one would expect to find the local butcher, but Mr. Gohn did not just own the meat market. He was also a member of the vigilance committee - an important (and controversial - even then) part of the community.
The lust for gold often fed on greed. This less-than-noble ambition drove many who flocked to Virginia City and Nevada City at their inception. Yet, high hopes and lofty dreams rarely came to fruition in gold fields. The vast majority walked away - chasing the next dream or moving to a more welcoming climate. A few others, however, chose a different occupation:‘wealth redistribution.’
Often law and order came too slowly to these settlements. Certainly this was the case for overnight cities. A mass of humanity flock to an area. Hard work for little reward follows. As surely as night follows day a small segment will decide to make their fortunes regardless. Thus begins the pillaging and oppression we see repeated throughout history.
Local residents respond, inevitably, seek some form of justice. Vigilante committees were one common solution. Virginia City’s vigilantes were said to have performed one of the most deadly episodes of ‘crime reduction’ in American history. Before they were finished, twenty-one troublemakers dangled from ropes.
Virginia City’s “Hangman’s Building” where five road agents lost their lives to vigilante justice, now exists simply to share this ‘piece’ of the town’s past. A step inside its doors is a step back in time. A diorama shows its violent roots while nearby a simple dusty roll-top desk represents the simpler life which followed.
The quiet streets have their own stories to tell. Graceful stone buildings peer out arched windows upon humble boardwalks. Even the slow restoration process has managed to keep the flavor of the old west alive. Strolling down that boardwalk, I couldn’t help but expect some rowdy miner to come stumbling out of the next open doorway - his work-stained hands and hardened muscles burdened with supplies for his camp somewhere along Alder Creek.
The restoration work which continues in both towns has paid some dividends. Certainly the summer tourist season, while short, is a welcome revenue source. But, the tourists are only a few of those interested in the history the area exudes. Hollywood has found the area useful in depicting the ‘real’ west. Thus the area has set the stage for scenes found in such well-known movies as “Return to Lonesome Dove” and “Missouri Breaks.”
Life has not ‘ended’ for this Centennial Valley neighbor. In fact, it may just be beginning - again. Without doubt the growing number of summer homes dotting the hillsides suggest, for some at least, Virginia City is breathing the air of her second ‘life.’
Lady Of The Lake