Flashes Of Fall

In most places the harvest season drifts slowly into place before twisting and twirling to its winter resting place. However, fall comes early to Montana’s high mountain valleys, and it can have a weightier personality. Furthermore it can be an unpredictable visitor. Some years autumn passes so quickly, it seems to last less time than it takes to say the word. Other years the season lingers, filling our days with delightful colors, brisk days, crisp nights and the unmistakable fresh and musky scents one associates with the time of year. But, when fall lingers, winter often swings by to drape its white mantle across the season’s glorious mane.

Thus it is not unusual to watch the sunset burnish falls golds and reds but wake to a sunrise throwing a pink hue on a world gone white. It is an almost breathtaking experience - one which reminds us of winter’s coming glories yet leaves us longing for a few more glorious hours basking in autumn’s golden glow.

This fall we experienced the full spectrum from full-blown harvest colors to winter wonderland and back again - all within a few hours. One day heavy, wet snowflakes fell fast and furious for several hours.

Two days later we were back in fall’s warm embrace, but now we were could enjoy the season's shades of red and gold against the mountains' powdered sugar backdrop.


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


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


An ALMOST Forest Fire

We had a wonderful winter at Elk Lake. In fact, all of southwest Montana and the surrounding countryside which includes the Centennial and Madison Valleys enjoyed more snow (translate that more water) than those downstream knew how to handle. However, a dry summer followed our wet winter. Since we were more than ready for summer, we had no complaints. Yet, as the delighful, dry days followed each other like soldiers marching in a parade, our thoughts could not help but turn to the heavy fuel loads on the surrounding hillsides. Then along came August with its lightening storms. Sometimes wet; usually dry. Thus that unwanted (and yes, feared, phone call) came as no surprise. "What are you guys cooking up there? Looks like you have quite a BBQ? Did you forget to invite me to the party?" A friend from the Madison Valley heralded the unwanted news. Some fishermen confirmed his report a few minutes later. While they'd seen no lightning and heard no thunder, there could be no doubt - up near Hidden Lake a fire burned.
We immediately called the Dillon fire dispatch - a number we had never had reason to use, not even once, in the previous seven summers. Now the waiting game began. Would they put it out or use it for 'resource management'? (By the way: I'd be curious to know how many of you manage your cash like we 'manage' our forests. I have never been tempted to manage my money by feeding it to the flames! How about you?) Would the wind blow from the south (like usual) or the north (as it does on occasion in August)? How far would it spread? How much damage would it do? And thus we spent a semi-restless night.
Mid-morning I received the call I had been half dreading. The Forest Service ranger had the decision: "Our fire team has reached a conclusion. While we would like to use this fire for resource management, we feel our resources are just too stretched to handle another fire." THANK GOD! I had the answer I had been praying for. Yet, when I expressed my relief, the ranger seemed surprised. "You were worried?" Well, yes! Based on their management policies, I have to admit knowing I had the USFS protecting my home and business was not very comforting. Besides, while the USFS considered the fire in 'broken country' (i.e. not a lot of fuel and thus easy to control), I knew the areas between Elk Lake Resort (or Wade Lake or Cliff Lake) and the fire supported substantial fuel loads.
So, although I had not seen the fire, the fire crew heading toward Hidden Lake a couple hours later brought a great sense of relief. The fact they returned the next day made me feel even better. The lone person who returned the next couple of days to confirm the fire was out - a precautionary measure I greatly appreciated. The one or two man crew who continued to check the fire daily for the next two or three weeks - even after a substantial rain storm - well, they were harder to figure out. Yet, the USFS put the fire out - so I remain forever grateful.
In the leading photo, you can see that the upper landing campground (above the parking lot and outhouse) offered a great fire vantage point. From there you can see why they considered the burn to be in 'broken' country. You also get an idea of the area burned. The second photo shows the burn as you approach it from the 'new' trail. The third reveals how close this fire (which only burned about 18 hours - with a large portion of that through a cool, mostly still night) came to topping out trees and really taking off. And the third, fourth, and fifth photos show the fire damage from various angles. As these reveal, the country, while broken, contained areas of heavy timber with substantial deadfall (i.e. - plenty of fuel to feed but never satiate a hungry fire).
The Fireline makes a clear demarkation between burned and un-burned (except where the fire - a mere beginner - managed to jump over it). While the burn damage is slight (thanks to the quick supression), the difference is significant. I couldn't help but think of Smokey the Bear's theme as I viewed the sight. Or, maybe more appropriately, the newer signage asking "Which do you want? This? or This?" (with pencil sketches of a green forest contrasted to a burnt landscape). I know my preference. Especially with several years of the current management system under our belts.
Yet my primary cause for concern is seen in this and the following picture. Standing at the top of the burn and looking toward Elk Lake, I viewed a green countryside which very likely would look significantly different right now had the USFS decision swung the other way.
On the other hand, our summer breezes are predominately southern. This means Elk Lake Resort sits in a mostly protected location since the nearly treeless and wet Centennial Valley is our southern neighbor. Cliff, Wade, and Hidden Lakes are not so fortunate. In fact, 'this' is the picture which would most likely have changed as the flames, driven by that southerly wind, flew north down the chain of lakes to the Madison Valley.
After our sobering reminder, we turned toward a little tarn of which my hunting hubby knew. Its lush greeness tucked amongst the heavy firs and pines stood in stark contrast to the fire-scorched landscape such a short distance away.
And, while I am no wildlife biologist, I have a feeling the animals which traveled this obviously well-used trail from the tarn to the lush grassy feed nearby, are also breathing a sigh of relief. After all, while my home 'might' have been threatened, their homes were in danger and they had NO voice!
Certainly this guy - the KING of a species very negatively impacted by the YNP fires - appeared to prefer the lush unburned meadows to the charred fields just a short moose-jaunt away.
As we headed back past Hidden Lake, I couldn't help but relish the view. Clear blue waters embraced by fir and pine draped hillsides topped by an emerald blue sky! Ahh - the beauty out my back door - something I see on a regular basis - now to be appreciated even more after its close scrape with death! Lady of the Lake