Madison County, Montana is where you will find the “ghost” towns of Virginia City and Nevada City. Virginia City is a well preserved, very much alive, ghost town which is frozen in time. It is located just 20 miles west of Yellowstone National Park (90 miles by road).
In May of 1863 six men, Barney Hughes, Thomas Cover, Henry Rodgers, William Fairweather, Henry Edgar and Bill Sweeny set out toward the Yellowstone River. Their goal was to find enough gold to be able to buy tobacco in the town of Bannack. Unfortunately, they encountered a party of Crow Indians and were captured. The story goes that William Fairweather put a rattlesnake in his shirt. That impressed their captors and the men were released on the condition that they return to Bannack, which they did.
On May 26, 1863 Bill Fairweather and Henry Edgar discovered gold near Alder Creek, so named because the banks were lined with Alder trees. They discovered the largest surface field of gold in Alder Gulch. No matter how hard they tried to keep their discovery a secret, the word got out and within three weeks the town of Virginia City was thriving. Some built log cabins, some of which stand to this day. Others built makeshift brush shelters while others pitched their tents. By the Fall of 1863 between 7000 and 10,000 souls called this place their home.
June 16,1863 a township was formed under the name of “Verina”, which was intended to honor Varina Howell Davis, the first and only First Lady of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. However, when they attempted to register the name, a Connecticut judge by the name of G. G. Bissell objected to their choice of name and recorded it as Virginia City.
It quickly became a boomtown of thousands of prosectors and fortune seekers. This remote area of what was then Idaho Territory had no law enforcement except for the miners courts. Due to the great wealth of this region, the lack of any type of justice system and the methods of travel, crime began to flourish there. It is estimated that “road agents” were responsible for up to 100 deaths in the area in 1863 and 1864. These “road agents” would ride out from Robbers’ Roost and terrorize stagecoaches, miners and travelers in the area and as far as Missoula 200 miles away. The locals were afraid to do anything about it because the road agents had spies everywhere and would soon find out who was working against them.
Henry Plummer was, at that time, the sheriff of both Bannack and Virginia City. Many suspected that he was the leader of the road agents gang called “The Innocents”. The suspicions about the Sheriff and the increasing number of murders in the immediate area prompted the citizens to form the Vigilante Committee. After obtaining confessions from some members of “The Innocents” the Vigilante Committee arrested Plummer on January 10, 1864. Plummer was hanged in Bannack without a trial.
On May 26, 1864 President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Montana Territory. Bannack was the first territorial capital but on February 7, 1865 the legislature moved the capital to Virginia City where it remained until April 19, 1875 when it was moved to Helena.
It was in Virginia City that the first public school was established. “Montana Post”, the first newspaper was established in Virginia City.
Among this who have called this their “home”:
- Calamity Jane (resided here for a short time)
- Jack Slade (Pony Express co-founder and gunfighter, was lynched here)
- John Bozeman (prospector, merchant, founder of Bozeman, Montana and the Bozeman Trail)
- Nathaniel P. Langford (prospector, vigilante and first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park)
- William F. Sanders (founding member of the Vigilance Committee and U.S. Senator from Montana)
- Sam V. Stewart (Governor and Supreme Court justice of Montana practiced law here)
- Nelson Story (prospector, merchant and cattleman, famous for 1866 cattle drive from Texas to Montana)
- George Laird Shoup (Governer of Idaho moved there after the Civil War)
When the gold ran out, there was enough left so the homes and businesses remained occupied. Unfortunately, there was not enough go left to repair and remodel the existing buildings. In the 1940’s Charles and Sue Bovey began buying the town and doing some of the much needed maintenance. In the 1950’s the town began to be restored for tourism. Most of the city is now owned by the state government is a National Historic Landmark and is operated as an open air museum. There are nearly 300 structures in the town with almost half of them having been built prior to 1900. Many of the buildings are in their original condition with Old West period displays and information plaques standing next to modern diners and other amenities.
Nevada City was destroyed by dredging operation in the early 1900s. It was Charles and Sue Bovey who also undertook the restoration of Nevada City. Many historic cabins have been moved to the site of the original Nevada City. A visit to Nevada City Museum will give you an idea of what it would have been like to live in the Alder Gulch area during the 1860’s. You will find a collection of music machines, like an automatic violin player. Nevada City is operated as an outdoor museum.
So – what is there to do in Virginia City and Nevada City?
There is a Boothill Cemetery in Virginia City which you can visit. You can take a ride on the narrow gauge Alder Gulch Short Line Railroad which will take you to Nevada City. You will not want to miss a visit to the Virginia City Opera House and a performance by the Virginia City Players. The opera house is an old livery stable which has been remodeled into a 19th century era theatre. It is home to one of the only remaining Cremona Player pianos which is used was used to accompany silent movies. It has been carefully maintained and restored. The theatre company performs authentic 19th entry melodramas and vaudeville variety.
You can take a 25 minute ride on the Virginia City Overland Stagecoach which will take you on a narrated tour up Alder Gulch to where the gold strike was originally discovered.
You might want to screen for rubies with the Red Rock Mike and Garnet Gallery in nearby Alder.
Montana Carriage offers a variety of horseback riding opportunities. You can choose a 1/2 hour ride, a 1 hour trip or, if you feel adventurous, you might want to try the 2 hour ride. There are also pony rides for the kids.
All of this in just over an hour’s scenic drive from West Yellowstone Montana – making it the perfect day trip for the family!
AUTHOR: SUE KNAPP