Virginia City Ghost Town - Montana
Virginia City, Montana from boot hill (stitched)
Virginia City, Montana from boot hill
Virginia City Map

On August 2, 1997 I visited Virginia City, Montana - a historic mining ghost town.

Virginia City sign

Virginia City holds a special place in Montana's history. Though it may be best known as the rough-and-ready mining camp where vigilantes organized to rid the country of road agents and murderers, it is important to Montana history for many other reasons as well.

Virginia City was Montana's Territorial Capital (1864-1875). It was the site of Montana's first public school. It was the home of the first newspaper. It was the place where the first book in Montana was published.

The town has been unusually well preserved, largely through the efforts of Charles and Sue Bovey. When they first visited Virginia City in the early 1940s, much of the town was falling down. They began organizing others to save what they could, and many people helped out. But it was mostly their own money and their own work that saved the town.

They traveled the country, collecting historical artifacts. They bought buildings and did the work needed to preserve them. They assembled at Virginia City and nearby Nevada City what may be the largest collection of historical materials dealing with the American West outside the Smithsonian Institution.

Because of a series of lucky circumstances--the absence of major fires, the lack of later development, and the early interest of the preservation-minded Bovey family--Virginia City today remains an historic treasure.

The Montana Legislature voted to purchase these properties in 1997. Under the leadership of the Montana Historical Society, Virginia City and Nevada City are flourishing.

Virginia City sits high in the Rocky Mountains in a bowl along Alder Gulch, where gold was first discovered in 1863, during the Civil War. Within a year the town grew to over 10,000 and became the Territorial Capital in 1865.

Today, Virginia City's main street provides an exceptional example of commercial architecture from the later eighteen hundreds. Many of the original structures are filled with original artifacts. The buildings are both historic and architecturally significant, especially for the Victorian era.

The Vigilantes - Into the lawlessness of Virginia City (the Federal Government some years left the territories with no law at all) came the Vigilantes. They were composed largely of Masons, Republicans and Northerners and their victims were mostly Democrats with Southern sympathies.

If you have absorbed the first facts, now add to them the fact that Paris Pfouts, the founder and leader of the Vigilantes, was a vociferous secessionist. Then add the next very popular fact, that one of the last of the early victims was not a murderer, but a likable but contentious drunk.

The Vigilantes hung the sheriff (absolutely nothing to do with that he was a Democrat and the Vigilantes were Republicans) during the Civil War, and several others who were accused of being his henchmen. Some believe the Vigilantes were heroes, others are sure they were self serving villains.

The gold produced in Virginia City was strategic to the Civil War, which was being fought while the new city was being founded. The issue was the control of that far-away gold producing territory, either by the South, who had the majority of citizens, or by the North, whose land it was.

With a beginning like that, it is no surprise that the early history of Virginia City is filled with lawless conflict. The lack of documentation results in extensive historic disagreement. What really happened in those formative and important Civil War years is still unfolding in a dramatic and stirring series of confusing revelations, as new information is discovered.

All of Montana has the deepest pride and affection for Virginia City. No more colorful pioneer mining camp ever existed. Dramatic tales of the early days in this vicinity are legion.

Rich placer diggings were discovered in Alder Gulch in the spring of 1863 and the stampede of gold seekers and their parasites was on! Sluices soon lined the gulch and various “cities” blossomed forth as trading and amusement centers for free-handed miners.

The very much alive ghost town, Virginia City, Montana, is frozen in time. It is a remarkably well preserved old west Victorian gold mining town just 50 miles west of Yellowstone National Park (90 miles by road).

When the gold ran out, there was still enough left so that homes and businesses were occupied, but there was not enough wealth to remodel the buildings. So it froze, and now represents the whole Victorian era. Virginia City is the true and original Old West. It is a gem, held within an incredibly rich area of naturalbeauty, recreation and history.

Virginia City and Nevada City lie along Alder Gulch about one mile apart, the site of the richest placer gold strike in the Rocky Mountains with an estimate total value of 100 million dollars throughout the 18th and 19th century.

In the early 1860s, during the first three seasons, an estimated $30 million worth of gold was removed from the gulch.

Along with Nevada City, it was rescued from complete destruction by the Bovey family starting about 1945 and they restored/preserved many buildings.

All the historic structures are along the main street which is also the highway so there are lots of cars and people.

Numerous buildings are functioning commercial establishments - some in historic buildings.

Other structures are just historic with or without internal displays of appropriate furnishings.

All the historic stuff was purchased in 1997 by the State of Montana and is part of a National Historic Site.

Main Street, Virginia City, Montana
Main Street, Virginia City, Montana
Main Street, Virginia City, Montana
Main Street, Virginia City, Montana

Virginia City Montana
Virginia City Montana
Virginia City Montana
Virginia City Montana

Virginia City Montana
Virginia City Montana
Virginia City Montana
Virginia City Montana

Virginia City Montana - inside store
Virginia City Montana - inside store
Virginia City Montana - inside store
Virginia City Montana - inside store

Inside store, Virginia City, Montana
Inside store, Virginia City, Montana