Virginia City—Montana’s First Incorporated Town
By Rick and Susie Graetz | Office of Research and Creative Scholarship | University of Montana
Returning home to Bannack from a gold-searching trip in the Yellowstone Valley, six tired prospectors were captured by the Crow Indians. Had it not been for the quick thinking of one of them, their consequent good luck wouldn’t have come about. Showing no fear and trying to prove to the captors he had special powers, Bill Fairweather placed a rattlesnake in his shirt. Impressed, the natives freed them.
For whatever reason, on May 26, 1863, the group paused in their journey to pan the gravels of Alder Creek. Before dark each of the men had enough “colors” in their pans to convince them that they had made a major find. While replenishing supplies in Bannack, they caused a bit of attention and 200 other would-be hopeful miners followed them back to Alder Gulch, spawning the beginning of Virginia City and the largest of all of Montana’s gold strikes.
Long before these treasure-hunting intruders came along, Indian tribes lived in and traveled this country. The Shoshone were here before 1600; the Cree and the Bannocks and Sheepeaters came later. Native Americans didn’t make life easy for the first miners. Trails were closed and would-be settlers were attacked on their way west. Eventually, many of the Indians in southwest Montana made an effort to get along with whites, though the favor wasn’t necessarily returned.
Madison County Commissioner James Fergus, in 1863 said, “There is no doubt that the Indians have murdered and plundered a great many whites, but so far as my experience goes during the past winter, the whites have been the aggressors and the Indians have behaved, themselves by far the most civilized people. Many of the rowdies here think it’s fine-fun to shoot an Indian.”
In July 1862, news spread of Montana’s initial big strike when prospector, John White, discovered gold in Grasshopper Creek. Bannack was born and on May 26, 1864, it became Montana’s first Territorial Capital. The inaugural Territorial Legislature met there in December 1864, but the town’s political role was short lived.
By 1865, realizing that the gold in Bannack was playing out, the politicians moved the capital to Virginia City in Alder Gulch, a distinction it would hold for ten years. All of the records and furniture for the seat of government were hauled from Bannack across the mountains by wagon, although no building was ever constructed in Virginia City to house the territorial government.
Growth came quickly. On June 16, 1863, a miner’s court, which was in essence the initial government of the town, incorporated Virginia City, making it the first such city in the state. Fort Benton, established in 1883, holds the distinction of being Montana’s oldest continuing settlement but it seems it wasn’t incorporated.
Before a year was over, an estimated 7,000 people were crowded into the narrow mountain gulch, and soon the population skyrocketed to more than 10,000. Other camp towns along the 14-mile canyon sprang up.
Of these other places, Nevada City, just a couple of miles down the road to the west, was the most prominent, claiming 2,000 citizens. The other places, Summit, Junction City, Central City, Union City and Adobe Town were much smaller. Only the sites of these latter places exist today. But none of the settlements came close to the civilized presence of Virginia City.
When commercial activity boomed to major proportions, more stately buildings grew from the original wikiups and tents the first miners used. Freight wagons loaded with supplies rolled in from the steamboats at Fort Benton, and via the Bannack Trail from Corinne, Utah, and a trail from Walla Walla, Wash. Culture also came in the form of the Montana and the People’s Theater and the Lyceum, a literary club. The founding of The Montana Post in Virginia City gave the state its first newspaper.
Growth and wealth in Bannack and Virginia City also attracted all sorts of ne’r-do-wells. Both places were as rough as any movie ever made the west look. Led by the infamous Sheriff Henry Plummer, the outlaws controlled life in the mining communities. Robberies and murders were so prevalent that the victimized citizens organized, and taking the law into their own hands, dispensed what became known as “frontier justice.” As with the other mining camps, the placer gold didn’t last forever and shortly, Virginia City began its decline. By the late 1860s, the population had dropped to about 2,000 and by 1890 to only 600 people remained.
In 1875, several controversial votes turned over the seat of Territorial government to the thriving town of Helena, formerly Last Chance Gulch. In the early 1900s, a short-lived new life was given to Virginia City with the dredging of gold in the gulch. By 1937, though, this activity, too, had ended.
Today’s Virginia City, with its 220 people, is a stable, tourist oriented community serving as the county seat of Madison County and an important link to Montana’s heritage. Views of the past have been well preserved here through the magnificent restoration of its buildings. Years ago, Charlie and Sue Bovey, ranchers from the Great Falls area, began a long-term love affair with this southwest Montana community, one that grew into the first major, privately funded preservation program in the nation. The work they did is of monumental proportions and has preserved Virginia City’s 1860s look. Nearly all of the town’s buildings are original; none has been brought in from elsewhere.
The Virginia City Players, the oldest continuing summer-stock theater operating west of the Mississippi, persists in its quest to draw and entertain visitors just as its predecessors’ performances for the miners did more than a hundred years ago.
A stunning, authentically restored 1910 No. 12 Baldwin steam locomotive trundles the scant 1.5 miles on the Alder Gulch Short Line to Nevada City. Operated on weekends by volunteer engineers, this mechanical work of art adds to the pioneer town atmosphere and attracts train buffs of all ages. The sound of the steam being released and the whistle blowing always causes excitement. During the week, a gasoline-powered engine moves the cars. Much of the credit for the success of the railroad goes to John Larkin of Michigan.
Only a dozen or so of Nevada City’s original buildings remain. What prevails here now is also a result of the magic of the Boveys.
In the 1950s, in order to create the realistic look of an early-day Montana gold camp and save historic buildings, The Boveys had many period edifices from the late 1800s moved here from other parts of the state and Wyoming. The structures are so well laid out that to the uninitiated, it appears that Nevada City is a town everyone exited at once, leaving the buildings behind in good standing.
The state of Montana, through the Heritage Commission, owns the Bovey assets in Virginia City and all of Nevada City — a total of 248 buildings. The job of preserving and continuing the restoration is now in the hands of the Montana Heritage Commission, a branch of the Montana Historical Society. The Commission received a $1 million grant from the National Park Service for building stabilization. The first project, the Sauerbier Blacksmith Shop, was recently completed. Another million-dollar grant, this one from Ruth McFarland, built the McFarland Curatorial Center, a state-of-the-art preservation and restoration center.
The lure of exploring one of the cradles of Montana history makes Alder Gulch a place well worth spending several days in. Its physical setting between the Tobacco Root Mountains and Gravelly Range are an added attraction. Public roads approach scenic sites and signs of yesterday are everywhere.
The gulch and Virginia City come alive in the summer, but the quiet of fall, coupled with that season’s gold and orange also makes it a good time to see this Montana treasure.