Immerse yourself in the gold rush history of a Montana pioneer town.
Weathered wooden parapets, faded signs, and boardwalks recall the brief but frenzied period in the 1860s when Virginia City, a tiny Rocky Mountain town in southwest Montana, yielded as much as $1 billion (in today’s dollars) in gold. Back then road agents reputedly murdered 102 people while stealing more than $250,000 worth of the precious metal, and self-styled vigilantes administered justice with 22 hangings.
Today you’re more likely to run into locals in period dress than a lynching party while strolling Wallace Street, the main drag in a city that ranks as one of the West’s richest National Historic Landmark Districts.
Don’t just stick to Virginia City’s one paved road. Hike up to Boot Hill and visit a ridgetop cemetery containing the graves of five executed highwaymen.
In the midst of this authentic pioneer setting are active businesses such as a weekend farmers’ market, the Montana Picture Gallery, where a photographer will snap your portrait in vintage clothing, and Aunt Julia’s, where you can learn to spin wool.
Among the town’s museum-like displays is the McGovern Store, rescued by 1940s preservationist Charlie Bovey, which offers a glimpse of dry goods from baby booties to ladies’ bloomers, some dating to the 1880s. Don’t miss the Hangman’s Building, where the beam from which vigilantes hanged five highwaymen casts an eerie shadow. At the Montana Post building, you can catch a demonstration of the printing press that produced Montana’s first newspaper.
You can also pan for gold (and garnets) at the River of Gold Mining Museum along Alder Creek—the secret’s in the wrist wriggle. If you hit pay dirt, score a ticket to see the raucous Virginia City Players, who perform Victorian plays and skits at the opera house between Memorial Day and Labor Day. An oversized player piano fitted with organ pipes and drums provides deafening musical flourishes.
Beer is on tap but no longer brewed at the Gilbert Brewery, Montana’s first—which these days is home to the Brewery Follies, a comedy sketch troupe that gives cheeky performances from late May to late September.
Once you’ve covered Virginia City, hop aboard the Alder Gulch Short Line Railroad to visit nearby Nevada City, where living history interpreters reenact events such as the assassination of D.H. Dillingham. You may wind up joining in a game of five-card poker or helping fix a busted wagon wheel. And keep your eyes open for townswomen who demonstrate the art of riding sidesaddle.
Photography by Janie Osborne
This article was first published in May 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Pick up the Idaho & Montana map and the Idaho, Montana & Wyoming TourBook, and contact the Virginia City, Montana Chamber of Commerce: (800) 829-2969, www.virginiacitychamber.com . Area code is 406.
Banditos Bison short ribs. Wells Fargo Building, 320 Wallace St., 843-5556. Star Bakery Restaurant Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and their famous fried pickles. 1585 Hwy. 287, 843-5525.
Bennett House Country Inn From $75. Victorian B&B serving lavish breakfasts. 115 E. Idaho St., 843-5220. Nevada City Hotel and Cabins From $80. Opt for a cabin. 1557 Hwy. 287, Nevada City, 843-5377