The rise and fall of VIRGINIA CITY in Montana

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This is an extract of the article, with small photos. You will find the complete article with full-sized photos in my e-book View America: West Mountain - Part 1

In the travel series View America, West Mountain - Part 1 covers Montana and Wyoming. It is not a traditional travelogue, but a non-commercial and more or less objective chronicle of an in-depth exploration of these states. Each state is described with its own brief historical background and its main sights, tourist attractions and points of interest.

My book does not describe lodgings, restaurants or entertainment, except where these may interact with the narrative. It is illustrated with more than 150 full-sized photos.

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The rise ...

On 26 May 1863 a group of prospectors discovered gold nuggets in Alder Gulch. News of the find spread like a wildfire, and not even two months later the hills were covered with tents and log cabins. At that time, the area was still part of the Idaho Territory. In 1864 the city was called Virginia City, and most of Montana's inhabitants were actually located right here.

Virginia City was the largest of the nine mining camps. It was spread out over 14 miles and had only 5,000 inhabitants, but it was instantly turned into the capital of the new Montana Territory. The reason for this extremely quick political intervention was obvious. The Civil War raged and every new source of income was more than welcome...

The lack of any official management and the immense wealth of the gold discoveries immediately led to utter lawlessness and debauchery. Murders and attacks on gold shipments were legion, and crime became rampant. In January 1864 Montana's Vigilantes were formed, which was a group of volunteers that took the law into their own hands. Inside of one month they hung two dozen men, including the infamous sheriff Henry Plummer, who was responsible for more than one hundred killings.

In three tumultuous years, and converted into contemporary value, more than three billion dollars worth of gold was produced! This was without a doubt the most important gold discovery in the world, and it surpassed even the Bonanza in the city of Virginia City, Nevada.

... and fall of Virginia City

In 1866 however the gold discoveries declined dramatically, and gradually the residents started to leave. In 1875 Montana's capital was transferred to Helena, and in 1881 the Northern-Union Pacific railroad preferred the city of Butte as its station.

Little by little Virginia City became more isolated. In its heyday it counted some 1,000 dwellings, of which now only 237 are left. The year 1880 marked the end of its fame, and only larger companies remained in the city to mine for gold. They completely destroyed the entire landscape by continuous dynamiting and the horrible system of hydraulic mining.

This procedure means that entire hillsides are simply blown away with high pressure hoses, and mounds of waste and slag gradually cover previous sites. The companies never bother to clean up the landscape because there is no profit in that, and afterwards the scenery simply looks awful, as if it had been bombed.

Virginia City 1 Virginia City 2

Ghost town

In 1942 the federal government decided that gold-digging became a nonessential activity, which meant that the use of dynamite was prohibited and that it could only be used for war activities. This meant the end of Virginia City. Of the nine original mining camps only a shadow of Virginia City remained, but the others became Ghost Towns.

In 1944 the wealthy Charles and Sue Bovey visited Virginia City, and they became enchanted by its glorious past. They bought one building after another, repaired the most ramshackle houses and even added some new ones, that were rebuilt with old building materials.

Then they focused their attention on Virginia City's twin, Nevada City, and from elsewhere in the state they brought in dozens of ancient buildings. In 1961 both towns were designated as Historic Landmarks, and in 1997 the state bought everything from the Bovey family.

Nevada City 1 Nevada City 2

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