A BRIEF VIRGINIA CITY HISTORY AND THE VIRGINIA CITY PRESERVATION ALLIANCE
This page is maintained by the Virginia City Preservation Alliance, and dedicated to Tom Sargent. Tom was a long-time member of the VCPA, who served on our Board of Directors, established the VCPA web site, was responsible for initiating the Victorian Ball programs, and who deeply loved this place.
The Virginia City Preservation Alliance was founded as a non-profit association in the spring of 1994. Its mission is to preserve, restore, and display structures and artifacts related to the history of Virginia City, Montana, to tell the story of the western mining frontier, and to protect the integrity of the local community. Activities of the VCPA include the restoration of the “Hangman’s Building,” the custodianship of the “Robber’s Roost” property, sponsoring educational programs; including the very popular summertime Victorian-era balls. The Alliance also publishes a quarterly newsletter which provides a wonderful resource of articles on the history of the area. Those interested in joining us in our efforts may become a member through a modest annual contribution. For more information, contact us at: P.O. Box 55; Virginia City, MT 59729.
“IT WAS A WARM AFTERNOON… THE SUN WAS SHINING BRIGHTLY.” HENRY EDGAR, ANACONDA STANDARD, SEPTEMBER 5, 1899
It was about four o’clock in the afternoon on May 26, 1863, when a ragged, trail-weary party of six men decided to make camp beside a mountain stream whose course they had been following since early morning. The men knew they were only a few days away from the gold camp of Bannack, which they had left in early February. Since leaving Bannack, they had experienced a series of ill-fated adventures; including their failure to rendezvous with a larger party of prospectors led by James Stuart, and being captured by warriors of the Crow nation. After selecting their campsite, four of the men walked back upstream to do some gold prospecting before dinner. Bill Fairweather and Henry Edgar remained behind to take their turn at “camp duty.” Bill walked a short way downstream to look for a good spot to picket the party’s horses for the night. Bill soon returned to camp and told Henry that he had noticed a site where a piece of bedrock was exposed along the creek bank. Fairweather asked Edgar to help him prospect the site and, as Edgar recalled, “Bill got the pick and shovel and I the pan and went over.” Fairweather led the way to the site, shoveled some dirt into the pan Edgar was holding, and told him: “Now go’ he says, ‘and wash that pan and see if you can get enough to buy some tobacco when we get to town.'” What Bill had discovered would prove to be one of the richest gold deposits in North America, and would be the seminal event in the history of Montana.
Within a week of Fairweather’s discovery, hundreds of hopeful prospectors and camp followers of all stripes were crowding along the length of the stream which the discovery men had named “Alder Creek.” Nine mining camps soon came into existence along approximately a fourteen-mile stretch of Alder Creek gulch; including Summit City, Pine Grove, Highland City, Bear Town, Central City, Nevada City, Adobetown, and Junction City. The “crown jewel” of the camps, however, was a site that was briefly known as “Verona;” located at the approximate mid-point of the Alder Gulch.
On June 16, the Verona Town Company, whose directors included the discovery man Tom Cover, filed claim on 320 acres of land to be used as a townsite. When the directors presented the charter to Dr. Gaylord Bissell (who had been elected as Judge of the Fairweather Mining District), the proposed name of the new town was “Varina;” honoring the wife of Jefferson Davis-president of the Confederate States of America. Judge Bissell, a staunch Unionist, declared that there was no way he would approve of a charter which carried this name. One of the charter’s proponents hastened to explain that, inasmuch as Mrs. Davis was the daughter of a prominent New Jersey family, her name actually represented a thoughtful compromise in sectional consciousness. Somewhat mollified-if not totally convinced-Judge Bissell responded by crossing out the proposed name “Varina” and writing in the name of the city as “Virginia.”
Within a year, Congress created the Territory of Montana and Virginia City quickly developed into one of the prominent cities of the Rocky Mountains. The population of the Alder Gulch is estimated by various accounts to have reached between 8,000-10,000, most residing in Virginia City. As one may expect, Virginia City became the site of many “firsts” in Montana’s colorful history; among which were: the first territorial capital, the first newspaper (the Montana Post), the first meeting of the Montana Historical Society, the first public school, and Montana’s first Masonic Lodge. The actual buildings associated with many of these historic events remain preserved, and provide an extraordinary glimpse into the architecture and daily life of the 1860’s. Virginia City is also recognized as the original site for one of the most controversial organizations in Montana’s history…the Vigilantes of Montana.
By 1875, mining activity in the Alder Gulch had greatly diminished, as had the area’s population. Most of the Gulch camps had been abandoned and Virginia City’s population was less than 800 people; approximately 40% of whom were Chinese who had been diligently working abandoned claims sites for years. Not surprisingly, Montanans voted to move the territorial capital to the much more prosperous city of Helena. And, as if a metaphor for the demise of Virginia City, Bill Fairweather died on August 25th at Daly’s Inn (Robber’s Roost)-he was only 39 years old, and a penniless alcoholic. Despite this inglorious demise, the Report of the United States Assay Office determined that, between 1863 and 1889, at least $90,000,000 in gold had been extracted from Alder Gulch…a figure which represents a present-day equivalent of no less than $40,000,000,000.
Except for the occasional stirrings of local events, Virginia City and the Alder Gulch would generally slumber during much of the following twenty-five years. Then, in 1898, the Gulch was noisily awakened with arrival of a mechanical marvel. The mining dredge boat the Maggie Gibson became the first dredge to begin operations. By far, the Conrey Placer Mining Company conducted the principal dredging business. While the dredging operations would breathe new life into the economy of Virginia City, it also meant the doom of the few remaining vestiges of the other camps of the Gulch as the steam and electric powered giants savagely reshaped the earth. The titan of the Conrey dredges, which cost $296,000 to construct in 1911, was known simply as “Electric Dredge #4,” and was reportedly the largest dredge in the world. By the time the era of the dredges had passed, several additional millions of dollars in gold would be shipped east-and the landscape of the Alder Gulch was left forever scarred.
Although dredging operations ended in 1937, mining in the Gulch was steadily-albeit marginally–carried on by quartz (“hard rock”) mining companies. The influences of World War I and the Great Depression had deeply weakened demand. In 1937, there were reported to be 16 commercial quartz mining operations in Alder Gulch, and their total production of gold was valued at $150,000. With America’s entry into World War II, gold mining was declared by the government to be a “non-essential” activity and all operations were closed. Although there have been periodic spurts of mining operations since 1945, usually when there is a spike in the value of gold, the treasure that is now most obvious is found in the preservation of the historic gems of Virginia City and Nevada City.
The credit for the “second discovery” of Alder Gulch belongs to Charles Bovey, who fell in love with the unique history and charm of this area. Charlie began purchasing buildings and property in the late 1940’s, and thus saved many structures from demolition and decay. In 1961, Virginia City was designated a National Historic Landmark. Following Charlie’s death, the Virginia City Preservation Alliance was formed and led the initiative for the State of Montana to purchase his properties. Now managed by the Montana Heritage Commission, the State has done a wonderful job in restoring and maintaining the buildings and thousands of artifacts. Private individuals have also joined in the restoration of historic buildings and protecting the historic integrity of the community. We encourage you to not only visit Virginia City, but to join the VCPA and become a part of preserving, maintaining, and interpreting the history of this special place.
“VIRGINIA! HOW GREAT WAS VIRGINIA! SHE SAT LIKE A QUEEN BESIDE A GOLDEN STREAM… HER GATHERED WEALTH BUILT MANY A PALACE, AND CAUSED THE LINES OF POLISHED STEEL TO WEND THEIR WAY ACROSS A CONTINENT.” A HISTORY OF SOUTHWEST MONTANA, NOYES
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY ON THE HISTORY OF VIRGINIA CITY, MONTANA
Allen, Frederick. A Decent Orderly Lynching.
Barsness, Larry. Gold Camp: Alder Gulch and Virginia City, Montana.
Dimsdale, Thomas J. The Vigilantes of Montana.
Ellingsen, John; John N. DeHaas; Tony Dalich; Ken Sievert. If these Walls Could Talk.
Forney, Gary R. Discovery Men.
Forney, Gary R. Finding El Dorado.
Langford, Nathaniel P. Vigilante Days and Ways.
Miller, John Knox. The Road to Virginia City; Andrew Rolle, editor.
Nuggets of History from Virginia City, Dick Lee, editor.
Pace, Dick. Golden Gulch.
Sievert, Ken and Ellen Sievert. Virginia City and Alder Gulch.