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Virginia City- from ghost town to tourist mecca

For the third book of the Moonshiner Mystery series, Soiled Dove Murder, Delores and Lucy answer a call for help from a former student and travel to Virginia City, Montana. This moved the story from the usual series setting of Pony Gulch to Virginia City. It was an interesting research challenge because of course, Virginia City exists, and I had to slip my story into a real place that I had never been to. Thank goodness for the internet and books.

I spent many hours wandering up and down the streets on this map, looking for locations, checking archival photos for descriptions. At times, I felt I knew it better than my own hometown.

Virginia City is a town in and the county seat of Madison County, Montana, United States. In 1961 the town and the surrounding area were designated a National Historic Landmark District, the Virginia City Historic District. The population was 219 at the 2020 census.

It is Montana’s oldest incorporated community. Seemingly frozen in time, it is an outstanding example of a traditional gold mining community of Montana’s “Wild West” Era. It provides an exceptional sample of commercial architecture of the mid-19th century, and the surrounding landscape has been disturbed very little since the mining era ended in 1942.

Virginia City is known by many different slogans “Come experience where Montana’s history lives” and “The Magnetic Heart of Montana”, and “People Say We’re Old Fashioned. We Hope So” are three of my favorites and settled a lot of responsibilities onto my shoulders.

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From Boom Town to Ghost Town-

During its gold rush heyday, Virginia City was home to over 30,000 people. As gold discoveries dwindled or became too expensive to extract, the miners and speculators began to abandon the town. The next blow came when the railroad chose not to run a line to Virginia City. The decision to locate the state capital in Helena was a final straw and the town began to die a not-so-slow death. By the 1940s, only about 100 people were left to call Virginia City home.

If Virginia City was going to survive, it needed a miracle.

During the Forties, Charles and Sue Bovey, a wealthy couple fascinated by history, bought up most of the old, abandoned buildings in town and began to put much needed maintenance into the failing structures.

It was a love affair that grew into the first major, privately funded preservation program in the nation. The work they did was of monumental proportions and has preserved Virginia City’s 1860s look.

Today, Virginia City is an open-air museum complete with artifacts and living history enactments. Buildings in their original condition with Old West period displays and information plaques stand next to presently active restaurants, gift shops, and other businesses.

Nearly all of the town’s buildings are original with none brought in from elsewhere. Of the nearly three hundred structures in town, almost half were built prior to 1900. The entire town received National Historic Landmark status in 1962, and many of its buildings have been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

In addition to saving many of the original buildings, the Bovey efforts also provided much needed employment for the area. There were construction, restoration, and preservation efforts as well as entertainment and re-enactment opportunities for actors.

The Bovey’s opened several retail venues including the Fairweather Inn (which was originally the notorious Anaconda Hotel and was used as a setting in the Soiled Dove Murder), the Opera House for old fashioned variety performances, and the Bale of Hay Saloon. These initiatives brought in much needed restoration of the buildings.

“The Bovey family spent its own money and raised funds to restore Virginia City, then largely abandoned and in decay, to its appearance during the years the town served as a major western mining center and the territorial capital of Montana.

Like the Williamsburg restoration, which focuses on one key story—the revolution—in its depiction of history, the Virginia City restoration also showcased one dramatic event—the vigilante movement for law and order of the late 1860s.

Success at Virginia City led the restoration managers to expand their exhibits to the neighboring “ghost town” of Nevada City, where they combined the few remaining original structures with historic buildings moved from several Montana locations to create a “typical” frontier town.” Carroll Van West

The Boveys not only collected and restored buildings in the mid-20th century, they also packed them with “things”–and many of these are very valuable artifacts of the territorial through early statehood era. The collection of period furnishings, equipment, and inventory now number over a million items including 300 pairs of shoes that had never been out of the box for the shoe store. T is a monumental ongoing task to catalogue it all.

Charlie Bovey also put in the narrow gage short-line railroad between Nevada City and Virginia City. The only railroad to ever come to Virginia City.

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.

From Ghost Town to Tourist Mecca

Heritage preservation is an incredibly expensive undertaking and champions like the Bovey’s don’t come around often. Desperate to save their unique town, heirs of the Bovey family and residents of Virginia City cast about for a solution that would guarantee the future of Virginia City and Nevada City.

The National Park Service (NPS) considered adding the town to its system, conducting studies in 1937, 1980 and 1995. In the end, the State of Montana through the Heritage Commission, purchased the Bovey assets in Virginia City and Nevada City in 1997.

In acquiring approximately 250 buildings and over a million artifacts, Montana also acquired an enormous backlog of preservation needs. 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 Historic District of Virginia City and Nevada City is operated by the Montana Heritage Commission with financial and technical assistance from the NPS. The commission operates gold panning, the Nevada City Music Hall and Museum, and the Alder Gulch Railroad.

Funding for the extensive preservation projects is largely supported through operating revenue and private donations.

While the mix of state-owned properties and privately owned properties creates vitality and provides livelihood to the people of Virginia City, there is always dynamic tension and compromise between entertainment and historical accuracy.

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.

Today, Virginia City is one of Montana’s most popular heritage tourism destinations. More than 70,000 visitors come annually, generating millions in local revenue. Most visitors come during the summer, but the community is working to extend its commitment to heritage tourism to other seasons.

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