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Putting the "Wild" in the "Wild, Wild West"

Virginia City and Nevada City, Montana


By —— Bio and Archives--September 19, 2011

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imageOn May 26, 1863, while the great armies of the Civil War slaughtered each other with calculated fury back East, six gold prospectors camped a dozen miles west of Montana’s Madison River beside a creek in a draw between the Gravelly Range and Tobacco Root Mountains, way out there in the middle of nowhere. Having escaped their own capture by Crow Indian warriors, and now headed for the gold camps at Bannack, one of those miners, Bill Fairweather, scooped a little dirt into Henry Edgar’s pan hoping to find some tobacco “money” in the form of gold. It payed off and what followed was nothing short of mayhem.

Within a year 10,000 - 30,000 people, depending on your source, packed into a string of nine communities along a 14-mile stretch in and around Alder Gulch and exploited one of the richest gold deposits in North America. Many got rich. Most didn’t.

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Evolving from crowded tent camps, wickiups and log shacks to resplendent Victorian residences and looming commercial establishments, this lawless, roaring cauldron of money-grubbers and hucksters, ditch-diggers and gold-panners, merchants and madams and evil gun-slinging road agents put the “Wild” in the “Wild, Wild West” and put Virginia City, and Nevada City a mile and a half down the road, on the map and in Montana’s history books.

Drive a dozen miles west of the beautiful, small town of Ennis and step back in time because Virginia City is the best preserved gold mining town from the 1860s in the Rocky Mountains. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and preserved with loving care and abject devotion, the twin cities are astonishingly authentic and a fantastic place to visit.

These are not idle words. A “living” ghost town with 150 year-round residents today, back in the 1860s Virginia City boasted over 1,100 buildings compared to 230 major structures still standing. It had the first newspaper, telegraph and public school in Montana, and was the capitol of the Montana Territory from 1865 until 1875 when placer gold played out and most everyone moved on to more fertile grounds. A third of Virginia City’s population were hard-working Chinese; they didn’t all wash laundry and serve Kung Pao Chicken but labored in the mine fields, re-working old claims and breaking their backs like the rest in order to survive and hopefully thrive.

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Sundays in Virginia City were indistinguishable from the rest of the week as boozing, bartering and brawling roared full-throttle. Known far and wide as the “Social City,” the locals were partiers, celebrating seemingly non-stop with balls and galas and square-dances and shindigs and hoedowns and similar foot-stomping gyrations. The women weren’t all sluts and whores and gold-digging leeches, either. Some could read and formed literary circles and took baths, and some thought themselves better than others and embarked on missions to “reform” those beneath them and spruced up their town of 5,000 with the trappings of relative civility.

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Located 90 road miles from Yellowstone National Park and situated on the infamous Bozeman Trail, Virginia City became a regional marketplace, a major hub and transit corridor through the 1880s. It continues to feel remote notwithstanding the many buildings and 70,000 tourists and history buffs that trickle through every year.

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It was due to this convenient remoteness and tremendous wealth that flowed out of Alder Gulch that its history is drenched in blood. With no state-sanctioned courts or statutes to speak of, the region was lawless, and not in a good way. Between the booze and the guns and all that greed that brings out the worst, and the chaw, and the stink and the stench and the smoke, and the muddy manure, it was a nasty life by most accounts, certainly by 21st- century standards.

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Masked thieves and other scum-of-the-earth known as “road agents” killed at will and took what they wanted. Out of sheer necessity crude “miners courts” dealt with bad guys as they saw fit, holding court from the back of wagons, quick trials out in the open around large fires in the middle of the road under the gaze of a curious audience of hundreds. Many tossed due process out the window and got right to it, forming vigilante groups that hunted down and lynched suspects on a regular basis, guilty or not. Twenty-four men were strung up in less than a month by some accounts.

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In due time placer gold played out and was followed by environmentally destructive but lucrative dredge mining, a process whereby enormous dredges ravaged the ground beneath communities where gold still lingered under their feet, leaving enormous tailing piles “as big as barns” in their wake. Nevada City was one such town, but thanks to the Finney family, who refused to sell out to the mining companies, half the old town remains for posterity whereas everything west of the highway was wiped out and sucked dry by the early 1900s. West Virginia strip miners would be proud of such efficiency.

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Today’s Nevada City is incredible if you’re into that kind of thing, and even if you’re not. A sprawling Hollywood movie set waiting patiently for grips and gaffers, 14 original buildings still stand alongside one-hundred-plus authentic cabins, shacks, barns and wooden whatnots, including a two-story outhouse (wear your hat), dating from the 1800s and collected from around the state and preserved to perfection. If you want a glimpse of the bare-knuckled American West frozen in time, swing in for a visit. “The Missouri Breaks” starring Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando was filmed here back in 1976.

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They mine humans and their dollar bills today. Virginia and Nevada cities provide all the amenities the visitor should expect. From rustic lodging to upscale bed and breakfasts, cheap grits to fancy dining, you’ll be treated well. But don’t be mistaken; it’s not just a bunch of old buildings on display. There’s plenty to do and see. Gathered between those musty, dark walls are historic artifacts and collectibles galore. The Nevada City Music Hall has the largest collection of music machines, gaviolis and player-pianos in the world, or at least North America. You can jar your teeth and rattle your hemorrhoids on a bumpy ride on the iconic horse-drawn stagecoach, or take in a naughty theater show at the opera house. Or, try your hand panning for gold or digging up rubies. Better yet, hop on the fully restored 1910 Baldwin steam locomotive that rolls back and forth between Virginia City and Nevada City.

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And if you’re still bored, why not lick an ice cream cone sitting on a bench near one of those old weathered livery stables and daydream back in time to the noise and the crowds and the guns and horses and the main street muck, and explain to me how Bill Fairweather, who scooped-up that first pile of gold-laden dirt, died a penniless alcoholic at the age of 39 when so many others became so filthy, stinking rich off his discovery. Explain that.

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John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer


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