With a population of over 10,000 in 1864, Virginia City was the largest town in the inland Northwest. The communities strung out along Alder Gulch were known as the "Fourteen-mile City."
The 2nd most commonly asked question here in Virginia City is: How many people live here now? According to the latest population survey... 132 very hardy souls.
Research shows that people have lived in southwest Montana for the past 12,000 years. Some of the native tribes that lived in, hunted in, or traveled through the area include: Shoshoni, Bannock, Cree, Salish, Crow, Kootenai, Pend d'Oreille, Nez Perce, and Blackfeet. Southwestern Montana was designated as common hunting ground for the Blackfeet and other tribes in 1855. Trappers, miners, homesteaders and ranchers displaced in a few decades the hunting and gathering way of life that had existed here for thousands of years.
The gold rush in Alder Gulch produced the largest amount of placer gold in the Northwest an estimated $120 million. Placer gold mining, or free gold prospecting, should not be confused with hard rock gold mining. Placer mining involves dust, flakes, and nuggets, while hard rock mining involves veins of ore.
Alder Gulch yielded an estimated $30 million in gold just in the three short years between 1863 and 1866, but not everyone got rich here. The typical miner at Alder Gulch struggled, got blisters and a sore back, and barely made living wages. They would often work a few days at one job and soon quit to try another.
Alder Gulch garnets were made into jewelry during the early 1900's.
Some small-scale mining operations continue to this day, and evidence of past mining operations are visible everywhere - prospect pits, trenches, shafts, adits (generally collapsed tunnels), mill tailings, and waste-rock dumps scatter the hills of Virginia City.
Virginia City was one of the main Montana stations of Ben Holladay's Overland Mail & Express Company between 1863 and 1866, later incorporated into the Wells Fargo stage coaching empire.
Western miners came from the California gold rush to Virginia City traveling up the Columbia River and overland on the Mullan Road during the 1860's. Businessmen and homesteaders traveled the Bozeman Trail, portions of which have recently been named to the National Register of Historic Places.
Camels arrived in Virginia City in 1865 for freighting. Electricity arrived in Virginia City in 1892 for lighting.
The first public school in Montana opened in Virginia City in 1866. The Madison County Courthouse was built in 1876. The first company of the Montana National Guard organized in Virginia City in 1885.
The first newspaper in the territory, the Montana Post, printed its first issue in August of 1864. Today's local newspaper, the Madisonian, began publication in 1873.
Merchants established the first businesses in Virginia City in wagons, tents, and wickiups (brush shacks) during the summer of 1863. Gold dust was the preferred medium of exchange, which was valued at $16 - $18/ounce.
The occupants of many of the buildings in Virginia City changed frequently, especially during the boom years of the 1860's. Buildings were converted from residential to commercial and back again quite often.
Virginia City was the outfitting point for trips to the Yellowstone area during the 1860's and 1870's, and Virginia City served as the first administrative site for the park when it was designated as America's first National Park in 1872.
Virginia City became the capitol of the Montana Territory in 1865. Thomas Meagher was the acting governor that year. Today, the capitol of Montana is in Helena; our governor's name is Brian Schweitzer.
The first theatre company was formed in Virginia City in 1864. Today's Virginia City Players were formed in 1948 by a gentleman named Larry Barsness for the purposes of providing entertainment to evening visitors.
During the 1860's and 1870's, Virginia City was known as the "Social City." Balls and dances were held for every occasion, and women's clubs provided place for literary pursuits, general self-improvement and the "reform of society."
Telephone service was established in Virginia City with 28 telephones in 1902. Cellular service finally arrived in June 2010.
Virginia City served as a regional marketplace throughout the 1880's and was tied to the international economy. Today, it is a regional attraction and draws visitors from the international community.
Virginia City was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
The displays in Virginia and Nevada Cities differ from other outdoor museums in that they are interspersed within a living community and house the largest collection of old-west artifacts outside of the Smithsonian.
Wallace Street has one of the finest collections of 1860's - early 1870's mining camp commercial architecture on its original site in the country.
Charles & Sue Bovey came to the area in 1944 and established the Historic Landmark Society, and later Bovey Restorations in 1972, to save and restore Virginia and Nevada Cities and to provide visitor services. In 1997, the State of Montana purchased the Bovey properties and established the Montana Heritage Commission to continue their work.
If you think your trip here was long, consider the journey of James P. Miller, an early resident of VC, who walked the 450 miles from Salt Lake City in May of 1865. The trip took him 16 days, and he was required to pay a $10 toll upon his arrival.
"There was nothing visible to remind a person in the slightest degree that it was Sunday. Every store, saloon, and dancing hall was in full blast." from The Road to Virginia City - the Diary of James P. Miller
"Rained, snowed, and hailed all day. Horrible weather and very cold." from The Road to Virginia City - the Diary of James P. Miller
"News arrived this P.M. of the attack of the stagecoach going east- by road agents. Four men killed, one missing- The road agents numbered about twenty. There is a mass meeting of the Vigilantes this evening." from The Road to Virginia City - the Diary of James P. Miller
"Up half past six. Snow three feet deep and still snowing." from The Road to Virginia City - the Diary of James P. Miller
"After supper, walked to the top of Burying Ground Hill (Boot Hill Cemetery) - I enjoyed a good cigar and watched the sunset, a beautiful spectacle away to the west as far as the eye would distinguish." from The Road to Virginia City - the Diary of James P. Miller
"Two men found 'hanging in the air' this morning up the gulch a little bit with a card on their backs on which were the words 'Hung by the Vigilance Committee for being road agents'" from The Road to Virginia City - the Diary of James P. Miller
"having used the fire water rather freely, felt the effects so much that I went to bed accordingly."
"Resolved on October 22, 1865, that from this date I do not spend a cent for foolish expenses such as Billiards, Drinking or Eating, Driving, Riding, Smoking, that I limit my monthly expenses for Dancing and Gifts to $10."
"Bought a 5 gallon keg of beer, which I propose to drink for my health. Cost $2 per gallon, resolution intact." from The Road to Virginia City - the Diary of James P. Miller
"Into the sleigh and started our ride - very crowded - about 18 inside. Rode all through the streets, Took possession of several saloons. Had a carousing time." from The Road to Virginia City - the Diary of James P. Miller
"Episcopal services in the morning. Methodist Sunday School at 2 P.M. and intended attending Presbyterian Meeting at night but, happening to be in the Occidental (Bar), I was unable to resist the temptation, losing about $20 in games and drinks." from The Road to Virginia City - the Diary of James P. Miller
"At about 8 o'clock, attracted my attention to a beautiful display of 'Aurora Borealis' or Northern Lights - the most beautiful I had ever beheld." from The Road to Virginia City - the Diary of James P. Miller