The old ghost towns of the west certainly are windows of the past and each has plenty of stories to tell. Most of the old west ghost towns that appeared on a map originated overnight with the discovery of a local ore bearing site. The west was a vast expanse of dangerous wide open spaces when gold fever struck in the mid 1800s and the earliest gold camps in remote places faced great challenges that only those stricken with gold fever would be crazy enough to conquer. Some gold camp regions were so dangerous that it took years for civility to catch up and by the time that it did, the mother lode was usually on the way to being played out. The pace of the gold rush moved so fast back in those days that the local folk did not hesitate to abandon their own town to move on to new golden horizons when the local mines dried up. The result was plenty of time capsules of the past and one of the most famous is Virginia City, Montana!
As the old story goes, prospectors from Bannack, Montana discovered gold in a creek in what is now Virginia City, but back in 1863 it actually was the Crow territory. The danger of tribal war did not slow the prospectors down and soon the town appeared on a map as Varina, which was the original name, but this is where the history gets complicated. The American Civil War was in full swing at that time and Montana was a Union Army State, but the Varina was a confederate mining town in a very dangerous territory. What this all adds up to is an early town history that reads like sheer pandemonium.
Lawlessness was taken for granted as being a way of life in old Virginia City. The rich glacial placer claims drew thousands of people seeking to earn some quick riches and this town attracted nearly as many unsavory types. This dangerous remote area had no justice system or lawmen, so the criminal activity ran thick. Because this mining area was so remote, those who were hauling gold over the long trails were subject to robbers that were called Road Agents way back then. The Road Agents were truly despised and when one was captured, there was guaranteed to be a big hanging party in town.
Boot Hill overlooks the town of Virginia City and this is the famous graveyard where many of the Road Agents were buried. The names are fading on the markers, but the full story of Boot Hill and the history of old Virginia City can be found in any one of the museums on Main Street down at the base of the hill. The Road Agents certainly were some sinister outlaw characters, so touring Boot Hill first will provide a glimpse into just how dangerous this place was back in the day.
Virginia City remained lawless until well after the Montana Territory was established 1864. When civilization finally caught up, this entire region was booming with placer and lode mines that initially produced great numbers. By the early 1870s, Virginia City was a commerce hub for the entire gold producing region, so the money certainly flowed through the businesses in this town. For the same reason, Virginia City was a haven for every vice known to mankind.
The era of prosperity in Virginia City was short lived, because the regional political structure moved from neighboring Bannack to Helena in 1875. The center of commerce in Virginia City also shifted to Helena, so this town saw almost no growth from that point onward. By the time that the 1890s rolled around, old original Virginia City was pretty much an abandoned ghost town. Fortunately, the locals formed a preservation society and they started purchasing the decaying old wooden buildings before they were lost forever. The long term Virginia City preservation project was a success and this old ghost town is now a National Historic Landmark.
Not all ghost towns are alike and what sets Virginia City apart is the tough nature of the setting. The old original main street area is very rustic, because so many of the buildings were made with split timbers and rough hewn lumber. Walking on the wooden plank sidewalk and looking at the faded signs on the storefronts is like traveling back in time to an age when mountain men were still exploring this territory. Virginia City also has modern style buildings from when this town was a territorial commerce center and the architecture is something to marvel over.
Virginia City is the pride and joy of Montana and this old ghost town now thrives as a summer season tourism destination. Nevada City is right next door, so these two famous ghost towns can be experienced during one day trip. Lodging options included booking rooms in the old original miner cabins and there are plenty shops that market locally crafted goods. Visiting the museums is the best way to learn about the wild west history and old Virginia City sure does have plenty of interesting stories to tell!
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