Montana Ghost Towns
Patience Cavanaugh hopes boarders will arrive late this afternoon to fork over a few dollars for her lumpy beds up the rickety stairs; meanwhile, she’s cooking up a meaty stew over a coal-fired stove and insisting any visitor who stops by take a bite. Just down the road, vigilante deputy sheriff John Xavier Beidler is ready to apprehend a thief set on taking a saddle right off a horse hitched at the Star Bakery. And the guys running the Criterion Hall Saloon are setting out a game of brag, the 1860s equivalent of poker, a few tables away from where some locals are playing faro.
Frozen in time, Nevada City boasts only three year-round residents. But from late spring to early fall, it bustles with living historical characters like Patience and Sheriff Beidler, who serve up homespun food and vigilante rigor and otherwise dole out life as it was more than a century ago. Some 50 miles as the crow flies from Yellowstone National Park (90 miles by car), this real ghost town is just barely down the road from Virginia City (year-round population: 150), where the Montana Heritage Commission is hoping to show what life was like during the gold mining days of the 1860s.
When Bill Fairweather and Henry Edgar discovered gold in the spring of 1863 in an area called Alder Gulch in what was then part of the Idaho Territory, the rush was on. By the winter of 1864, nearly 10,000 people crowded the countryside nearby, seeking fame and fortune. Gold miners, as well as those who serviced them, prospered during Virginia City’s initial boom, and became part of the impetus for the 1864 incorporation of Montana as a territory.
George Means, former historic preservation officer for Virginia City, knows the era almost as if he’d lived it. “It was a time of great hope,” Means says, nursing a beer in the Bale of Hay Saloon in Virginia City. “And towns like Nevada City and Virginia City bear witness to the hope and the promise of the day.” Despite being virtually uninhabited today, both cities became centers of commerce during the boom.
Alder Gulch yielded an estimated $30 million in gold in just the three short years between 1863 and 1866. But not everyone got rich. “The typical miner at Alder Gulch struggled, got blisters and a sore back, and barely made living wages,” Means says. But that didn’t keep people from streaming into the area to try their luck. Small settlements were so numerous and so scattered that contemporaries called the area Fourteen-mile City.
Today, the gold is gone, but the history is alive and well. Though only 14 of the buildings in Nevada City are original to the place, many date to the 1880s and were moved here to fill in pieces of the town that had fallen to decay and foragers over the years. You can visit Cora Finney’s two-story homestead, complete with muslin-lined interior walls (a popular method of decorating on the old frontier); listen to player pianos at the Nevada City Music Hall, which houses the largest public collection of automated music machines in North America; and see vintage bobbins and fabric at the frontier ladies dry goods store.
Don’t miss the site of the trial and execution of George Ives, the first of the so-called road agents to be hanged. From the Nevada City map: “Fifty-eight minutes after Judge Don Byam pronounced sentence, Ives was led to the scaffold. People crowded every rooftop, and revolvers of men on both sides of the verdict flashed in the moonlight.” Then, the order: “Men, do your duty.” This event was the catalyst for vigilantes, who hung 24 men in the space of a month. Over in Virginia City, the Hangman’s Building still bears the markings upon its rafters of the hangings of the “road agents” on January 14, 1864.
Just up the road you can visit Virginia City, the second capital of the newly formed Montana Territory in 1865 and now home to about 150 residents and a whole lot of history. Step into a tavern dark with restored carved mahogany, or stop by the Sauerbier Blacksmith Shop, housed in a cabin of V-notched logs. Remnants of the building’s hurdy-gurdy days — it was formerly a dance hall — include handcrafted French doors and other artifacts brought in by Charles Bovey, a state senator from Great Falls, Montana, who began buying property in Virginia City in 1944. He and his wife, Sue, worked tirelessly to collect many of the buildings and artifacts that have made Virginia City and Nevada City the historical attractions they are today. (History buffs will love knowing that the memorabilia inside the 70-odd buildings of Virginia City represent one of the largest collections of Western artifacts outside the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and some of the oldest standing examples of vernacular architecture in the region include the Kramer Building, McGovern Dry Goods, Strasburger’s Colorado Store, J.B. LaBeau (now, the Toy Shop), and City Bakery.)
To get closer to the ghosts of Virginia City, visit the top of Boot Hill, home of the town’s original cemetery, the site of road agents’ graves and one of the best views around. And if riding in a gasoline-powered tourist train between the two ghost towns sounds like fun — and why wouldn’t it? — you can make the 1.5-mile trip in about 30 minutes.
Issue: June 2011