A couple weekends ago, we put the top down on the two-seater and headed north on a return odyssey to Virginia City, Montana. More than three years ago, we had driven through this historic spot – once the capital of the Territory of Montana and site of one of the richest gold strikes in America – while driving home from a winter-weekend escape to in Bozeman.
I wrote about that road trip on the Life In The Tetons blog soon thereafter (it was my first post there), noting that I wanted to check out Virginia City again, maybe even as soon as that summer.
Well, time flies, and we hadn’t been back yet. On that cold winter’s day in 2010, we were the only ones strolling along the boardwalked streets, and it had a definite lonesome feel…. I wondered what it would be like in hot weather, with the sun blazing overhead. How different would it be with tourists, the eateries and souvenir shops open?
This short video captures the feel of our visit. It was still a little on the melancholy side in spite of the picturesque setting, green grass and flower boxes adorning front yards rather than snow.
The historic vibe remains terrifically interesting. More of the little buildings had open areas to check out, full of long-gone products like original Edison records, with old scales and cash registers standing testimony to previous customers’ purchases. We wandered off the main street and up to Boot Hill, where plain white markers show the burial spots of five men who met their maker at the end of a rope. The back roads, especially one along a now-dry creek, were also lined with sweet tiny cabins and more elegant Victorian-style homes.
We saw more leftover vehicles this time, including a horse-drawn stagecoach (now offering tours), an ancient Tin Lizzie (fuel supplied by two equally aged gas pumps), a vintage bicycle, and various styles of buggies in cobwebbed storage sheds. Transportation in this remote site was just as important then as it is now.
Whoever wrote the many National Historic site plaques created exemplary copy; it was both informative and engaging – great stories hide behind these storefronts! A goodly number of characters once called this place home, including an African-American woman (born a slave) who once owned the city waterworks. The “Driggs outbuildings,” which we’d missed last time, were once an L-shaped brothel; the connection to local folks named Driggs would be a stretch, I’m sure.
I took a lot of photos of doors, no surprise, and especially liked the stone building that was once the location of the Montana Post, with its tables of type-face boxes that once contained letters ready to be set with the latest news.
Like most days-of-yore destinations, contemporary life intruded. We shared the walkways with others, folks checking their phones and correcting their children. At least three other convertibles were among the cars parked along the boardwalk, and a band at the saloon belted out amplified tunes.
But because Virginia City hasn’t yet been discovered (or is far enough off the beaten path that its traffic is much lighter), the outdoor seating area at the Bale of Hay bar was nearly empty. Few passengers had purchased tickets for the little narrow-gauge sightseeing train (we didn’t see it operate at all), and depressingly for shop-owners I’m sure, little commerce seemed to be taking place at the retail businesses. In fact, the entire Vigilante Gift Shop was for sale, a steal for under $200,000.
After a picnic on the Main Street (and I’ll admit we brought the makings in our very own cooler rather than contributing to the local economy), we headed up the highway to Nevada City – and found it even emptier. Without many automobiles, the photos we took look like we’d stepped into a time machine.
I’m glad we went to these ghost towns again; my impression that they are worth saving was reinforced, as was my interest in learning more about them.
The visit served as a poignant reminder of just how short (and precious!) our history is here in the Rocky Mountain West. Virginia City was a progressive and modern place in its peak, the early 1870s, but with most of its buildings made of wood, they are subject to ruin through weather and time. Many have been preserved or recreated, but one doesn’t sense much community yet rebuilt there.
In the 1940s, one Montana couple, Charlie and Sue Bovey (he was the owner of the old Model T), first began the work to keep these places alive, and my hat is off to them.
Going back to Virginia City pushes me to rethink my own position about saving history right here where I live.
In our travels we’ve seen historical sites that have lasted 1,500 years (or twice that), places that continue to thrive and are much more than tourist attractions only. If Virginia City is destined to last another 150 years, it will need an influx of both residents and visitors.