Virginia City, Montana
True West|September 2021
This city struck it rich with a well-preserved ghost town.
PETER CORBETT

The Cartwrights and Bonanza made Virginia City, Nevada, famous.

But the other Virginia City, the one in southwestern Montana, stakes a claim to its big-foot relevance in the history of the West. It was the site of one of the West’s most lucrative placer-gold strikes and served as Montana’s territorial capital from 1865-75.

“If you had climbed the hill behind Virginia City in 1864 and looked down the gulch you would have seen a chaotic sight,” wrote historian K. Ross Toole. “Six thousand people, almost all young men, were digging, pushing, sluicing, cursing and fighting.”

Bill Fairweather, Henry Edgar and four other prospectors started the stampede of prospectors to what became Virginia City after discovering places-gold deposits at Alder Creek in May 1863.

Virginia City and eight other rowdy mining camps were quickly established along a 14-mile stretch of the creek, and the population surged to 8,000 or more. The easy gold was gone by the 1870s, and the towns dwindled over the next half century as the mines played out. An entire town was left behind.

“This is the largest collection of on-site, intact 1860s buildings in the entire West,” local booster David Bacon said. “Not just the buildings downtown but the homes we live in as well. We’re just part of that thread of stewardship of this town.”

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