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Wandering the West

I attended a weird murder trial years ago, after a father-son pair of "Mountain Men" kidnapped a cross-country skier to make her junior’s wife. And no, this didn’t happen in a southern Utah polygamist town where such behavior is fairly normal. It happened in Montana where this kind of romance is frowned upon. A shootout took place and a man died and the failed suitors wound up on trial for murder in the courthouse in Virginia City, Montana.

I’d never been there before, or even heard of it, but was instantly charmed by the small town along Alder Gulch. The Madison County Courthouse dated from the 1860s and it felt as if I’d time-traveled to a murder trial of the previous century. The whole town seemed frozen in time, and most of it was.

Five years before prospectors found silver in Park City, they found gold in Alder Gulch. Word got out and upwards of ten thousand people poured in. They pulled out $30 million in gold in the first three years and had a wild, lawless time doing it. On the side hills of the gulch houses sprang up. The main street filled with businesses from the livery stable to the courthouse. Virginia City lives on in the history of the West as the place where the vigilante movement began. Citizens formed a "vigilance committee" which met upstairs at the livery stable. They took the law into their own hands and hung nearly a bad guy a day for a month. Many of them swung from the beam used to lift hay into the livery barn’s loft.

The boom didn’t last long. the 1870s the population had collapsed as the gold played out. No doubt a lot of those prospectors and miners headed south to a new boom town called Park City. But the amazing thing was that Virginia City did not collapse, burn or get looted. Some mining continued clear up to 1942 and about 150 residents kept the town alive. The fact that Virginia City was the county seat and the courthouse remained active helped immensely.

In 1944 a Montana rancher, farmer and legislator named Charles Bovey came into town and was instantly taken by it. He realized, long before historic preservation was a movement, that Virginia City represented an intact frontier town, just sitting there along Alder Gulch, frozen in time. He started buying up buildings, and building replicas of ones that had disappeared. He stabilized them, fixed them up, and loaded them with period antiques he combed the West to collect. He gathered up other historic buildings in other parts of the west and trucked them to Virginia City’s twin town a mile and a half away Nevada City. Nevada City had about a dozen original structures left when Bovey rolled in. He hauled another 90 original structures in to supplement them.

Eventually, Bovey and his wife, Sue, added a historic railroad to connect the two towns. He ran a hotel and playhouse, using whatever profits he made to keep his private preservation project going. I went back a few years after the trial and spent some time there with a local guide. One memorable store was a millinery shop run by two sisters. One day they locked the door, left town, and never returned. The bolts of cloth, racks of buttons and bows, and spools of thread are all there, just as they were when the sisters gave up and walked out for good. Imagine that no one broke in to steal any of it fear of that vigilance committee perhaps?

The Boveys poured their hearts, hard work and money into Virginia City. After they passed away, maintenance suffered and a few buildings were lost. But the state of Montana is in charge now the town is now under the jurisdiction of the Montana Heritage Commission. Now, summer weekends are filled with re-enactors showing what life was like in a mining boom town of the Civil War era.

There is another town like Virginia City. It, too, was a booming, lawless mining town in the West and it, too, somehow survived modernization and exists as if frozen in a time warp. And it, too, is named Virginia City. More on Virginia City, Nevada, next time.

Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.

THE VITALS:

Main Street Park City to Virginia City, Montana: 413 miles

Web site: http://www.virginiacitymt.com

Insider tip: The place pretty well closes up in the off seasons. This is a summer stop if you want to tour the buildings.


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