Placer gold strikes along Alder Gulch in the early 1860s would produce mining camps all along that gulch comprising what became known as the “fourteen mile city”. As nearby Bannack’s placers started to run out, Henry Edgar, Bill Sweeney, William Fairweather and a few other prospectors were on the hunt for more of the shiny stuff. They would find it on May 26, 1863 and once the secret was out, 10,000 people would flood the area, all with the same mission. Camps like Virginia City, Nevada City, Adobe Town, Junction City and Summit, among others would thrive along the 14 mile stretch of road.
Word has it that the group of prospectors were captured by a local band of Crow Indians along their trip. Edgar’s diary tells us that Fairweather pulled some fancy tricks to ensure their escape. Putting rattlesnakes down his shirt and throttling a medicine man with a medicine bush were just some of his antics.
After the altercation, while making their camp, Fairweather noticed some rimrock that caught his eye. Sure enough, the men were able to pan out $180 of gold. Placer mining would continue for the next few years producing some $30 million. Hydraulicking was introduced in 1867, a technique that breaks down banks of gravel by the impact of powerful jets of water. Dredging operations would follow into the 1920s, destroying many communities in its path. Local mills concentrated ore from local lode mines in the 1860s and 1870s. Lode mining would see a revival in the 1930s when the price of gold rose.
Virginia City won the title of Territorial Capital of Montana in 1865 but lost that accreditation ten years later. By 1868, the makeshift camps and shanties had been
replaced with over 1,000 permanent structures. A two-room schoolhouse served 81 inquisitive pupils.
Large buildings, restaurants, stores and saloons also served the transportation hub. Virginia City was even home to Montana’s first telegraph. As the population rose, so did the violence. A group known as the Vigilantes rose to bring some order, often by means of a hanging.
Nevada City only grew to about 1/5 the size of Virginia City but it was home to several placer miners. It peaked quickly and locals enjoyed the conveniences of 3
stores, a blacksmith, butcher, livery stable, masonic hall and, 2 saloons to drown their cares away. By 1869 the populations was down to around 100. Future dredging techniques would destroy most of the original Nevada City.
After the discovery of gold in Last Chance Gulch, Virginia City’s vitality took a hit and never did bounce back. Although never a “true” ghost town, it certainly embraces the ghostly presence of the past. Thanks to the Montana Historical Society and the work of Charles and Sue Bovey, Virginia City lives on to tell a tale or two and Nevada City serves as an outdoor museum allowing generation after generation to experience Montana’s past by housing historical structures from all over the state.