As Virginia City boomed after Bill Fairweather discovered gold, it became the site of a dramatic ordeal of Western lawlessness and revenge that has fueled a thousand cowboy movie plots. Much of Virginia City's history was driven by the vigilante movement, and the town launched the career of Wilbur Fisk Sanders, who eventually went to Washington as Montana's first U.S. senator.
By 1864, when the Montana Territory was created by President Abraham Lincoln, nearly 30,000 people were living along the gulch's 8 miles. Virginia City was named territorial capital in 1865 -- taking that title from Bannack, virtually a ghost town by then -- and held the position until 1875. For many years after its founding, the only currency acceptable to Virginia City merchants was gold dust.
As the town boomed, the incidence of robberies and murders increased. Many of the robberies depended on inside information by people usually called "road agents." The miners' sheriff, Henry Plummer, who had "persuaded" the sheriffs in Bannack, Nevada City, and Virginia City to turn over their duties to him, turned out to be the leader of the road agents. As sheriff, he knew the timing of the gold movements.
No legal relief was possible, because the nearest officials to administer an oath were 400 miles away. In 1863, when a popular miner, Dutchman Nicholas Thiebalt, was murdered for $200, the other miners were outraged. The killer, George Ives, was captured and tried by a miners' court, then hanged. The site of his hanging is preserved in Nevada City. The local residents formed "vigilance committees" to capture and bring the road agents to justice. They hanged at least 21 more of the road agents -- including Plummer -- and some order was restored to the area.
Virginia City is the larger of the two towns; Nevada City is entirely a ghost town, a collection of original and transplanted buildings from the period. A pair of beautifully restored trains makes numerous round-trips daily between the two ($6-$15 round-trip, free for children 5 and under).
The distance between Nevada City and Virginia City is only a mile or so, but back in the days before the vigilance committees formed, it was a dangerous mile. Miners dared not go between the two cities after dark. A robber waylaid one miner known as Dutch Fred. When the highwayman found that Fred had only $5 with him -- and paper money, not gold dust, at that -- the bandit cursed and told him, "If ever you come this way again with only $5, I'll shoot you." The robber shot Dutch Fred anyhow, wounding him in the arm.
Nevada City is the site of the resurgence of law and order in these Montana mining camps. Two thousand people reportedly came to town to watch the trial of George Ives for the murder of Nicholas Thiebalt. Emotions were running high on both sides, and it was in the face of these feelings that Wilbur Fisk Sanders began his place in Montana history by courageously prosecuting Ives before the crowd. The spot where Ives was hanged is marked in town.
Today Nevada City is a tourist attraction -- a collection of historic wooden buildings, including an open-air museum depicting the gold-mining and settlement period of the area's turbulent history. Nevada City also exists as the result of Charles Bovey's diligence and dedication to the preservation of history. In the mid-1950s, Bovey began to re-create an authentic Western town with buildings he'd accumulated around the West. The buildings are authentic, though their setting may not be. It looks like a perfect cowboy movie set, though, and has in fact been used for a couple of oaters, including Missouri Breaks, Little Big Man, and Return to Lonesome Dove.
Admission to the Nevada City site costs $8 adults, $6 for kids 6 to 16, and free for those 5 and under; the site is open Memorial Day to Labor Day daily from 9am to 6pm. For information, call tel. 800/829-2969 or 406/843-5247.
Bannack was the site of the state's first big gold strike in 1862. With more than 60 of the town's original buildings preserved, the tumbledown town is a stark reminder of the heyday of the frontier: vigilantes stalking road agents stalking prospectors, in a place where the rivers yielded gold dust.
Born out of the discovery of placer gold in 1862, Bannack quickly grew to a town of 3,000 people, largely composed of those hoping to strike it rich. Blacksmiths, bakeries, stables, restaurants, hotels, dance halls, and grocery stores rapidly sprang up to complement an expanding mining industry.
Bannack became the first territorial capital and the site of the first territorial legislative session in 1864. But the placer veins in Grasshopper Creek were thin. Only a few years later, it was a ghost town, and the boosters of the capital movement had turned their attention to Virginia City and the richer mines at Alder Creek.
Notorious Henry Plummer killed his first local man in Bannack in Goodrich's saloon. The victim was Jack Cleveland, who had threatened another man about a debt, which the other man had already paid. Cleveland bragged that he wasn't afraid of him. Plummer, apparently a bystander, got to his feet, cursed Cleveland, roared, "I'm tired of this," and commenced to shooting. Cleveland got the worst of it, dying 3 hours later.
Plummer was an enigmatic outlaw. He was considered a "gentleman" by the standards of the era. He married a schoolteacher, though she left him after only 10 weeks of wedded bliss. Only a few weeks before he was hanged, Plummer held an elaborate dinner for territorial officials, including the governor and some of the vigilantes, for which he had ordered a $60 turkey from Salt Lake City. His guests apparently saw nothing unusual about enjoying the hospitality of a man they had already decided to hang.
Visitor Information -- Designated a state park in 1954, Bannack is open year-round. Summer hours are daily from 8am to 9pm; winter hours 8am to 5pm. There is a seasonal visitor center, as well as camping and picnic grounds, a group-use area, and hiking trails. Other lodging facilities are available in nearby Dillon. Day-use fees are $5 per vehicle ($3 for bikes or walk-ins) and $15 for a campsite ($13 in the off season). There are also rental tipis for $25 (available May-Sept).
To get to Bannack from Dillon, drive 3 miles south on I-15 to Mont. 278. Head west 17 miles on Mont. 278, then south 4 miles when you see the sign. For additional information, call tel. 406/834-3413, or visit www.bannack.org.
A Special Event -- Bannack Days, staged annually during the third weekend in July, is a 2-day event commemorating the history and heritage of Montana's early pioneers, with activities centering around frontier crafts, music, pioneer food, and dramas. A black-powder muzzleloader shoot, Sunday church services, and horse-and-buggy rides bring the "toughest town in the West" to life and are fun for the entire family.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.