The sun burned our skin as we walked the main street around noon, checking out the sites, and looking for a snack. The dogs perked up their ears and looked east as a rumble emanated from over the mountains. The quakers all of a sudden chattered away as the breeze picked up and dust sprinkled our faces. A storm was rolling in on a perfect summer day. Within minutes the sky was overcast, and within the hour kids were running giggling down the old boardwalk, covering their heads and pretending like they weren't going to get wet. Small groups scattered, searching for shelter under the old wood and tin roofs of the flat-fronted buildings.
We on the other hand decided to take our drinks and sit in the open doorway of one of the many western facades to watch the hail cover the streets of Virginia City. We laughed and marveled at the extreme weather change that was soon to pass. This was Montana, the weather was meant to be finicky. That old and crooked wooden doorway though, the smell of the ancient wood behind us and the old antiques that lined the shelves of the building were reminiscent of older times.
You see Virginia City, now considered a ghost town, was once one of the largest in the west. At the height of the gold rush here, the entire gulch was filled with roughly 10,000 seekers of riches of all sorts and sizes. Single men, barbers, families, ranchers, and grocers moved in as soon as they heard. Some walked, some drove wagons, some rode horses, but the second they made the rough trek there the first thing they all did was erect the old buildings still seen today. Then, they went searching for gold.
Though a walk down the main street now takes less than 15 minutes, one can only imagine what it would've been like without the paved roads, horses, dirt, and shoulder to shoulder wagons of traffic. Interestingly, a ghost town sounds like a remnant of the past, far away and distant, possibly nothing but a few buildings. Interestingly though, Virginia City is only about 200 years old. Having popped up in 1863, the city was quick to disappear once the rush was over, but its heyday was magnificent. What remains today is an altered landscape of hills, and a community of individuals catering to tourists and keeping history alive.
Though often a town for tourists to pass through and enjoy on their way to and from Yellowstone, the area is still alive with old Montana families. Verona was actually the original title of the settlement. Named after the wife of the President of the Confederate States of America, the second gold was discovered, it changed and boomed. This was actually the first incorporated township in the Montana territory, and even held the title of capital.
Sadly, due to the intense searching, the Alder Gulch and the Ruby River where the actual riches were found are still in recovery and look nothing like they once did. Conservation efforts are working hard though to bring back the washed away shores and evacuated wildlife. Interestingly, the few ranches and houses still standing belong still too many descendants of the first settlers. A quick chat with just about any local will give hints to a deeper history of land use and strife than found on any tour.
For those only lucky enough to pass through for the day, the tours and historical activities here are worth a visit though. From ghost walks and trolley rides to vaudeville-style theatres and comedy shows, the west comes alive in this small town. History buffs will love the spot too, as each old building has a small plaque with a short history, or maybe a real-life depiction of some old western era. Dentists pulling teeth and traditional candy and ice cream makers are all to be found right on the main drag. Kids especially love the trolley tours and western trinkets, and an attempt at gold panning fun.
Families looking to stretch their legs can walk through the old town buildings or hit the walking path to nearby Nevada City. Only a short and sweet mile, these used to be different places, today, we’d consider them as close as the average neighbor. Each "city" definitely has its own unique charm and history though, as denoted by the walking path signs.
Originating from the few settlers and their families that moved here, the old west comes alive in these quaint spots catering to visitors from across the world. Old wooden cabins sit, crooked and still standing, with western style quilted decor and brass to match. The empty buildings have mowed paths and open doors for visitors to take a glimpse inside, and the old hotel is still open by reservation, with ghost stories that would give even the most stolid guests a fright. Whether you end up here for a short rest on the way through, are stopping in to visit the scene of a number of Hollywood films, or are coming to pan for gold and discover a little old western history, one thing is still for sure, “There’s gold in them thar hills!”