History of Virginia City and Nevada City
Up to 1997
Virginia City and Nevada City lie along Alder Gulch, the site of the richest placer gold strike in the Rocky Mountains. During the first three seasons in the early 1860s, an estimated $30 million worth of gold was removed from the gulch, and during subsequent years gold has continued to be extracted from placer and lode mines.
Alder Gulch was part of a broad expansion of mining from California into many parts of the North American West that took place from 1848 through the 1860s. Experienced miners traveled to the successive mining frontiers, bringing with them mining technology and social traditions. Placer gold was discovered in 1862 in Bannack, and on May 26, 1863, six prospectors found rich diggings at Alder Gulch, some sixty miles northeast of Bannack. By the middle of the next year, about 10,000 people were living in a number of communities lining Alder Gulch, including Virginia City and Nevada City.
For the first several years of placer mining along Alder Gulch, miners used hand tools such as sluice boxes to separate the gold from the gravels. In 1867, hydraulicking was introduced to the area. Jets of pressurized water washed down the dirt, leaving behind piles of rocks and hydraulic cuts. The timber on the surrounding hillsides was clearcut to provide building materials, mine timber, and fuel. From 1898 through 1922, large floating dredges chewed up the ground, destroying several communities in their path and leaving behind distinctive tailings and dredge ponds as far upstream as Virginia City. Smaller dryland dredges returned to the gulch in the 1930s, after a rise in the price of gold. The town of Virginia City itself, unlike many other mining communities, was never dug up and destroyed because it had not been established on top of gold-bearing gravels. All of the original town of Nevada City west of the highway was eradicated by dredging operations in the early 1900s.
Lode mining in the upper section of Alder Gulch, although never as productive as placer mining, began at the community known as Summit. A number of mills concentrated ore from these mines in the 1860s and 1870s. Lode mining revitalized somewhat in the years following 1881, when the arrival of a railroad in Montana increased the demand for silver and when better milling processes were introduced, but by the 1910s most of the lode claims were being worked by small crews of leasers. A branch-line railroad reached Alder in 1901, but it did not extend the additional ten miles to Virginia City because the tracks would have interfered with the dredging operations underway at that time. Lode mining revived again in the 1930s when the price of gold rose significantly. All mining for gold in Alder Gulch closed down temporarily in 1942, however, because of a war-time prohibition on gold mining, although one silica mine had a relatively large payroll for a brief period during the war.
The mining activity along Alder Gulch had far-reaching effects. It stimulated the formation of government on all levels, the increase in settlement and use of the northern Rockies, and the evolution of regional transportation systems. Gold from Alder Gulch contributed to the national economy both during and after the Civil War. The town of Virginia City moved quickly through the phases of settlement, camp, and town, having at its peak some 5,000 inhabitants. These phases encompassed tents, log cabins, vernacular frame buildings, and commercial buildings with false fronts, plus (at least in Virginia City) high-style residences and commercial buildings. Substantial business blocks reflected the residents' belief in the permanence of the mining district and the towns along Alder Gulch. The layered remnants of each phase are evident in the buildings that remain today. Remodelings and additions and other modifications bear witness to the town's unfolding history.
The western gold rushes of the 1860s led Congress to create five new territories. Alder Gulch was in Idaho Territory until May 1864, when Montana Territory was created. Bannack, site of the first gold strike within the territory, became the first capital, but one year later the first territorial legislature decided to move the capital to Virginia City. Bannack immediately declined, while Virginia City's star rose for a few more years. The discovery of gold in Last Chance Gulch (Helena) in the summer of 1864, however, foretold the coming decline of Virginia City. Many of her residents soon moved to Helena. Virginia City's population collapsed to only a few hundred in the early 1870s and never recovered. In 1875, the territorial capital was relocated to Helena. After 1900, few new buildings were constructed in Virginia City, and many old structures collapsed, were destroyed by fire, or were torn down.
Virginia City served as the hub of a vast transportation network until 1875, with supplies coming in from Salt Lake City, Portland, Omaha, and Fort Benton. The "Social City" was also the cultural focal point of the territory. The population of Alder Gulch was diverse in the early years, including Euroamericans, Chinese (in 1870, about one third of the residents of Virginia City were Chinese), Lemhi Shoshone Indians, Mexicans, and African Americans. The community remained a service center until the 1880s. While many of the miners may not have struck it rich, some of the merchants did attain financial rewards from their time at Alder Gulch. A wide variety of businesses clustered along lower Wallace Street and South Jackson Street, and residences were built along Idaho Street and on the south slopes. In 1868, Virginia City had some 1,200 buildings (it has 237 major structures today). Social organizations flourished. A number of newspapers were published out of Virginia City over the years, and several schools were established. In 1866, Virginia City became the first town in Montana to get a telegraph.
Interest in preserving and memorializing the history of Virginia City solidified in 1899 at an annual meeting of the Montana Historical Society. Henry Edgar, one of the discoverers of gold at Alder Gulch, led a crowd to the site where the first gold had been found. In 1907, the graves of the five road agents buried on Boot Hill were exhumed, identified, and reburied, and new headboards were erected. More tourists began to make their way to Virginia City in the 1920s, as the popularity of automobiles grew. The Thompson-Hickman Museum was built in 1918 and the Vigilance Club, founded in 1938, maintains the collection. In 1928, a massive marble marker was placed at the discovery site. Rank's Drug in Virginia City housed a drugstore museum for many years. In 1937, just two years after Congress assigned the National Park Service responsibility for surveying historic properties of national significance, that agency prepared a report on Virginia City that concluded that the town warranted consideration of national recognition. At that time, some 6,500 visitors came to the community each summer.