When I think of the Old West and the life of the pioneers, I imagine horse-drawn stagecoaches rolling through dusty streets framed by faded storefront facades. I hear the clunking of boot heels on rough-hewn boardwalks and the jangling of spurs. I see prospectors, miners, ranchers and cowboys haggling over the trade of gold dust for much needed provisions. I think of colorful characters and legendary gunfights. With a visit to Virginia City, you hardly need imagination to re-live the scene.
This former territorial capital of Montana is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and largely preserved in its original 1860’s state. It provides an unrivaled, authentic western experience. It is home to the incredible story of the Vigilantes, a group of frustrated locals who hunted down nefarious road agents (including a local sheriff) who robbed mule trains supplying the miners. This is a town straight out of Lonesome Dove or Gunsmoke, with stories to match.
Nestled in the picturesque Ruby Valley, Virginia City is an easy drive from Ennis along Montana Highway 287. It is essentially a living ghost town – a monument to a time before the automobile, when horsepower meant teams of horses. The main street through town features several of the original stores; some have closed, with the contents staged to give a glimpse of the way life was back then, but others are still quite vibrant. The favorite has to be Cousin’s Candy Shop, which is filled from floor to ceiling with an amazing array of sweets, bon bons, and fudge.
Entertainment is as important to the inhabitants today as it was to the cowboys and miners of old. There are two theater troupes in town, and both reprise performances as would have been seen in the town’s heyday. The Virginia City Players perform at the original town theater, which features an amazing Cremona theater organ that uses pneumatics to provide xylophone, calliope and drum accompaniment to piano. The Brewery Follies perform at what was once the Gilbert Brewery, and their nightly variety show features hilarious vaudeville routines. Afterwards, take the fun to the Pioneer Bar or the Bale of Hay Saloon.
Just a mile down the road is a real ghost town called Nevada City – an assemblage of abandoned log-and-chinking buildings from throughout the once thriving mining region known as Alder Gulch. Check out the Wurlitzer museum , the mining museum, and the two- story out-house!
Submitted by Brian Hauck, Madison County explorer