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Virginia City Ghost Town, Montana

Perched in Alder Gulch, Virginia City is a living ghost town frozen in time. True to its motto, the town has been resisting change since 1863.

With a guesstimated mineral value of 100 million in the 18th century, Virginia accurately represented the Treasure State’s riches. Today, it’s a well-preserved landmark district and a lively summer destination.

The story of Virginia City ghost town goes back to 1863 when prospectors Henry Edgar and William Fairweather stumbled upon gold on Alder Creek in Bitterroots Mountains.

Fairweather and his team were unable to keep their discovery a secret, and on their return trip, almost 200 miners were on their trail.

News of the gold spread fast, and prospectors flooded the area in no time. The site was even nicknamed the Fourteen-mile City due to the numerous settlements.

The town was to be named Varina to honor the wife of the president of the Confederate State. But that changed when the town charter fell to the hands of a Union supporter judge. The judge ultimately altered the town’s name to Virginia.

At its peak, Virginia City was home to about 10,000 people. As wealth grew, camps were replaced with permanent structures, including a public school, telegraph, and newspaper (Montana Post). In 1865, Montana’s territorial capital relocated from Bannack to Virginia City.

Virginia’s fortunes brought lawlessness as bandits and highwaymen sought to steal valuables. Residents reacted by forming vigilantes and executing suspects.

By the 1870s, the town was in decline. Rich gold reserves had been discovered in nearby Helena, forcing prospectors to desert overmined Virginia.

Virginia City remained largely uninhabited until 1940 when Charles and Sue Bovey began purchasing the town’s structures and renovating them for tourism.

In 1997, Montana’s legislature approved the purchase of historic properties and artifacts in Virginia City. Today, the Montana Heritage Commission runs a section of Virginia City, while about 200 residents occupy other areas.

ghost town
Image: Kipp Teague

Main Attractions

More than 60 historic buildings are present in Virginia City Ghost Town. Some of these buildings are original, while some have been remodeled for commercial purposes. The majority of wooden businesses stand along Wallace Street.

Below are the top attractions in this ghost town.

Boothill Cemetery

The Boot Hill cemetery sits above the main street and is Virginia City’s first cemetery. The cemetery contains graves of rodent agents, vigilantes, and even three mice that had committed an offense.

Boo Hill was the final resting place of five members of the infamous Plummer gang who were hanged by vigilantes. Their graves contain markers.

Most of the remains in this rustic cemetery are unmarked, making it hard to determine the buried persons.

The Opera House (The Old Stone Barn)

the opera house

Originally the Old Stone Barn, the opera house has been home to Virginia City Players for more than 70 years.

The building’s history dates back to 1864 when it acted as a stone livery stable. It served as a boarding stable for several years, then shut down when automobiles became fashionable.

The structure remained vacant for several decades until Charles Bovey bought it. Bovey transformed the stable into a replica of a 19th Century Theater. It became home to Virginia City Players and has been entertaining patrons.

The Opera House has undergone various architectural changes over the years. It currently features a pit, stand, concession stand, and air conditioning system.

It also houses a Cremona Player piano, a vital instrument in the silent movie era.

Bale of Hay Saloon (The Smith & Boyd Saloon)

bale of hay saloon

A trip to Virginia City Ghost Town is never complete without paying homage to Montana’s first watering hole, the Bale of Hay Saloon.

This establishment owes its existence to Henry Schwenk, who opened  J.F. Stoer Saloon in 1869. In the following years, the saloon underwent several ownership changes.

In the 1890s, Smith & Boyd assumed ownership and named the saloon The Bale of Hay to complement the next-door livery stable they owned. The building remained vacant from 1908 to 1946, when Charlie Bovey reopened it as a saloon.

Today, the saloon’s original front and exterior stand firm. However, the interior and roof were reconstructed after a fire threatened to destroy the building in 1983.

More attractions in this ghost town include:

  • The old coffee store
  • The trading post
  • The barbershop
  • The post office
  • Thompson Hickman Museum
  • The bank
  • The old administrative offices
  • Cousin’s Candy Shop

Recreation Activities

Plenty of activities await you at Virginia City Ghost Town.

Ride the Alder Gulch Shortline Railroad

A trip aboard the Alder Gulch Shortline presents excellent opportunities to appreciate Virginia’s scenery and topography.

The one-and-a-half-mile rail links Virginia City to the adjacent ghost town, Nevada City.

During the 20-minute ride, you can spot wildlife, Vigilante Kid’s Fishing Pond, the dredge at the River of Gold, and Central City. Kids will also enjoy epic mining stories during the ride.

Pan for Gold at the River of Gold

Gold panning is a must-do activity whenever you visit a mining town. Get the real gold rush experience by panning for gold at River of Gold Virginia City. This activity suits visitors of all ages. There’s more to learn about geology and how gold mining worked.

While at the River of Gold mining dredge, ensure you explore equipment and other artifacts used in mining gold.

Enjoy Comedy at H.S. Gilbert Brewery

This contemporary comedy cabaret brews everything humorous, raunchy, and risqué. Keep in mind that the off-chart jokes and skits aren’t for every audience, especially kids.

Witness Melodrama at the Opera House

Step into the opera house and enjoy epic performances from  Virginia City Players. Most of the shows are melodrama and vaudeville.

Accommodation

Some of the lodging and accommodation options near Virginia City Ghost Town include:

Though you are likely to find more diverse accomadation options in nearby Helena, Montana which you can browse here.

Special Events

Activities Near Virginia City Ghost Town

  • Explore the Vigilante Trail
  • Learn about the old west at Nevada City Old Town Museum and Music Hall
  • Drive over to Yellowstone National Park
  • Visit Nevada City Ghost Town