Virginia City was Montana’s first effort to protect a large district of buildings, and it took place through private initiative. In the late 1980s, out of the earlier fieldwork that decade, I was preparing an article on Montana’s preserved landscapes, and eventually the piece appeared in a book on historic preservation in the West published by the University of New Mexico Press. Virginia City had always intrigued me, because of how the Bovey family admitted to anyone who would listen that their encouragement came from the success of Colonial Williamsburg, in Virginia, where I had began my career.
As I discussed in the article, “the Bovey family spent its own money and raised funds to restore Virginia City, then largely abandoned and in decay, to its appearance during the years the town served as a major western mining center and the territorial capital of Montana. Like the Williamsburg restoration, which focused on one key story—the revolution—in its depiction of history, the Virginia City restoration also showcased one dramatic event—the vigilante movement for law and order of the late 1860s. Success at Virginia City led the restoration managers to expand their exhibits to the neighboring “ghost town” of Nevada City, where they combined the few remaining original structures with historic buildings moved from several Montana locations to create a “typical” frontier town.”
“The Bovey family lost interest in the project during the 1990s and at one time it appeared that many of the valuable collections would be sold and dispersed. The State of Montana and thousands of interested citizens stepped forward and raised the money to acquire the
property and keep both Virginia City and the recreated Nevada City open to the public.” The black and white photos I am sharing here come from a trip in 1990 that I specifically took to record Virginia City as the restored town out of the fear that the place would be dismantled, and this unique experiment in preservation lost.
About ten years ago, I was given the opportunity to return to Virginia City and to see what the public efforts had brought to the town. At that time local and state officials were interested in pursuing heritage area designation. That did not happen but it was a time when I began to understand even larger stories at Virginia City than 20 years earlier.
One of the “new” properties I considered this decade in my exploration of Virginia City was its historic cemetery. Yes, like tens of thousands of others I had been to and given due deference to “Boot Hill,” and its 20th century markers for the vigilante victims
I am speaking instead of the very interesting historic city cemetery, just a bit to the north. It has a wide of grave markers, that show the confluence of folk burial practices of the mid to late 19th century with the more popular, and mass produced imagery of Victorian burial markers. There are, just as in southern cemeteries, family plots marked by Victorian cast-iron fences. Or those, in a commonly found variation, that have a low stone wall marking the family plots.
There are hand-cut stone grave houses, placed above ground–the burial is actually below the ground, but the houses for mid-19th century Americans symbolized home, family, and the idea that the loved one had “gone home.” The one at the Virginia City Cemetery has a “flat roof” while I am more accustomed to a sharp gable roof on such structures.
The cast-metal prefabricated grave markers, according to early literature on the topic, are “rare.” Compared to masonry markers, yes these Victorian era markers are few in number. But they are not particularly rare; I have found them in rural and small town cemeteries across the South. They are here in Virginia City too.
One of the most prominent belonged to Union Civil War veteran, and Kentucky native, James E. Callaway, who served in the Illinois state legislature after the war, in 1869, but then came to Virginia City and served as secretary to the territorial government from 1871 to 1877. He also was a delegate to both constitutional conventions in the 1880s. He died in Virginia City in 1905.
Callaway’s grave is one of several of individuals significant in the territorial era. Thomas J. Dimsdale, the chronicler of the vigilante movement, is buried here as well as a more elaborate grave site for Bill Fair-weather, which includes a marker that describes him as the discoverer of Alder Gulch.
Another property type I ignored in 1984-85 during my work in Virginia City was the impact of the New Deal. The town has a wonderful WPA-constructed community hall/ gymnasium, which is still used for its original purposes.
The impact of the Montana Heritage Foundation and the concerted state effort beginning in the mid-1990s has been profound on Virginia City. There has been a generation of much needed work of collection management at the curatorial center, shown below. The Boveys not only collected and restored buildings in the mid-20th century, they also packed them with “things”–and many of these are very valuable artifacts of the territorial through early statehood era.
The impact on the buildings, and the constant efforts of repair and restoration, is very clear today. Virginia City is far from a sanitized outdoor museum environment. Residents still work and live here, but the historic built environment is in better shape than at any time in the early 1980s, as the images below attest.
Save America’s Treasures funding has been leveraged with private donations and state funding to shore up the most significant properties. There is also a much greater, and more accurate, public interpretation found through the historic district. Visitors get much
more than a “quaint, Old West” experience–they can actually learn about the rigors, challenges, and opportunities of the gold rush frontier in the northern Rockies.
As the image above of the Smith Store attests, there is no need to paint too rosy of a picture about the future of Virginia City. This National Historic Landmark will always need a lot of care, attention, and funding if it is to survive another century. During the national hoopla of the Civil War sesquicentennial in the first half of this decade, the same sesquicentennial of the gold rush to the northern Rockies (Bannock, Virginia City, Helena, etc.) has passed by quietly. But both nation-shaping events happened at the same time, and both deserve serious attention, if we want to stay true to our roots as a nation.
Here in 2016, the preservation community is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act. The impact of that federal legislation has been truly significant, and can be found throughout the state. But the earlier efforts by families, local communities, and state governments to save what they could of the past, in some cases to market it as a heritage tourism asset, in other cases, to save it for themselves, must also be commemorated. Virginia City begins the state’s preservation story in many ways–and it will always need our attention.