Wednesday, August 5, 2009

On the Road Again - Post 11: Gold Rushes & Ghost Towns

Gold strikes and the towns that spring up around them evidently follow a rather sorry pattern most of the time. Gold is discovered, usually in a "meet-cute" story worthy of a romantic comedy. Thousands or tens of thousands of people flock to the area and a boom town is born. Lawlessness, vigilantism and high hopes abound; non-gold-claim-related infrastructure is entirely absent. Then the gold runs out, and so does the town's raison d'ĂȘtre. The once prosperous boom town becomes a ghost town, nothing more than a name on a map and, sometimes, a few rickety buildings.

Bannack was the town that boomed in response to the first of Montana's three major gold strikes. It was the first territorial capital when the Montana Territory was carved out of the Idaho Territory in 1864, but it held that honor very briefly and was a ghost town by mid-1865.

Why? Bannack's easily accessible gold was exhausted and word of a new strike had spread. A group of prospectors on their way to the Yellowstone River encountered an unfriendly bunch of Crow tribesmen and had to beat a hasty retreat. Legend has it that on the retreat, one Bill Fairweather made a joke about finding something that would fund the purchase of some tobacco, stuck his pick in the ground near Alder Creek, and came up with something that funded a very large amount of tobacco and a whole lot more.

Fairweather and his buddies couldn't keep their find a secret, and Virginia City sprang to life a mile or so south of the gold field. Within a few weeks, it boasted 10,000 residents (many of them refugees from Bannack and most of them arguing about individual gold claims) and it was in short order named the new territorial capital. Like Bannack and most of the rest of Montana, Virginia City was ruled by a Vigilance committee that operated on both sides of the law. Also like Bannack, within a year or so it too was a ghost town, its population having lit out for Helena in response to the Last Chance Gulch strike.

Bannack is now a state park, preserved but unrestored. Virginia City was reborn as a tourist destination in the 1950s, thanks to the efforts of a couple who bought the town in the 40s and funded its restoration. While it is no longer home to 10,000 as it was in 1865, Virginia City is far from deserted. Some 130 people and, according to local lore, more mean-tempered and obstreperous ghosts than in any other city in Montana call it home.

Click on the picture below to get some fun info about Bob Gohn's grandfather. Bob is the owner of Bob's Place (above) where we bought surprisingly sophisticated sandwiches for lunch. With their pesto, fresh tomatoes, delectable cold cuts and superb focaccia, the sandwiches were anything but authentic Old West, but we weren't complaining.


isabeljoelyblack said...

Beautiful photos as ever. It's wonderful to read a travelogue that has so much detail and understanding of the area, too.

Annie said...

wait, so are these pictures of bannack or virginia city? and did you guys have a chance to hitch up a horse?

Angela Montague said...

Wow - I would love to visit this place, a real time capsule. And I love the way you've 'done your homework' and put all those extra details in.