When Governor Steve Bullock signed House Bill 2 into law on May 9, the Montana Heritage Commission, which oversees Virginia City and Nevada City, received $2 million for maintenance and preservation to be used over the next two years.
“This year, the Governor didn’t put money in his budget for Virginia City and Nevada City,” said Rep. Ray Shaw, R – Sheridan. “He usually puts around $500,000 in.”
Shaw, who is from Madison County and cares deeply about the state-owned historic landmark, enlisted the help of Sen. Jim Keane, D – Butte, and Sen. Jeff Welborn, R – Dillon, to find funding.
“We found a way to earmark $2 million,” Shaw said. “We worked hard for it because it is important.”
The $2 million will be used for repairs on the structures and preservation of artifacts, Shaw emphasized. It is also the most money the MHC has received in one funding cycle, he added.
“I am very appreciative of our local leadership and Governor Bullock for working together on this bill,” said Elijah Allen, MHC executive director. “While this will help to preserve our state’s history and heritage, it will also be a major economic driver for the state of Montana.”
Welborn agreed, saying Virginia City and Nevada City are important for two reasons.
“Number one, it’s part of the economic engine that drives Southwest Montana – tourism,” he said. “Number two, it’s important from a historic perspective.”
Or, as Shaw pointed out, there is only one other place in the United States with more historic artifacts in one place, and that is the Smithsonian.
“It’s one of the most important historical sites not only in the state, but in the country,” Shaw said.
According to a list of repair and preservation needs complied by the MHC, famous structures like the Fairweather Inn require work.
“The oldest section of this building, dating to 1863, was first a simple one-story building which housed a restaurant called the ‘Young American Eating House’,” the document states.
Since the building was constructed in the 1800s, it needs window preservation, electrical updates, new siding, foundation work and plumbing.
“The foundation is shot and the electrical system is unsafe,” Shaw said. “The plumbing is in disarray. When things get old, they need repair. A lot of these buildings need work.”
In addition to the Fairweather Inn, other structures are slated for repairs – Nevada City Hotel and Cabins, Montana Post and Stone Print Shop, Sarah Bickford House, Content’s Corner, Methodist Church, City Bakery, Gilbert Brewery Block and many more will receive attention.
Last year, nearly 600,000 visitors passed through Madison County en route to Virginia City and Nevada City.
“These people spend money,” Shaw said. “Where do you like to go? You go get food, see shows, stop by the candy store, stop by a bar, so all those shops make a lot of money from tourists.”
The economic boon does not end at Virginia City’s borders.
“It trickles down into the Ruby Valley or the Madison Valley,” Shaw continued. “People are spending money, so (Virginia City and Nevada City) are hugely important to our valleys.”
Welborn was excited to see support from legislators across the state.
“We’re clearly biased,” he said. “But in a tight budget cycle, it was nice to see other legislators have respect for the resource that we love. Finding the support to push it across the finish line was huge.”
Economics aside, the Alder Gulch and surrounding area mean more to the state of Montana than can be put into dollars.
“It’s where Montana began,” Welborn said. “The state itself can be traced back to the Alder Gulch.”
And for many in Madison County, it is even more personal.
“I have deep roots in Virginia City,” Shaw said. “My mother was the treasurer there, and my great-grandfather the sheriff. I had a great-great grandfather who came from Canada in 1863 and filed a mining claim in the Alder Gulch. I have a lot of history there.”