Miners, bankers and businessmen weren’t the only entrepreneurs in Virginia City during its hey day. Like many other boomtowns around the West, the historic town was home to brothels as well.
One famous brothel will be the subject of a presentation this Thursday at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman by Montana Heritage Commission Cultural Resource Manager Kate McCourt.
In 2011, McCourt published a paper in Archeology of Montana about her experience conducting an archeological study of the Green Front Brothel, which was located in Virginia City’s Chinatown during the 1890s.
The excavation project was a prerequisite to the preservation work planned for the site, McCourt said. In Virginia and Nevada City, regulations require that archeological mitigation be done before any ground disturbing activities at historic properties.
That excavation involves digging test pits, three-foot square, and then painstakingly removing four-inch layers of soil until no more artifacts are found.
“The idea is to always learn and gather information about the site,” she said.
The artifacts she discovered pointed out what she had initially suspected.
“What we wound up finding was way more evidence that we were in fact sitting right in the center of Virginia City Chinatown, of which absolutely nothing exists above ground anymore,” McCourt said.
She combined her artifacts with historical research, aided by Montana Historical Society historian Ellen Baumler, to determine the history of the Green Front Brothel, which was also known as the Green Front Boarding house.
“It was a brothel that was based in Chinatown and the women who occupied it were Caucasian women,” she said.
At one point in history, Virginia City had a large Chinese population, McCourt said. In 1870 about a third of the town’s population were Chinese. They came to work in business serving miners, operate old claims and work for mining companies.
In Virginia City, Chinatown was located at the west end of town near the train depot and where the highway makes the turn toward Nevada City. In fact, a Chinese temple was destroyed in the 1930s to make way for the new highway, she said.
“The existing highway basically runs right through where the temple stood,” McCourt said.
In the midst of Chinatown was a small boarding house that served as a brothel.
The brothel was likely located in Chinatown because of the poor social stature both the Chinese and prostitutes held back in those days, she said. But that sort of segregation didn’t make Virginia City unique.
“It’s often times you’d find brothels and Chinese in the same area,” she said.
Another reason brothels were located in Chinatown could have been the attraction of the Chinese traditional medicines, McCourt said.
Since prostitutes typically had a lot of health issues and weren’t normally welcomed at the proper town doctor, they turned to traditional Chinese medicines, she said.
The Green Front Brothel or Boarding House stands today next to the train depot. One of the buildings has been renovated externally.
“The plan is to actually make an interpretation center out of those buildings for Chinatown and the Green Front Brothel,” McCourt said.
McCourt’s presentation is being sponsored by a relatively new organization out of Livingston called The Extreme History Project, which was founded by Marsha Fulton and Crystal Alegria. According to their website: “The Extreme History Project began as a means of making the humanities more fun, interesting and accessible to the general public and as a real means of generating social change.” To find out more about The Extreme History Project visit their website at extremehistory.wordpress.com.
McCourt’s presentation at the Museum of the Rockies will begin at 6 p.m. in the Hagar Auditorium.