This past Memorial Day weekend marked a special milestone for Virginia City. The little town that used to be the center of a mining boom remembered its rich past by celebrating the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold in Alder Gulch.
The city’s boardwalk came to life over the weekend. The celebration breathed new life into the sleepy town. The traffic count for the parade on Saturday was roughly 2,300 and the total traffic count for the weekend hovered right around 7,000.
As the day continued, visitors continued to go back in time. A non-motorized parade featured a variety of groups. Draft horses and mules pulled covered wagons and stagecoaches. Fiddle music echoed down the street. Ladies dressed in Irish attire danced their way down main street Virginia City. Participants in the parade donned their period attire including satiny saloon girl dresses, woolen soldier uniforms and pistols strapped to the hips of cowboys.
Visitors to Virginia City got a taste of how the Wild West used to be. In addition to train rides and old-fashioned candy, those visiting the historic Montana town saw the discovery of gold for themselves.
On Sunday, members of the Living History Program in Nevada City took the crowd gathered by the stream on the outskirts of Virginia City back to the moment that changed everything in 1863.
A small train of horses meandered their way toward a streambed. As the audience watched, the Fairweather mining group stumbled upon a substantial amount of gold and staked their claim on what is now known as Alder Gulch.
“There is a nugget in every pan,” said a member of the mining party during the historical performance.
On May 26, 1863, a group of six men who were weary from traveling toward Bannack stopped and made camp near a stream they had been following all day. While some of the party went prospecting upstream, Bill Fairweather and Henry Edgar stayed behind, took out their gold pans and dipped them in the cold creek water just to see what they could find. Turns out the men had stumbled upon a piece of exposed bedrock. This piece of exposed bedrock turned out to be one of the richest gold deposits in North America and its discovery would prove to be a defining moment in Montana’s history.
Within a short time after the discovery of gold in Alder Gulch, Virginia City boomed with hopeful prospectors. Virginia City’s population was claimed to have reached between 8,000 and 10,000 people at one point.
The Mayor of Virginia City welcomed those visiting the quaint town and curator John Ellingsen shared some of the town’s rich history with the crowd.
Montana’s Governor Steve Bullock made the trip with his wife and kids to take in the celebration.
“It was important because, were it not for the gold strike 150 years ago, we would be more likely a part of Idaho and I certainly wouldn’t be Governor,” said Bullock. “So we wanted to support all those that keep the history of Virginia City alive, while contributing to our overall economy. Also, Virginia City really ought to be considered a gateway to Yellowstone, and I will speak of it as such. We spent the rest of the long weekend in Yellowstone. Though, honestly, my kids were more excited about their time spent in Madison County than the remainder of the weekend.”
Elijah Allen of the Montana Heritage Commission said Bullock’s visit marks an important event for the town. The last governor visited nine years ago.
“I think it meant a lot to have the governor here,” said Allen. “They are an awesome family and it was the governor’s first time here since he was a kid.”
While visiting Virginia City, Bullock and his family stayed at the Gingerbread Horse, were entertained at the Wells Fargo Restaurant and took in a special performance by the Virginia City Players. The kids rode on the train, panned for gold and visited the Living History Museum in Nevada City.
“From taking in the VC players, to riding the train and enjoying Nevada City, to taking an early morning run and getting sucked into all the historical markers, it was an incredible weekend,” said the Governor. “Though the scenery and surroundings were incredible, the people we met were even more so. My kids are still talking about it. They spent the weekend singing songs from the VC players, telling one another ghost stories, and talking about the people they met. They are already making plans for our return visit later this summer, because there are a lot more activities they want to do. I don’t get many chances to just relax, get away from work and enjoy my family and our state. This weekend one was of the best.”