Mining the Past in Southwest Montana
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

From $40 billion in gold to "the richest hill on Earth," a look back at the booms and busts that defined the birth of Montana in the late 1800s—with a few happy endings.

Montana travel story

When the mines were spent and the Great Depression hit, the merchants of Virginia City, Montana were not looking at a very bright future. Some of them simply walked away—literally. Commercial buildings sat there locked up, abandoned, with the inventory still inside. Until preservationist Charles Bovey came along and started restoring the nearly empty ghost town, many of the buildings' doors had been shut for decades.

Sometimes the discoveries were quite a shock. One store had 300 pairs of button-up shoes still in boxes. Another had thousands of unused wagon wheels. There were Edison wax cylinders for phonographs, tins of cookies that were still sealed, and a pharmacy with ingredients for mixing up medicines still sitting on the shelves.

Visiting Virginia City today is an odd step back to a different time, especially at night when no cars are on the main road. I half expected two men in cowboy hats to face off against each other with hands on their revolvers. In some Southwest Nevada towns though, there's a real story of rebirth and optimism behind the false fronts of old wooden buildings and the plank sidewalks fronting them.

Virgina City Montana sidewalk

Often when a historic city gets dressed up for tourists, little remains of the original look and feel. This former ghost town still has the air of a western movie though, with some of the buildings left as they were from the late 1800s through the 1930s. These are reconstructed pieces in an open-air museum, not just facades for a convenience store outlet or a take-out window serving overpriced smoothies. You can see what a pharmacy, saloon, or general store looked like before everyone moved on to places with better opportunities.

Bovey had a hard time stopping after he found so many artifacts in the area and so many buildings he wanted to preserve in these old mining towns. So he moved many buildings from across the region to a purpose-built Nevada City nearby and filled some of them with period items to display.

antique music player Nevada City Montana

The most notable collection is a museum featuring early music players, mechanical contraptions ranging from early versions of jukeboxes (coin-operated player pianos) to air-powered organ machines that accompanied carousel rides. Some are beautifully carved and painted works of art imported from Paris. Others look nicer than they sound. One musical machine sat in the Bale of Hay Saloon until patrons threatened to smash the thing and it was moved to the museum. The nickname gives a hint as to why: the Wurlitzer 150 Band Organ was more commonly referred to as "The Obnoxious Horn Machine."

A period locomotive ride takes people from Virginia City to Nevada City a few miles away. We strolled through a recreation of a late 1800s town, complete with log cabins, a blacksmith shop, a wagon-making workshop, a shoemaker, a post office, and a saloon. A fire station is filled with vintage equipment from the past and an 1867 school is set up close to what it would have been like then in the 16 years it operated. The maintenance workers are dressed in period costume, so it really feels like going back in time—or at least stepping onto the set of Little House on the Prairie.

Nevada City Montana travel story

Booms and Busts in Southwest Montana

Virginia City was briefly the capital of Montana, before the territory became a real state in 1893. It published the region's first newspaper, hosted Montana's first bank, housed its first post office, and welcomed all the new residents with the budding state's first bar. A couple German immigrants started the first beer-making facility, Gilbert's Brewery, in 1864. Prohibition killed it off after Gilbert's son took over, but now it brews again and hosts a comedic entertainment show in the summer months.

We spent the night in Virginia City at Elling House Inn to soak up the atmosphere after the day trippers headed out. We didn't plan far enough ahead to get tickets to the Gilbert Brewery Follies, but I did manage to get a craft beer and soak up the atmosphere in the Bale of Hay Saloon—circa 1863. After that we headed next door for a melodrama and a fun variety show at the Virginia City Opera House.

Virginia City mining town 1800s saloon

When this area was booming it was really booming. Just in the period between 1863 and 1869, an estimated $90,000,000 worth of gold was extracted from this one gulch that extended from Virginia City to Ennis. Translated into today's dollars, that's a haul of $40 billion. Gold mining in those days was a picks and shovels business though, with individual people laying claims to divided land. They quickly extracted what they could and, if staked in the right spot, got rich quick.

Just 22 years later, however, most of the gold was gone and this briefly rich city went into quick decline. The first person to discover gold here, Bill Fairweather, died a broke alcoholic at age 39. The population dropped to 800 by 1875 (from an estimated peak of as much as 10,000) as the territorial capital moved to Helena.

A dredging machine provided a secondary period of life when it extracted a bit more metal at the turn of the century—while permanently scarring the land—but eventually most of the city sat abandoned. The few who were still living here were mostly Chinese laborers trying to still eke a little out of the land. Today's racism looks tame compared to what it was back then: census takers in the late 1800s recorded every individual as "China man" without a name. The Chinese were not allowed to stake a mining claim, so they worked the ones that were left abandoned or opened businesses such as laundries, cleaning services, or opium dens.

Charles Bovey started buying up properties in the 1940s with his own money and funds from donations to preserve a town that had escaped the "urban renewal" of so many other places that lost their historic buildings. Since most people viewed the whole area as spent and worthless, nobody had torn down the old structures to put up something made of concrete blocks or steel.

He saw tourism potential in a post-war time when automobile ownership was growing fast and families were looking for places to visit. When Bovey started opening the doors of places he purchased, he found rooms that hadn't changed for 30 years or more. He wondered how many other treasures were in other spots in Southwest Montana and he got the word out he was in the market. Some of those buildings in other areas he moved in their entirety to Nevada City. He then turned structures into mini museums to show what had been inside.

Gypsy Arcade in Montana

In 1961, Virginia City got recognition as a National Historic Landmark. Eventually Bovey convinced the state legislature that the area had real tourism potential and he secured funding and protection from the government to keep the dream alive in perpetuity. Now there are more than a million Americana artifacts housed in 248 historic buildings. Some of them you can actually experience as someone from 120 years ago would have in the town's Gypsy Arcade. You can see a rare Gypsy Verbal Fortune Teller machine or drop a coin in an 1890s Kinetoscope and view racy short films from the time, like a woman bathing with her undergarments on. Another machine printed out my fortune telling me I was "a clever and astute businessman" but warned that in matters of love, my ego might be my downfall. After 23 years of marriage though, I might have overcome that one.

While Bovey and has wife Sue have both passed on, I was fortunate enough to run into Bovey's right-hand man for many years, Virginia City Curator Emeritus John D. Ellingsen. I had just read through his book Witness to History the night before at my inn. Looking like a gold prospector himself with a thin frame, suspenders, and long beard, he was easy to spot. "Most of the people who sold these buildings to Mr. Bovey considered them eyesores full of junk," he told me. "'Just make sure you haul every bit of it away' was how they usually put it," he explained. "We'd pop a lock off and find hundreds of tools where they'd been left, or a store full of all the inventory that was in there the day they closed. The kids of whoever used to own the place just wanted to be rid of it. We wanted to save it."

Built on Top of Mine Shafts: Butte, Montana

The history of Southwest Montana in the early days is a history of chasing opportunity. When the white men headed toward California in the 1800s, danger lurked everywhere and this really was the "wild west." Some who struck fast and got lucky made great fortunes. We slept in the bedroom of one of the biggest success stories. At the Copper King Mansion in Butte, one of the bed and breakfast room choices is the quarters of William Andrew Clark himself, the namesake Copper King.

Mansion Butte Montana

He grew up poor and launched several failed businesses, but eventually Clark made his fortune through copper mining and smelting first, then quickly expanded into other business ventures and real estate holdings. Clark bought sugar plantations, financed an 1,100-mile railway to Salt Lake City, and had a hand in the settlement now known as Las Vegas.

When he built the Copper King Mansion in Butte in the 1880s, the cost was equivalent to $7 million in today's dollars, which was reportedly less than he earned in a week at the time. At the age of 62, he married a 23-year-old woman and had two more children with her. It's good to be the king.

The Copper King Mansion is one of the most striking buildings in a city that few would call picturesque. The main attraction in town is the Museum of Mining, where I was fascinated by the helmet lights that utilized candles for light in the dark tunnels. Workers got an allotment of them at the beginning of their shift and that candlelight was the only thing that lit up their underground digging tunnel for an entire workday. Restored buildings show what kinds of places existed in the daylight above: a sauerkraut factory, an undertaker's shop, Quong Fong Laundry, and the important assayer shop that would value the gold ore.

While there's still some mining going on in Butte, the air is certainly cleaner these days. In the late 1800s, Butte was encircled by copper smelting operations and most of them didn't even have smokestacks. The work was far from safe either: 168 miners died in a disastrous underground fire in 1917, the flames burning up all the oxygen in the tunnels.

Butte City Southwest Montana

One word I kept running into in Butte was "headframes." It's the term for the mining towers you see sticking up all over town, some lit up at night as the city's embrace of their history. The best-known distiller in the region is Headframe Spirits.

Butte was long known for another vice that always seems to pop up in mining towns though. The Dumas Brothel Museum stands on the site of what's claimed to be the longest-running brothel in the United States. It operated from 1890 to 1982.

Back From the Dead in Philipsburg

While Butte still bears the scars of the ore that built the city, nearby Philipsburg has been tagged "Montana's most picturesque town." A few decades earlier though, this was a sad and decrepit place without much hope. The poet Richard Hugo summed up the mood accurately in "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg."

You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn't last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he's done.

The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls
who leave each year for Butte...

The poet would not recognize Philipsburg now, a town with gleaming painted buildings, one of the greatest candy stores I have ever been in, a thriving brewery, and a good coffee shop. A huge outdoor ice rink with its own Zamboni doubles as a summer concert venue. Few American mining towns manage to survive a century, much less get a second life. Thanks to some forward-looking investors and a lot of volunteers, however, this one transformed from a place to avoid to a state tourism attraction.

Philipsburg Montana main street

What the early settlers found in the ground here started out on the usual course. Back in 1867, the town sprung up at the rate of one house per day when more than 1,500 prospectors started poking around in search of another big gold strike. They found a little of that, as well as bigger deposits of silver and manganese, so the nearby hills are still dotted with crumbling, long-abandoned structures.

In 1892, however, a different discovery put the town on the map: sapphires. There were so many sapphires buried in the soil here, showing up in a local creek, that even today visitors can dig around and still find one. A smelting operation in nearby Anaconda and a sawmill serving a logging operation kept the town hanging on through most of the 20th century, but when those shut down, the decline was swift and brutal. By the late '80s, a group of photojournalist students came to Phillipsburg for a university project to document a city in ruins.

The population dropped from 3,000 to 900 within a decade. In a documentary on the city called Saving the Burg, one long-time resident says, "They would have just bulldozed the place probably, but the town didn't have enough money to do it."

Another notes that you could buy a house back then for $1,500. "You could probably get the whole town for a hundred grand. It was bleak." But there were few takers until some outside investors saw what the locals didn't. They started buying historic buildings on the main street for cheap and fixing them up. The transformation was so dramatic that the bank started giving away paint for free to anyone who would freshen up their exterior.

After checking into my gorgeous Broadway Hotel right off the main drag, I walked around the corner to Philipsburg Brewing, open since 2012. The brewery, housed in an 1888 building that was once a bank, is an attraction in itself these days. It sources nearly all its ingredients from regional sources, including Montana Barley.

When I walked in the door, I heard a singer with a guitar perched on a stool on a catwalk above the fermentation tanks crooning songs, while patrons rested their mugs on a cooled copper metal strip running the length of the bar. Their Razzu Raspberry Wheat and Haybag American Hefeweizen have both won a stack of awards, so I put those on my flight list. My favorite was the Tramway Rye Pale Ale, but the Algonquin Amber would be my go-to in the cold months. A couple hours after arrival, I was already regretting that I had only booked one night here.

These resurrection stories gave me hope for the future of other faded mining towns, the ones that blazed like a sparkler for a while and then burned out just as fast. With a few visionaries in place who can see the future potential, perhaps others can join places like Ennis, Virginia City, Butte, and Phillipsburg to pull people in rather than sending them fleeing for brighter destinations.


For more information on the area, see sites for the Montana Heritage Commission, Visit Southwest Montana, and Montana Tourism.

Some of the top hotels in the region include Elling House, the Copper King Mansion B&B, and the Broadway Hotel in Philipsburg. Airports are located in Billings, Bozeman, and Missoula.

Editor Tim Leffel is an award-winning writer who lives in Mexico. He is author of several books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations, Travel Writing 2.0, and A Better Life for Half the Price. See his long-running bargain travel blog here.

Related Features:
From Miners to Movie Stars in Park City, Utah - Tim Leffel
High-speed Kills on the Open Plains: Falconry in Wyoming - Rachel Dickinson
Sulfur Clouds and Sacred Sites: A Journey through the Debed Canyon - Stephen Bland
Booms, Busts, and Rebirths on the Erie Canal - Tim Leffel

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