VIRGINIA CITY, MONT. — For Sale: A pair of wild-West mining towns, circa 1864, replete with the haunting lore of gunslinger saloons, cagey gold-rush prospectors, and vigilante hangings. The $6.5 million price tag includes more than 100 original buildings and millions of artifacts. Any prospective buyer must act fast. After June 1, the assets of both towns go on the auction block to the highest bidder.
In a desperate attempt to salvage a cornerstone of his state's frontier heritage, Montana Gov. Marc Racicot is making a last-ditch effort this month to rescue the legendary mining towns of Virginia City and Nevada City from liquidation.
Calling them "wild-West versions of colonial Williamsburg," Governor Racicot has forwarded plans for a public buyout to the state legislature. But, like many states, Montana is struggling to maintain a balanced budget.
Jeanette McKee, a former Montana legislator who heads the ad hoc Save Virginia City Campaign, fears that time may be running out. Her opinion is shared by the National Trust For Historic Preservation and the Montana Historical Society, which has committed $375,000 on an option to purchase the towns from private owner Ford Bovey pending action by the state legislature.
Mr. Bovey owns most of the buildings and land in both towns, but must sell them because he can no longer afford the maintenance costs.
So if lawmakers fail to deliver on the appropriation requested by Racicot, the chances of Virginia City and Nevada City remaining in their present vintage condition would be doubtful, Ms. McKee says. "There isn't any other place like it in the West, and without sounding melodramatic, if we don't act now it will be lost forever," she says.
The old West
McKee adds: "Were the Smithsonian Institution to put together an exhibit on what it was like to live in the West of the 19th century, Virginia City would be the model."
Indeed, the producers of the television mini-series "Return to Lonesome Dove" chose to film in Montana, in part, because Virginia City and Nevada City were available as backdrops.
"From the perspective of history and tourism dollars, we are sitting on a gold mine," McKee says. "These towns were not invented by Hollywood, they are the real thing."
To history buffs, Virginia City has long held a special mystique as a symbol of Western justice. Before Montana became a territory with established courts, lawlessness, robbery, and murder were so rampant that Virginia City citizens banded together to form "The Vigilante Committee," which took matters into its own hands. Several suspected criminals were hung from trees and makeshift gallows. The "hangman's building" is currently undergoing restoration.
In a study completed by the National Park Service a few years ago, historians said that, from an architectural standpoint, Virginia City is the only town in America that has its first general-use buildings still standing intact.
"[I]f you look at the other territorial capitals - places like Denver, Salt Lake City, and Boise - there is little or nothing left of the original buildings," says Virginia City Mayor Bob Gabler, one of 150 residents who live in Virginia City year-round. "The 'historic' buildings that remain in other towns are third- or fourth-generation structures."
Among the most ardent advocates of protection is Governor Racicot. He recently learned that his own great-great-uncle Albert passed through town on a wagon in 1864 seeking his own fortune. Racicot believes that Virginia City represents a touchstone for people far beyond the West.
"When we talk about why it's important to preserve Virginia City, we are appealing to those with a sense of history and place," Racicot says.
"We need to know where we began, how far we've come, and where we are going as a society. Virginia City gives us that opportunity to reflect," he adds.
No tacky trinket shops, please
Yet as Racicot knows, nostalgia has little currency when the real issue is how to come up with cash.
While preservationists are not opposed outright to the idea of a wealthy benefactor rescuing Virginia City after Bovey's deadline of June 1, the town's falling into private hands comes with inherent risks.
McKee says the greatest concern is that an entrepreneur with no respect for history might sell off the artifacts and transform the old buildings into gambling parlors and tacky trinket shops.
"The last thing we want to see happen is for some of the heirlooms to end up on someone's coffee table in California," she says. "They are parts of Montana. They deserve to remain here."