Eleventh in a series by my uncle John Alldridge. This article first appeared in the Derby Evening Telegraph in February 1968 – Jerry F
Nobody who caught the gold fever ever quite recovered from it.
When the great Californian Gold Rush of the ’50’s began to slow down, disappointed miners by the thousand pulled out to look for more fertile fields.
With not much more than a grub-stake and a mule they roamed from the Pacific to the Rockies, from the Gila River north to British Columbia.
Perhaps one in ten thousand struck it rich …
On May 26, 1863, six prospectors camped near an alder-banked stream in the Tobacco Root mountains.
Left to watch the horses and set up camp, two of them saw some likely-looking gravel and panned it out.
What they found kept them there another day and then sent them stampeding to the nearest town of Bannock for supplies.
Bill Fairweather, Henry Edgar, Tom Cover, Barney Hughes, Harry Rogers and Mike Sweeney had struck it rich indeed …
Less than six months later thousands of miners were working along the banks of Alder Gulch.
Virginia City, Nevada City Summit — ramshackle collections of cabins and tents grouped around a couple of false-front saloons — were boom towns.
Within a year 35,000 men and a score of women were living and scratching for a fortune within a ten-mile radius of the original “strike.”
The other camps faded. But Virginia City grew into the county seat. It was a tough little town.
To survive you had to be as tough as Bill Fairweather, who founded it.
Bill boasted he was so tough that rattlesnakes wouldn’t bite him. And he carried a couple around inside his shirt to prove it.
For a year or two Bill Fairweather was the richest man in Montana Territory.
But gold meant nothing to Bill. The kicks came in finding it.
His idea of fun was to throw gold nuggets into the muddy Main Street and watch the Chinese workmen scramble for them.
Like most of the founding fathers of Virginia City, his was a short life and not a particularly gay one. He died, dead drunk and flat broke, in 1873, aged 39 …
The history of those early years of Virginia City reads like the script of a bad TV Western.
There was, of course, the inevitable Jekyll-and-Hyde sheriff, one Henry Plummer — a smooth talker and great lady’s man who, on the side, bossed a gang of murdering “road agents.”
The Plummer gang killed at least 100 men and stole uncounted thousands of dollars in gold before rough justice, in the shape of the local Vigilantes Committee, caught up with them.
On Christmas Eve, 1863, the Vigilantes caught, tried, and hanged George Ives for murder; and honest men began to breathe again.
During the next six weeks they hanged 21 more, including Sheriff Plummer, and ran the rest out of town.
And if you think this is too much like a “B” Western to be true, there is Kiscadden’s livery stable where the Vigilantes met in secret; there is the “hanging tree” — a stout oak beam —from which they dangled Henry Plummer and five of his gang all at one go.
And up there on windy Boot Hill are six lonely graves, side by side.
The headboards aren’t original. They are replaced, with monotonous regularity, after the light-fingered tourists have left.
There is nothing particularly unique about the brief history of Virginia City. You can find it repeated in a dozen derelict ghost towns that lie mouldering among these bleak hills.
What is remarkable about Virginia City — and its up-and-coming neighbour Nevada City — is that it is here at all.
For that you have to thank three people — Charles Bovey, his wife Sue, and an indomitable little woman, Zena Hoff.
Charles Bovey, a quiet, shy man in his late 50’s, is a compulsive collector. Born into a wealthy milling family in Minneapolis, he can afford to be.
He started in a small way, collecting old cars and stagecoaches. Then in 1940 he heard of an ancient saddlery about to be torn down at Old Ford, Benton, on the Missouri River.
Charlie Bovey bought it as it stood — lock, stock and barrel —and re-erected it on the State Fairground at Great Falls.
Next year he acquired a fire station, a barber’s shop, and a general store.
In 1942 he paid his first visit to Virginia City. He got there just in time. Most of the rough and ready old mining town had long since been torn down and carted away for firewood; but the Boveys found the lower end of Wallace Street — what used to be the “red light” quarter — still standing like a dilapidated and long-forgotten film set.
Still defying time and the weather was the Wells Fargo office, the livery stable, the blacksmith’s shop and the remains of the Bale of Hay saloon.
They also found Zena Hoff, the Danish-born widow of a mining engineer who had lived in Virginia City for 20 years and loved every stick and stone of it.
The Boveys bought the lot and began to put it back into working order.
They ransacked the United States for antiques and freighted it up to Zena Hoff by the vanload.
In 1946 Charlie bought the Fairweather Hotel, a replica of the first frontier hotel in Montana, and shipped it up to Virginia City.
A perfect period piece, down to the brass spittoons in the lobby and the oleographs of Custer’s Last Stand, the Fairweather Hotel is always fully booked during the season.
Next they restored the Bale of Hay saloon, once one of the rowdiest bars in the West.
Back East they found a warehouse full of old hurdy-gurdies and mechanical pianos. Now there is a hot time in the old Bale of Hay every night.
And at 25 cents (or about 1s. 8d.) a throw for, “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” and other Top Pops of the ’20’s that does not do the Boveys any harm.
Then they turned the old stone bar next door into the Opera House.
With the help of Larry Barsness, a high-school drama coach who discovered Virginia City one holiday ten years ago and has never left it, they formed the Virginia City Players, a lively company of young professionals who specialise in lurid “mellerdrammers” like “Clem, the Miner’s Daughter.”
At first Charlie made his headquarters the editor’s office of the “Montana Post,” the earliest newspaper in Montana, first published in 1865.
He has since moved to the solid Victorian comfort of the Fairweather Hotel.
The Boveys have sunk a fortune into this monster work of reconstruction. Their only cash return comes from the Players, the Bale of Hay, the hotels, and the Wells Fargo coffee shop.
For they stoutly refuse to charge for admission, and employ no guides or custodians — often to the blind fury of Zena Hoff, who has to stand by helpless while the souvenir-hunting tourists shamelessly loot the town.
And about 100,000 tourists visit Virginia City every year to the joy and profit of the town’s 300 regular inhabitants.
It was Rena Hoff who organised and furnished the period barber’s shop, with its poker game in session in the backroom, the Milady’s Dress Shop, the general store and the cobbler’s shop.
She is particularly proud of the cobbler’s shop, it was a crooked cobbler, “Club Foot” George Lane, who used to tip off the Plummer gang which of the Wells Fargo coaches were worth robbing by marking them with cobbler’s chalk.
Having finished with Virginia City, Charlie Bovey turned his attention to its neighbour, Nevada City, which had long since disappeared from the map.
He bought up the old Salisbury Stage Station of the Ruby Valley, moved it several hundred miles north and turned it into a modern hotel.
He erected a string of miners’ cabins genuine down to the moss on the roof, fitted them with h and c and every mod. con. and rented them out as honeymoon cottages. Nevada City, which must be the youngest ghost town of them all, has a genuine period barber’s shop, a genuine two-storey outside privy (the pioneers called it a “long John”) and a genuine log-cabin gaol with room for six inside.
He added a musical museum, a large barn devoted to a fabulous and frightful collection of old cinema organs and fairground carousels.
They are his best-selling line. But when all are roaring at full blast the noise is indescribable.
And although no railroad ever ran into Virginia City Charlie Bovey has built his own to carry visitors the one mile between Nevada City and Virginia City.
The railway station at the Nevada City end has been lifted bodily from Hugo, Minnesota.
The rolling stock was retired 20 years ago from the Soo line, Minneapolis.
In addition to Bovey’s private railway there is the Bovey collection of locomotives and rolling stock — gathered from all over America — that will never roll again.
As a matter of fact I am writing this in what was until a few years ago the personal car of the Divisional Superintendent of the Great Northern Railway.
“Be my guest,” said Mr. Bovey. So last night we slept in it. There is no light, no water, no gas in the galley and the toilets don’t flush.
But rolled up in my sleeping bag on the lower berth I never slept better in my life.
NEXT: What happened to Custer?
Image © Reach PLC. Image created courtesy of The British Library Board
Jerry F 2023