In 1863, a travel party of six men settled for the night by a mountain stream. While they were there, they did some gold prospecting and found one of the richest gold deposits in North America. Word spread quickly and many gold hopefuls flocked to the area in hopes of striking it rich.
On June 16, 1863, a town was formed as an attempt to regulate individual’s claims to gold. The town was named Verina in honor of the only First Lady of the Confederacy, Varina Howell Davis. However, when the town’s name was registered, G. G. Bissell, a Connecticut judge, objected and had the name changed to Virginia City. This name change was ironic because Virginia split during the Civil War with West Virginia siding with the North and Virginia siding with the South.
Within a few weeks, Virginia City was a boomtown with thousands of citizens. With no law enforcement, the town was run by vigilantes. They created the secret motto 3-7-77. This motto was painted on tents and buildings as a warning for others to leave the area or face vigilant justice. What the motto means is still a mystery, though many theories exist. Some say it meant that the criminal had 3 hours 7 minutes and 77 seconds to leave the town. Others claim it represents the dimensions of a grave, 3 feet by 7 feet by 77 inches. Some believe it was borrowed from the California or Colorado Territory vigilance organizations, where members 3 and 77 were authorized to carry out executions. Though it remains a mystery, the Montana Highway Patrol and Montana Air National Guard wear this number on their uniforms today.
When it was founded, Virginia City was part of the Idaho Territory. When the Montana Territory was formed on May 26, 1984, Virginia City became part of it. The original capital of the Montana Territory was Bannack, but in 1865 with 10,000 citizens, Virginia City became the new capital. Virginia City continued to grow and develop, building its first public school in 1866.
Even with such rich gold deposits, Virginia City quickly became drained. It is estimated that $30 million worth of gold was mined in Virginia City in the first 3 years alone. As the gold became sparse, people left Virginia City as quickly as they had come. By the 1870’s, only a few hundred people remained, a shadow of the thousands that had once been there. Those that stayed in Virginia City did not have the money to update buildings, so the town retained the original architecture.
Charles and Sue Bovey bought Virginia City in the 1940’s. The buildings were falling in from lack of maintenance. They spent money to repair and restore the buildings and opened the area to tourism in the 1950’s. Today, about 130 people live in Virginia City and it remains a popular tourist attraction.
A visit to Virginia City provides a great look into the Gold Rush and life in the late 1800’s. The most popular tourist attractions in Virginia City are touring the ghost town and panning for gold. People roam the town dressed in period clothes to share information about life in Virginia City back in its hayday. In addition to touring the town, visitors can see a stage coach and a 1941 fire engine. A train runs between Virginia City and Nevada City, another popular gold town. There are also a lot of outdoors activities in the area, such as mountain biking, fishing, hiking, skiing, and snowmobiling.