Looking Back at the 11 Most: Saving the Birthplace of Montana

Posted on: July 13th, 2011 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Written by Barb Pahl

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment in a seven-part series that will explore the history of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

Historic buildings along Wallace Street in Virginia City, Montana. (Photo: Jim Lindberg)

Historic buildings along Wallace Street in Virginia City, Montana. (Photo: Jim Lindberg)

My colleague Betsy Merritt’s blog post on the history of the 11 Most Endangered Places list noted that 1997 was a signature year for the program with six “outright” saves. She forgot another place saved that year: Virginia City, Montana. Former Montana Governor Marc Racicot once called Virginia City "the birthplace of Montana." Established in 1864 after gold was discovered on Alder Creek, Virginia City was the territorial capitol of Montana from 1865 to 1875. Virginia City had the first public school district (1866) in Montana, the first newspaper (the Montana Post) and the first and probably only utility in the state owned by an African American woman. It is the birthplace of the Montana Historical Society and was the home and official office for the first Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park which is the first national park in the world.

In addition to being a city of “firsts,” Virginia City was also a place of the “biggest.” It held the largest and most lucrative placer deposit in the Rocky Mountain Mining Region producing over $40 million dollars in gold in just 5 years which is one reason why Virginia City is not just a treasure to the State of Montana, but a national historic landmark. In addition to its mining history, the town’s Green Revival, Gothic Revival, and Italianate buildings are the original buildings built by the first settlers of the community. Inside these buildings are artifacts – some original, some from the period – which tells the story of the settlement and development of the Rocky Mountain Mining frontier.

This entire collection of 100 buildings and over a million artifacts exist today because of Charlie and Sue Bovey. The Boveys spent their lives saving the historic buildings and artifacts in Virginia City and nearby Nevada City, Montana turning both towns into summer tourist attractions. When they died, they left everything to their only son Ford. Ford ran the operation for a few years but, like his parents, the business always lost money. In March 1991 for sale signs went up in front of Bovey’s historic buildings in Virginia City prompting calls to the Denver offices of the National Trust and the National Park Service from concerned citizens asking for help.

Historic buildings along Wallace Street in Virginia City, Montana. (Photo: Jim Lindberg)

Historic buildings along Wallace Street in Virginia City, Montana. (Photo: Jim Lindberg)

Virginia City was included on the National Trust's 11 Most Endangered Places list in 1992, 1993, and 1994 and saving it became a major priority for the Mountains/Plains Office in Denver. Our goal was to find a new entity that could acquire and protect Virginia City. Our initial plan was to make Virginia City a unit of the National Park Service. It seemed logical. While there are over 30 National Park units that tell the story of the Civil War, there are none - zero, zip, nada - that tell the story of the settlement and development of the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier. We had the support of the Montana delegation and when the Park Service didn’t have enough money to fund a special resource study, we loaned them Jim Lindberg to do part of the work. The study suggested Virginia City met the suitability, feasibility, and significance test, but Park Service rejected it.

Next, we worked with a small group in Montana to devise a plan to raise private money to purchase the buildings and artifacts that would then be owned and managed by a nonprofit. A few people expressed interest in the project, but Ford set out unrealistic timeframes for the purchase making it difficult to raise the money, so we had to abandon the idea.

Dick Moe likes to tell the story that shortly after he arrived at the National Trust in 1992, he found me on his doorstep to talk about Virginia City. He visited Virginia City with me later that year and became committed to its preservation. There was a magazine article written in the 1950s about Virginia City that called it The Williamsburg of the West so Dick asked the President of Colonial Williamsburg and the CEO of Biltmore House in Asheville to help us by sending their top staff to Virginia City to give us their best thinking on what should happen there. We invited the President of the Montana Historical Society and the Director of Travel Montana to come to Virginia City and they heard experts from two of the finest museums in the country share their ideas for transforming Virginia City into a world class museum on the story of how gold mining transformed the Western frontier.

On June 12, 1996, Dick and I met with Governor Racicot and we told him about our efforts to make Virginia City a National Park and our attempt at raising private money so it could be purchased and operated by a nonprofit. We said the only solution was for the state to buy it. He said, "I have been where you’ve been I know what you know, and I agree with you, the state must provide the solution." In May, 1997, the Montana Legislature passed a bill authorizing the state to purchase the historic buildings and artifacts owned by Ford Bovey in Virginia and Nevada Cities for $6.5 million. According to the lobbyist we hired to help pass the bill, the legislators didn’t do it for tourism, or economic development, they did it to save Montana history.

So 1997 was a banner year for the 11 Most Endangered Places list. That year we saved a bridge, a cathedral, a castle, a cemetery, a civil war site, a cultural site, and the birthplace of Montana.

You can learn more about this year’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places — and you can help. By texting the word “PLACES” to 25383 on your mobile phone, you can donate a special $10.00 gift to support the National Trust’s efforts to save the places that tell America’s story. Click here for details.

A one-time donation of $10.00 will be added to your mobile phone bill or deducted from your prepaid balance. All donations must be authorized by the account holder. All charges are billed by and payable to your mobile service provider. Service is available on most carriers. Donations are collected for the benefit of the National Trust for Historic Preservation by the Mobile Giving Foundation and subject to the terms found at www.hmgf.org/t. Messaging and data rates may apply. You can unsubscribe at any time by texting STOP to short code 25383; text HELP to 25383 for help.

Barb Pahl is the regional director of the National Trust’s Mountains/Plains Office.

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