Week of September 5, 1999
A Visit To the Old West - Virginia City
Today, we drove into the old West towns of Virginia City and Nevada City. We were transported back to the 1890s, with saloons, blacksmiths, general stores, an Opera house, and museums which contained stories of the gold boom ($130 million has been discovered to date). The town includes the largest collection of gold boom period buildings in the West today. The first Montana newspaper was started here at fifty cents a copy (you can still see the original building). It all started in 1863 when six men camped on the banks of the small creek here. They had been captured by Indians as they were making their way to the Yellowstone gold mines and were released only after they agreed to turn back. They decided to pan for gold in the creek in order to pay for some tobacco in the nearby town of Bannack. They soon discovered $2.40 in gold on their first try, and word quickly spread throughout the area. Within a month, a settlement had been organized and the first log cabins built (some of which can still be seen today). Virginia City looking from Boot Hill
The building on the left was the first capital building of the Montana territory, now serving as a garage.
The Opera House
Originally, the name of the town was to be Varina (named after Jefferson Davis' wife) due to the number of Confederate supporters in the town. When the papers were submitted to the newly-elected miners' court judge, Dr. G. G. Bissell, a staunch Union supporter, he changed the document to read Virginia instead. Within a year, over 10,000 had moved to the new town of Virginia City to search for gold in Alder Gulch (named for the trees around the creek). The area became a part of the Montana Territory, and Virginia City was to be the capital for 11 years (the original capital building can still be seen in town, shown above). New settlements sprang up all around the creek near the town. Within three years, more than $30 million in gold was found.
It was during this early period of wild growth that theft and murders became commonplace, causing the miners in the town to briefly establish a Vigilante group where residents enforced the law. This group was responsible for hanging two dozen men in a one month period, including the aledgedly crooked sheriff of Bannack (Henry Plummer) who had led a band of "road agent" outlaws to rob gold transports. The gang used the code "I am innocent" to identify each other. One man was hanged and later found to be innocent. Another was hanged for informing another man that he was being sought out by the Vigilantes. Five of the proported members of the road agent gang are buried at Boot Hill (see here) at the ridge near the high point above the town. They were tried and hanged in a building which was being built at the time. It is still standing in town (called Hangman's Building).
Picket fence stairs leading to a house that is no longer there. During the 1890's, large dredging equipment was brought in to dig for gold in the gulch area. The gravel dug up virtually buried most of the settlement buildings in surrounding towns. The railroad bypassed the town and the area, instead going to the town of Butte. By the 1950's, the town was close to being a ghost town. Charles and Sue Bovey of Great Falls, upon visiting the town saw its historical importance, and started buying the remaining buildings, renovating them and stocking them with period antiques. A major preservation effort was underway with a focus on tourism. Their efforts soon expanded to the nearby Nevada City where old period buildings were moved from across the state. Railroad tracks were laid between the towns in the 1960's to symbolize the absence of the railroads in their development. It is a well preserved piece of the old West that is now owned by the state of Montana, with several private residences and businesses. Of the more than one thousand buildings that were in the town originally, about 237 remain today (50 are from the gold rush period of 1863 to 1865). We talked to several of the townspeople and watched a blacksmith make custom tools by hand.

We then headed further down the road to Nevada City and viewed some of the many old period buildings placed there by the Boveys to represent an old West town. The first road agent was hanged here by the Vigilantes. Across the street along the railroad tracks were old rare narrow gauge passenger trains, a recently built train building housing a period locomotive, and old dredging machinery. I wanted to spend more time here, but it was getting late in the day and time to head back to our campground.

Unusual cloud formation. The traces of the 1959 earthquake here can still be seen.

Hiking and Sites In Yellowstone

Monday we went into Yellowstone to hike the Canyon area. We headed to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone to see the huge canyon walls and the beautiful waterfalls of the Yellowstone River. The canyon varies from 800 to 1200 feet in depth and 1500 to 4000 feet wide. The length is about 24 miles long. We hiked first to Upper Falls in the Canyon via a trail of about 350 steel steps going straight down into the canyon, and then down to Lower Falls. Pine trees are alll around and you can see their tops. The Lower Falls is a 308-foot waterfall, that's twice as tall as Niagra Falls.

A must see hike at Yellowstone National Park.

At Artist's Point, we took in a breathtaking view of the Grand Canyon with Lower Falls at the end, which is a recommended hike. It is called Artist's Point because so many artists have come to that spot to paint or sketch the canyon and falls. Shown here, when viewing the canyon late in the afternoon, it appears as a painting. We remembered seeing a huge wall-sized painting by Thomas Moran of the falls and canyon when we were at the Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. back in July. See our July travel notes.
Bison don't make good pets.. We spotted several lone bull bison near the road in the Canyon area. They look docile enough but have actually killed several visitors who got too close. They will charge and gore the person with their horns and then toss them 20 or 30 feet in the air. Warning flyers are handed out at the entrance since this happened. The bison can weigh up to 2000 lbs.

Tuesday we went into West Yellowstone to the Grizzly Discovery Center & Wolf Preserve to get close-up views of animals that we may otherwise not see. It was interesting to see these animals as they related together in a controlled environment. Toby is a favorite to watch. We watched one of the grizzly bears tear down a tree (they have to replace about two a day), a favorite pastime. See an image of him here. Two grizzlies had a growling match as they jostled together (one weighing over 700 and the other over 600 lbs).

Wolves typically average living 8 - 10 years in the wild. They have been recently re-introduced to Yellowstone.

Across the way, I enjoyed watching the wolves in their pack. One of the more aggressive ones started a fight with a submissive wolf. The dominant or alpha female of the pack had the other one pinned down with her fangs drawn (see here). The ticket allows us to come back the next day, which we did. We got a pizza at Pete's Rocky Mountain Pizza, which was quite good. From there, we caught the Yellowstone movie at the IMAX Theatre. On the 6-story screen with surround sound, it gave an overview of the Yellowstone story and the wildlife that makes it special.

On Wednesday we went back to the Grizzly Discovery Center & Wolf Preserve. We got there just in time to see the wolves being fed. The alpha female got a piece of meat and buried it, and then ran back for another. She buried it also and went back for more. She took a piece from the omega or most submissive female and took it back with the others and then urinated on it. After this she stood on the dirt mound where she had buried the meat and dared the other wolves to come near.

Brother and sister at play They let out two grizzly cubs after the wolf feeding. They let the bears come out in shifts into the outside habitat. They sometimes switch out who comes out with who so they will get to socialize with different bears. Between shifts the workers come out and hide vegetables under rocks and logs. We also saw them with a huge syringe full of peanut butter that they squirted into holes in sticks and logs. It is a favorite treat. Sometimes they let out feeder rats that they raise there. They try to give them a varied diet and encourage them to use their sense of smell and their mind to forage. The two grizzly cubs were great fun to watch. They were about 18 months old and were already close to 200 pounds each. Bears usually can't live on their own until they are around 3 years old. These two had been rescued in Alaska when their mother was shot and killed when they were just 6 months old. The two cubs are kept together and get very upset if they don't know where the other one is. They had fun chasing each other and splashing and wrestling in the small pond in their habitat. The bears are trained so that when a cow bell is rung they hurry back inside to their own dens.

We went back into Yellowstone next. We headed to Mammoth Hot Springs in the upper west corner of the park. Here we saw the fascinating formations of Upper and Lower Terraces. These formations are made of travertine and are not found anywhere else in the park. They are like white stairsteps down a hill with hot springs flowing down them. After hiking around the formations, we headed to the visitor center. The visitor center area is like a small town with the headquarters of the park located there. It is also the site of Fort Yellowstone. We were driving toward the visitor center when we saw a large herd of elk grazing in a grass island in the middle of the parking lot. We saw several more around other buildings nearby. A ranger had his hands busy trying to keep the people from getting too close to the elk. The people were supposed to stay at least 25 yards away although this was impossible with them a few feet from the door to the visitor center and the post office. We took a few pictures of the elk and then went inside the visitor center where we watched a film about the artist Thomas Moran. Next we headed east around the upper loop to Tower Fall. We hiked down to the foot of Tower Fall, which falls 132 feet to Tower Creek which empties into the Yellowstone River. Near the falls you can see yellow cliffs above the Yellowstone river. The yellow color of the rock is what gave Yellowstone its name.

We then headed south into Utah to spend several days around the Provo area (40 minutes from Salt Lake City) to run some errands. We stayed at the East Bay RV Park Campground in Springville, with instant modem hookups! It is a new campground with all the amenities, and right across the road from a Flying J. We give it a high recommendation. While in the area, we visited the genealogy center at the Brigham Young University library in Provo to catch up on our family history.

Next Up: Seeing the National Parks of Utah

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