For one dollar you can become an honorary Virginia City, Mont., vigilante. Only men need apply.
The dubious offer is made by the Virginia City Museum, where you can see a cane and straight-edge razor once owned by "Club Foot George Lane" - shoe repairman and highwayman hung by vigilantes for his crimes.Here, too, is a knife owned by Joe Slade, used to cut the ears off one Jules Reni. Slade also was a victim of vigilante justice, although less deserving than most who died at the end of a rope during two bloody months in the winter of 1864.
Herb Hagget, owner of the Vigilante Gift Shop in the old Masonic building told me the first vigilante committee was organized "right here in the basement of this building." Perhaps. Others say it was in Nevada City at the Lott Bros. store, and still others in a Virginia City hardware store, or in any one of the half dozen or so camps strung along Alder Gulch.
Today this colorful, often violent past sells well with tourists who flock to the old camp to sample the nostalgia of Montana's gold rush days. Virginia City (not to be confused with Virginia City, Nev.) is on state highway 287, northwest of Yellowstone National Park.
Unlike many of the gold camps that burned not just once but two or three times before taking root, much of Virginia City has survived intact.
Here you can still belly up to the bar at the Bale of Hay Saloon. The Stone barn and livery stable is extant (now the opera house and home of the Virginia City Players), and the Anaconda Hotel and Saloon exists in the guise of the Fairweather Inn.
In the frenetic years between 1863-66, the placer deposits of Alder Gulch gave up $30 million in gold bullion and would eventually yield as much as $100 million, the richest placer strike in all of Montana.
The late spring of 1863 saw 10,000 miners converge on Alder Gulch. By fall, 30,000 stampeeders engulfed the sagebrush covered hills bordering the Tobacco Root Mountains.
Along with this horde, a number of nefarious characters drifted into Alder Gulch looking for easier pickings than those obtained with pick and shovel.
Among them the aforementioned Clubfoot George Lane, Frank Parish, Boone Helm, Haze Lyons and Jack Gallagher.
Those five are worthy of mention because they were the first rounded up and hung by Virginia City vigilantes.
The outlaws were buried in Virginia City's "Boot Hill," known then as Burial Hill, and used as the town plot until 1867. Today, five wooden headboards mark the graves, anchored in concrete to prevent theft by souvenir hunters.
According to Dick Pace, who has written a history of the place, the original markers were lost and "people were hazy about the graves."
A late night argument in one of the saloons led to the disinterment of Clubfoot George Lane. "The story must be true," Pace concluded, "since the clubfoot is on display at the Thompson-Hickman Museum."
Respectable folk were laid to rest in what became known as the "new" cemetery, a short distance away on a hilltop overlooking the town. It is an intriguing place to browse.
When the last of the dredges shut down in 1941, the towns along the lower end of Alder Gulch _ Nevada City, Adobetown, Junction, Central _ lay buried under mounds of rubble left in the wake of these remorseless machines. Of the lot, only Nevada City has been restored, though perhaps a better word is recreated.
The assembly of authentic buildings and their 19th-century appurtenances was the work of the late Charles Bovey and his wife, Sue, ardent amateur historians bent on preserving a piece of Montana's past.
At Nevada City the Boveys salvaged the Old Star Bakery, the home of pioneer rancher and miner Oscar Steadman, and a number of miners cabins and barns.
They also built a replica of Virginia City's old Chinese Temple that graces the Chinese section of the restoration, an echo of Alder Gulch's Oriental past.
Generally speaking, today's Nevada City leaves one with the impression of a museum, albeit one in an appropriate setting.
In Virginia City, the Boveys were instrumental in the restoration of perhaps the largest collection of commercial buildings on their original sites found among the surviving gold rush towns. Virtually all of lower Wallace Street is theirs.
The Virginia City Players are doubtless at the focal point of summertime entertainment hereabouts. The oldest acting company in Montana, they've been performing traditional boo and hiss melodrama for over 40 years. They also feature something called "vigorous vagaries of vivacious varieties" _ a form of vaudeville. The plays run from June 1-Sept. 5 nightly except Sunday.
A sight-seeing train hauled by vintage locomotives of the Alder Gulch Short Line operates between Virginia City and Nevada City. The Steam Railroad Museum in Nevada City, another Bovey enterprise, highlights this tour. Included in this collection is a one-of-a-kind chapel car, used to reach out-of-the-way mining camps. The trains run hourly during summer months.
* Frank Jensen lives in Salt Lake City. He is a frequent contributor to the Deseret News Travel Section.