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Virginia City: Step Back In Time

Stories of colorful mining-era boomtowns in the American West are abundant. But few are quite as colorful as the story of Virginia City. On May 26, 1863, six frustrated prospectors set up a camp on the banks of a small creek in the Tobacco Root Mountains. All they wanted was to find enough gold to buy tobacco when they returned to Bannack. Within hours, they had collected $12.30 in gold, and that there might be more here than a few days worth of tobacco. The area was named Alder Gulch for the bushes that grew along the creek.

The town of Virginia City was born, and within a year grew to 10,000 people. Within two years almost 30,000 people lived within 20 miles of the town. Within three years, Alder Gulch coughed up more than $30 million in gold, and to this day is the richest placer gold discovery in history yielding over $130 million in flakes, nuggets, and gold dust.

The stories that go with this town are just as rich. Henry Plummer, the criminal sheriff who plundered the area for years. The Montana Vigilante movement that finally hung the crooked sheriff and contributed numerous graves on the local Boot Hill. And, of course, the political intrigue and wrangling when the town served as Montana’s Territorial Capital.

Probably the most unique thing about Virginia City is that most of it is still standing today— intact and preserved. Most of the buildings here have stood in the same spot for more than 130 years. The “downtown” of Virginia City is arguably one of the best collection of “boomtown” buildings still standing on their original sites. Ranks Mercantile, established in 1864, is Montana’s oldest continuously operating general store.

Charles and Sue Bovey visited Virginia City in1944 and immediately recognized its historic value. Their efforts to restore and preserve the town lasted for years until the Bovey estate sold the town to the State of Montana. Today, you can shop, dine, and sleep in a town so authentic you’ll feel you’ve stepped back in time. Learn more about this rare historical treasure at and

Reprinted from The Ultimate Montana Travel Atlas and Encyclopedia.

This Date in History: December 8, 1995
Montana's Notorious Speed Limit Issue

During the Arab oil embargo of 1973-1974, the US Government issued federal guidelines dictating established speed limits in all fifty states. Twenty-one years later, the guidelines were revoked, and Montana became one of the most notorious states in the US. On December 8, 1995, the Montana Legislature voted to institute reasonable and prudent speed limits during daylight hours with a fifty-five mile-per-hour nighttime limit on all roads excluding Interstates 90, 94, and 15. After an increase in accidents were linked to the new “reasonable and prudent” guidelines, the leglislature voted on specific limits in spring 1999. To this day, interstate speed limits remain at seventy-five miles-per-hour, while all other highways enforce a seventy mile-per-hour limit.

Winter is Big in the Flathead
by Roland Cheek

Winter sports are big in the Flathead. And why not? Winter is big in the Flathead. Snow generally comes to the high country—the snow that lays all winter—in late October. And it still hangs on the north slopes and in some of the high passes into late May. Snow in the main valleys is different though.

Oh sure, snow flurries will come earlier than October. And it’s not at all unusual to have late flurries into April. But winter seldom gets really serious—even in the high country—before the end of October. Nor does it hang on in the main valleys much past late March—that’s when the ground begins to thaw.

Still, you can expect to experience five or six months of winter every year. Despite occasional “Chinook” winds from the Pacific, bringing warming, melting periods to the lower valleys, deep snow and freezing temperatures in the mountains ensure great winter recreation opportunities everywhere.

Most serious Montana skiers know the Big Mountain—located just north of Whitefish—is one of the most popular ski areas in the entire Treasure State. With more than 33 miles of ski terrain in 41 different runs; with 2,170 vertical feet above the 4,600-foot base area; with an uphill lift capacity of 8,430 skiers per hour - it’s no wonder the Big Mountain is head and shoulders in popularity above many other Montana ski resorts.

But the real reason is SNOW. It’s deep fine powder, usually blanketing the mountain beginning in October. Always open by Christmas, sometimes opening by Thanksgiving— depending on snow pack—Big Mountain’s average snow is four to seven feet at base, seven to 10 feet at summit. And skiing usually lasts through April.

If sliding madly downhill on a couple of flat boards scares the socks off you, then take up cross country skiing as I did. Certainly one of the fastest growing outdoor recreational pursuits in Montana, there’s unlimited opportunity in National Forests, state lands and Glacier Park. The sport’s burgeoning popularity has led to several sporadically groomed-trail ski areas throughout the Flathead.

For those who seek solitude, that can be found virtually anywhere on the millions of acres of public lands in the Flathead. All you need is enough snow and enough willpower to seek out a suitable place. Snowshoes would help, too.

Yet another popular wintertime sport in the Flathead is snowmobiling. The expense of the sport has resulted in some decline over the last decade, but there are still substantial advocates around the valley. Most snowmobiling is conducted in the Whitefish Range, north of Columbia Falls, the Swan Valley-Seeley Lake area, the Tally Lake country west of Whitefish, southeast of Eureka, the Flathead’s South Fork above Hungry Horse Dam, and the Skyland Road area near Marias Pass.

Ice fishing is a wintertime activity pursued by many Flathead visitors and residents alike. Though to some folks, the sport would play better in August while they’re bucking hay bales during the dog days of mid-summer, others like nothing better than to perch on an ice-covered lake, jigging for grandpa trout, through a six-inch hole— weather be damned!

Opportunities are plentiful for winter recreation; especially follow those folks who can’t abide propping their feet up by the fire and sipping hot-buttered rums for an entire frigid season.

Roland Cheek has lived the better part of fifty years living in Columbia Falls in the heart of the Flathead area. A good many of those years he spent as an outfitter. Most of the rest of that he’s spent observing the area and its wildlife and writing about bears, elk, and the great outdoors surrounding him. His “Trails to Outdoor Adventure” has been syndicated in print and radio. He is the author of six books and countless outdoor articles. Find out more about him at

Reprinted from The Ultimate Montana Atlas and Travel Encyclopedia.

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