VIRGINIA CITY, Mont. -- Like the prospectors who founded this town, Charles A. Bovey staked a claim here. But it wasn't gold that drew him. This gentleman rancher fancied the weathered buildings where miners once caroused, ladies bought corsets and vigilantes hanged outlaws.
Fifty years ago, Charlie Bovey started buying up this former territorial capital until he owned a third of it.
Then he purchased its rustic sister city down the hill. Within them, he housed his restored collection of mid-19th-century Montana buildings, from an 1847 saddlery shop (with a life-size model of a horse) to a two-story wooden outhouse.
But there's trouble in Virginia City, a national historic landmark and the state's largest tourist attraction after Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. The late collector's son cannot afford to maintain his father's legacy.
And no one has stepped forward to ensure that this window into the Old West will be preserved.
"I don't want to be sitting in this chair as a die-hard Montanan and auction off the state's historic contents," says Kirk Hansen, Bovey Restoration's general manager, who keeps a vial full of Virginia City's famed gold dust in his desk at the office on the town's main street.
"I'm looking for a hero. I'm looking for a big-time hero."
Efforts to have the towns incorporated into the National Park system or taken over by the state have proved unsuccessful so far. By fall, the cities could wind up in someone's private collection or a movie studio's back lot. Mr. Hansen, townspeople and the National Trust for Historic Preservation worry that a new owner would relocate the buildings, break up the collection or sell off the artifacts.
Any one of those decisions could turn this walk-through-history into a ghost town.
"Our interest in Virginia City is the story it tells about the settlement and development of the Rocky Mountains west and the mining frontier," says Barbara Pahl, a regional director of the National Trust. "If you split up the collection, removed the artifacts and they are spread across the country and are sitting in living rooms across the nation, we can't tell that story. The American people won't have the opportunity to have that experience."
With that in mind, Bovey Restorations and the 140 residents of Virginia City are looking for a well-heeled hero with a passion for ,, the past.
They are looking for another Charlie Bovey.
Didn't hoard nuggets
The son of a Midwest flour-milling executive who married well, Charlie Bovey never considered hoarding his nuggets of Montana's past. "To lock it up in a dark shed accessible only to myself would give me little pleasure," he once said.
Nestled between the snow-capped Tobacco Root Mountains and the pine-flanked Gravelly Range, Virginia City retains its frontier character as well as its wood-planked sidewalks.
The main thoroughfare, Wallace Street, contains more than two dozen buildings that sprang up during the heyday of this boom town. On May 26, 1863, prospector Bill Fairweather discovered gold in Alder Gulch, the ravine on the western edge of town. He had hoped to pan enough gold dust to buy tobacco.
Instead, he took out $12 worth. The rush was on.
Within a month, the town was platted. By the fall, 10,000 people lived here and 25,000 more in hamlets along the 11-mile gulch. In 36 months, the gulch yielded about $30 million worth of gold.
Virginia City's riverbeds earned the distinction of being the richest source of gold outside of California and Alaska, according to historical records. The city boasted the state's first newspaper and was a seedbed of vigilantism -- 23 outlaws were hanged here.
Its designation as the territorial capital extended the city's lifetime, unlike other mining camps that disappeared once the riverbeds no longer flowed with gold. The town buildings -- among them a saloon, print shop, Wells Fargo office, blacksmith, bakery and inn -- reflected the Greek and Gothic Revival styles then unpopular back East.
Although the capital was moved to Helena in 1875 (soon after gold was found there) and Virginia City's population dwindled to fewer than 1,000, the town survived on the last vestiges of gold and other mining and dredging until the early 1940s.
Bought old buildings
Then came Charlie Bovey and his wife, Susan, the granddaughter of a Montana bank president. During the couple's first visit to Virginia City, Mr. Bovey decided he couldn't let the state's history slip away. He began buying up the old buildings, restoring them and filling them with artifacts that would imbue the graying wooden structures with life.
The task was a familiar one to Mr. Bovey, who earlier had purchased other historic Montana buildings and housed them in a livestock pavilion at the fairgrounds in Great Falls.
In 1959, Mr. Bovey moved that collection -- piece by numbered piece -- to Virginia City's gold dust twin, Nevada City. He installed the buildings -- including a small Chinatown once populated by Chinese miners -- in a town-like grid behind the few structures on Nevada City's main street.
"It's the way it was," says Katherine Jones, a visitor from Larkspur, Colo., as she walks through Nevada City's town within a town. "It hasn't been phonied up."
"It's not the Hollywood conception of the West," says her friend, Mary Rowe of Livingston, Mont.
Although espresso, handcrafted wood bowls, outerwear and Indian-made silver jewelry sell in the shops along the main street, visitors only have to peer through the windows of a neighboring storefront to see what townsfolk bought a century ago.
For the past 23 years, John Ellingsen has been the institutional memory of Bovey Restorations. He is the curator and all-around Mr. Fixit in his childhood vacation town.
Today, when Mr. Ellingsen unlocks the door of the McGovern Drygoods Store, he unlocks the voice of history. Mr. Bovey bought the store, originally run by Hanna and Mary McGovern, from the surviving sister in 1945 and paid her rent to keep the stock intact.
"Evidently, they didn't do a real rushing business," Mr. Ellingsen says as he scans the well-stocked shelves and display cases filled with bows, switches of hair, cashmere underwear, dolls' heads and ribbon. "They didn't have a telephone, but they say by 10 o'clock, they knew all the gossip in town."
Across Wallace Street stands the S. R. Buford Store, a testament to Mr. Bovey's fidelity to history -- and eye for detail.
In trying to re-create the store's stock, Mr. Ellingsen said Mr. Bovey recalled that he had bags full of the store's mail. The two men culled the letters and found 200 labels, samples of a manufacturer's new line. To supplement the stock, they reproduced other labels and hand-colored them, says Mr. Ellingsen.
"This was Charlie's whole life," says the 48-year-old curator of his former boss who died in 1978. "He wasn't interested in making money by preserving history. He was interested in preserving history."
Money matters now
But money is at the heart of the matter now.
"We really have 60 days of cash flow," says Kirk Hansen, of Bovey Restorations, referring to the tourist season. "But to pay 365 days of bills with 60 days of cash flow, it just doesn't run that far."
This spring, the Montana Legislature refused to buy Nevada City for its $3 million asking price. And while the National Park Service is interested in the two towns, the process may take too long.
A fledgling citizen's group, the Virginia City Preservation Alliance, is hoping to raise enough money -- or borrow it -- to buy the Bovey parcels, enhance its summer tourist season and pursue national park status.
"There are 29 [federal park] sites associated with the Civil War but nothing, zero, zip, nothing that tells this story," says John Noyes, president of the alliance and a wood-turner who runs a crafts shop in Virginia City. "This is our nation's history. This isn't just a Montana story here. This is the story of the West."
Virginia City Mayor Linda Hamilton worries that the gold mining towns could go the way of Deadwood, S.D., a ghost town converted into a gambling center.
"Every building has wall-to-wall one-arm bandits," says John Hamilton, the mayor's husband, who joins her at the kitchen table in their bed-and-breakfast overlooking town.
But time is running out. Mr. Hansen said his boss can no longer underwrite the properties, the period cabins and lodging they provide or the vintage entertainment -- cabarets in a converted 1864 brewery, 19th-century melodramas in a turn-of-the-century livery and rock bands in the 1866 Bale-of-Hay Saloon.
For Mr. Bovey, the pending sale of his childhood fantasy land weighs heavily on him. Mr. Bovey, 50 and in poor health, would prefer the state or National Park Service assume stewardship of the properties.
"I'd hate to see it broken up," he says, "because no one could put back it together."