ALDER GULCH – We’ve all seen the Hollywood movie, no?
The one that tells the extraordinary story of the gold strike here in an overgrown creek bottom in southwestern Montana 150 years ago next Sunday?
The one that highlights the boisterous and ever-growing parade of miners, probably 300 or more, who dogged the six-man discovery party the 70 miles back to their strike near what quickly became Virginia City from Bannack, where they’d gone for supplies?
The one that dramatizes life in what some have called the richest placer gulch in the history of the world?
The one, in other words, that portrays some of the most pivotal days in the European/American history of Montana?
That’s exactly John Ellingsen’s point.
He can’t fathom why, in a century of shoot-’em-up Westerns on the silver screen, the Alder Gulch story has yet to pass muster as a screenplay. The vigilante movement the winter following the original strike would make a crackerjack screenplay in itself, Ellingsen says.
“Not just a documentary, where you have some old pictures and things, but a real acted-out movie, true to history, of course, if you can agree on what it is,” he says. “If they did a good movie about the Titanic, then they could do that kind of a movie on Alder Gulch and the vigilantes.”
Ellingsen, 67, is the most familiar (bearded) face in Virginia City these days. A Great Falls native who fell in love with the place as a kid, he arrived to stay in 1972. Ellingsen worked for Charles and Sue Bovey, who set out in 1944 to acquire and save the deteriorating buildings of Virginia and Nevada City. He’s now curator emeritus of Bovey Restorations Inc. and the Montana Heritage Commission, created by the state to manage the more than 250 buildings it bought in 1997.
It’ll be Ellingsen’s job next Sunday to address the hoped-for masses during “Gold Discovery” weekend as an ambitious summerlong celebration of the 150th anniversary of the finding of gold in Alder Gulch swings into gear.
An artist’s reception for the winning 150th commemorative poster art entry is set for 5:30 p.m. Friday in the Elling House in Virginia City. It’ll be followed at 7 p.m. by the presentation of the Virginia City Preservation Alliance’s new book, “Nuggets in Time.”
On Saturday, a non-motorized parade through Virginia City that harkens back to the 1860s and features gold coin candy will start at 1:30 p.m. Then comes the main event on Sunday – Ellingsen will speak and re-enactors will get down and dirty in the same creek bottom that yielded the first nuggets exactly a century and a half earlier, before everyone is treated to cupcakes iced in gold.
Those festivities begin at 2 p.m., a couple hours earlier than the original discovery on May 26, 1863, a warm and sunny Tuesday.
Scottish-born Henry Edgar, 37, and “Old Bill” Fairweather, all of 26 years old, had camp and horse duty that evening. Their four traveling mates – Tom Cover, Barney Hughes, Harry Rodgers and Mike Sweeney – left to do some prospecting elsewhere.
In his journal, Edgar said it was around 4 p.m. when Fairweather returned to camp after crossing the creek to find a place to picket the horses. He told Edgar he’d found a promising piece of rimrock exposed along the creek bank.
Today that same jut of rock is marked at a turnout on the Alder Gulch Road just outside of Virginia City by a large monument installed more than 90 years ago. It’s the spot where Ellingsen hopes he can convince the planning committee to hold Sunday’s historical performance, though he acknowledges there could be parking and accessibility issues.
Fairweather was described by a contemporary as “six feet and two inches of bone and sinew” with “a pair of immense sweeping mustaches, and a curly reddish beard.”
He was a true eccentric of the Old West – wild, fun-loving, hard-drinking, with an affinity for rattlesnakes. When a party of Crow on the Yellowstone River “escorted” Fairweather and friends to its camp a few weeks earlier, “Old Bill” made a stir when he arrived with a snake on each arm that he’d picked up en route.
The impression may have helped their Crow-speaking guide, Lew Simmons, negotiate his partners’ release, keeping them alive to strike it rich. They agreed to turn back upriver and Simmons agreed to stay with the Indians. Views differ on whether by hitting a medicine man in the head with a sacred sagebrush Fairweather helped or hindered the cause.
Fairweather was famously free with his gold, once he got it. Gary Forney, a local historian, author and board member of the Virginia City Preservation Alliance, said “Old Bill” was largely dependent on the goodwill of his legion of friends when he died of alcoholism in 1875. The end came at Robber’s Roost on the Ruby River, when Fairweather was traveling by stagecoach from Bannack to Virginia City one last time.
Thanks to the efforts of the Preservation Alliance, the two-story log Robber’s Roost is marked by interpretive signs alongside Highway 287 between Sheridan and Laurin (pronounced “Luh-RAY”). Fairweather’s grave in the Virginia City cemetery is also well-marked.
Fairweather filled a pan with dirt from the outcrop and told Edgar to wash it. “See if you can get enough to buy some tobacco when we get to town,” he said.
Edgar was hard at it when he heard Fairweather sing out: “I have found a scad” (mining parlance “nugget”).
“If you have one I have a hundred,” Edgar replied.
And so it began. The six men spent the next day panning and grinning. They staked claims twice as large as normal, then headed into Bannack, which was all of 10 months old, to re-supply.
“They were trying to keep it a big secret, but they were so proud of it, I’m sure, they couldn’t resist showing it off,” Ellingsen says. “Also they were buying supplies with this unfamiliar gold. Everybody in Bannack soon realized that it was not gold from around there.”
In his 2009 book, “Discovery Men: The Fairweather Party and Montana’s El Dorado,” Forney chronicled the return trip. It began on June 1, but the discovery party “found it impossible to move without a crowd,” according to Edgar.
That multitude increased as the party made its way to Rattlesnake Creek and camped, then proceeded down to the Beaverhead River and through the present site of Dillon. When they reached Beaverhead Rock, 15 miles downstream, they knew they wouldn’t shake the masses.
They halted and called a general meeting, with Edgar in charge. He laid down the law, as Forney explained: The enlarged claims of the discovery team would be honored, they’d never be jumped or taken from the six men, and Edgar, Fairweather, Cover, Hughes, Rodgers and Sweeney would be exempt from the legal requirement of one day’s work in seven to hold the claim.
If the others didn’t agree, no one would proceed. Eventually the terms were accepted, with some grumbling, and the parade proceeded on. The assemblage reached Alder Gulch on June 6.
Before long, some 10,000 people crowded into nine boomtowns along a 14-mile stretch.
Ellen Baumler, the Montana Historical Society’s interpretive historian, called Virginia City’s impact on the settling of the Western frontier “enormous.” Richard Moe, when he was president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, likened its role to that of Colonial America’s Williamburg.
Within days, a townsite was organized and lots were sold.
“By July, they had the plat drawn – the one we never found,” Ellingsen said. “You can tell exactly how it was, though, from the land descriptions that were filed.”
Alder Gulch yielded an estimated $30 million in five years, according to Baumler. That compares to $19 million at Last Chance Gulch and Helena.
Virginia City served as Montana’s territorial capital for 10 years, until that title was wrestled away by Helena in 1875.
“One of the best things that happened to us, I think,” Ellingsen says with a grin.
It’s hard to know what to make of Alder Gulch 150 years later, other than it’s a mecca for ghost town and history buffs and tourists. Nevada City is a true ghost town, but the 2010 census ascribed 190 people to Virginia City – “VC” to the locals. It’s still the seat of Madison County, but you drive to Ennis or Sheridan to get groceries. The town that was home to Montana’s first public school doesn’t have one any more.
VC is one of the few county seats in Montana with no stoplight and just one paved street: Wallace. There’s a Main Street and a Broadway, but neither one is asphalt.
It’s a far cry from the cosmopolitan city of 10,000 in the 1860s, one that included such architects of Montana as Samuel Hauser, Anton Holter, James and Granville Stuart, Peter Ronan and his future wife Mary, and William Andrews Clark.
There are so many side streets of history that come out of this gulch it’s overwhelming to sort through the best ones. But the circumstances surrounding May 26, 1863, rank high – even if they’ve not been discovered by Hollywood.
Ellingsen still shakes his head about that.
“It’s an absolutely wonderful story that, done correctly, would be better than all the Westerns that have ever been made,” he maintains. “John Wayne should have done it. Or somebody.”