Virginia, the chief of the hamlets, has since developed into an organized city, and the capital of the Territory. Its site was certainly not chosen for its natural beauty. Along the main gulch are the mines,—huge piles of earth turned up in unsightly heaps. At one side of the mines, and up a ravine which crosses the gulch at right angles, lies the city. In shape it was originally like the letter T, but its later growth has forced new streets and houses far up the hillsides. Not so much regard was paid, in laying the foundations of the new city, to its future greatness, as Penn gave when he planned Philadelphia. The miner only wanted a temporary shelter, and every new-comer placed a log-cabin of his own style of architecture next the one last built. Where convenience required a street, lo! a street appeared. There were no gardens, for beyond the narrow centre of the ravine only sage-brush and cactus would grow. But the mines thrived, and also grew and thrived the little city and its vices.
Gradually a better class of buildings appeared. What were called hotels began to flourish; but it was long before the monotony of bacon, bread, and dried apples was varied by a potato. And for sleeping accommodations, a limited space was allotted upon the floor, the guest furnishing his own blankets. A theatre soon sprang up. And either because of the refined taste of some of the auditors, or the advanced talent of the performers, the playing was not the broad farce which might have been entertaining, but was confined to Shakespeare and heavy tragedy, which was simply disgusting. This style of acting culminated in the debut of a local celebrity, possessed of a sonorous voice and seized with a sudden longing for Thespian laurels. He chose the part of Othello, and all Virginia assembled to applaud. The part was not well committed, and sentences were commenced with Shakespearian loftiness and ended with the actor's own emendations, which were certainly questionable improvements. Anything but a tragic effect was produced by seeing the swarthy Moor turn to the prompter at frequent intervals, and inquire, "What?" in a hoarse whisper. A running colloquy took place between Othello and his audience, in which he made good his assertion that he was rude in speech. Since then, Shakespeare has not been attempted on the Virginia boards. "Othello's occupation's gone"; and all tragic efforts are confined to the legitimate Rocky Mountain drama. "Nick of the Woods" has frequently been produced with great applause, though the illusion is somewhat marred by the audible creaking of the Jibbenainosay sails triumphantly over the cataract.
Sunday is distinguished from other days in being the great day of business. The mines are not worked and it is the miners' holiday. All is bustle and confusion. A dozen rival auctioneers vend their wares, and gallop fast horses up and down the street. The drinking and gambling saloons and dance-houses are in full blast, all with bands of music to allure the passing miner, who comes into town on Sunday to spend his earnings. The discoverer of Virginia is the miner par excellence,—a good-natured Hercules clad in buckskin, or a lion in repose. All the week he toils hard in some hole in the earth for this Sunday folly. The programme for the day is prepared on a scale of grandeur in direct ration to the length of his purse. The necessity of spending the entire week's earnings is obvious, and to assist him in doing so seems to be the only visible means of support of half the people of the town. The dance-house and the gambling-saloon, flaunting their gaudy attractions, own him for the hour their king. His Midas touch is all-powerful. I must confess, with all my admiration for his character, that his tastes are low. I know that the civilization of the East would bore him immeasurably, and that he considers Colt, with his revolvers, a broader philanthropist than Raikes with his Sunday schools. But he is frank and open, generous and confiding, honorable and honest, scorning anything mean and cowardly. Mention to him, in his prodigal waste of money, that a poor woman or child is in want of the necessaries of life, and the purse-strings open with a tear. Tell him that corruption and wrong have worked an injury to a comrade or a stranger, and his pistol flashes only too quickly, to right it. Circumstances have made him coarse and brutal, but below all this surface beats a heart full of true instincts and honest impulses. I am certain the recording angel will blot out many of his sins, as he did those of Uncle Toby. His means exhausted, he abdicates his ephemeral kingdom, and, uncomplaining, takes his pick and shovel, his frying-pan, bacon, and flour, and starts over the mountains for new diggings. Yet he gains no wisdom by experience. The same bacchanalian orgies follow the next full purse.
The Road Agents came to the new city from Bannack increased in strength and boldness. Long impunity had made them scarcely anxious to conceal their connection with the band. Life and property were nowhere secure. Spies in Virginia announced to confederates on the road every ounce of treasure that left the city, and sometimes reports came back of robberies of the coaches, sometimes of murder of the travellers, and still more frequently the poor victim was never heard of after his departure. There were no laws or courts, except the miners' courts, and these were powerless. Self-protection demanded vigorous measures, and a few good men of Bannack and Virginia met together and formed a Vigilance Committee, similar in all respects to that which has had such a beneficent influence in the growth of California. It was, of course, secret, and composed of a mere handful. It must be secret, for the Road Agents had so overawed the people that few dared acknowledge themselves as champions of law and order. They had threatened, and they had the power to crush such an organization at its inception, by taking the lives of its members. But moving stealthily and unknown, the little organization grew. Whenever a good man and true was found, he became a link of the chain. At last it tried its power over a notorious desperado named Ives, by calling a public trial of the miners. It was a citizens' trial, but the Vigilantes were the leading spirits. Ives confronted his accusers boldly, relying on the promised aid of his confederates. They lay in wait to offer it, but the criminal was too infamous for just men to hesitate which side to take, and the cowards, as always in such cases, though probably a numerical majority, dared not meet the issue. Ives was hanged without any attempt at rescue.
The proceedings thus vigorously commenced were as vigorously continued. The Road Agents still trusted their power, and the contest was not settled. The Vigilantes settled it soon and forever. One morning their pickets barred every point of egress from Virginia. A secret trial had been held and six well-known robbers sentenced to death. Five of them were one by one found in the city. The quickness of their captors had foiled their attempts at escape or resistance, and their impotent rage at seeing every point guarded sternly by armed Vigilantes knew no bounds. They were all executed together at noon. It was a sickening scene,—five men, with the most revolting crimes to answer for, summoned with hardly an hour's preparation into eternity. Yet they are frequently spoken of with respect because they "died game." All of them, drinking heavily to keep up their courage, died with the most impious gibes and curses on their lips. Boone Helm, a hoary reprobate, actually said, as the block was being removed from him, "Good by, boys! I will meet you in hell in five minutes." Harsh measures were these, but their effect was magical. One of the leaders had been hanged at Bannack, and the others as fast as found were promptly executed,—perhaps thirty in all. A few fled, and are heard of now and then among the robbers of Portneuf Canon; but under the sway of the Vigilantes life and property in Virginia became safer than to-day in Boston. For minor offences they banished the guilty, and for grave offences they took life. As their history is now recounted by the people, there is no man who does not praise their work and agree that their acts were just and for the public good. The first courts were held in December, 1864, and the Vigilantes were the earliest to support their authority. They are still in existence, but as a support and ally of the courts, and only appearing when the public safety demands the most rigorous dealing.
Virginia can never be a pretty city, but in many respects it is a model one. The earlier log-houses are now giving way to substantial stores of granite; and the number of gambling and tippling shops is steadily decreasing, the buildings being taken up by the wholesale traders. An organized city government preserves strict police regulations. Two thriving churches have grown up, and very recently the principal merchants have agreed to close their houses on the Sabbath. The old residents are bringing in their wives and children, and society constantly gains in tone. Erelong, it will compare favorably with the steadiest town in the land of steady habits.
Eight miles above Virginia is Summit. Its name sufficiently designates its location, which is at the head of the gulch and among the highest mountains. The sun is not seen there till a late hour in the winter, and the few who make it their home burrow closely as rabbits from the bitter cold and deep snows. The placer diggings are at their greatest depth here, but exceedingly rich. Here also are the richest gold lodes of the Territory. All the quartz seems impregnated with gold, sometimes in little pockets of nuggets, sometimes spattered by the intense heat of old into all forms of wires and spangles.
Quartz mining is yet in its rudest form. The gold is buried in solid rock, and requires heavy crushing-mills and cumbrous machinery, which must be built and transported at immense expense by capitalists. It is a question with such capitalists how certain is the promise of returns. The uncertainty of mining as shown by the results of ventures in Colorado, has naturally deterred them. Under the old process of crushing the quartz to powder by stamps, and then separating the gold by amalgamation with quicksilver, but twenty-five per cent of the gold is saved. After the amalgamation a practical chemist could take the "tailings" of the Dacotah ore, and produce almost the full assay of the original rock. Very much depends in the mountain territories upon the success of experiments, now in operation, with the various new desulphurizing processes. This success established, the wealth of the territories is incalculable.
All of the mining of Montana is now confined to the placer or gulch diggings. There are many of these, but probably none to compare in all respects with those at Virginia. At Bannack is found purer gold, at Biven's are larger nuggets, and many diggings at McClellan's yield larger amounts per day. But these are lotteries,—some claims paying largely to-day and nothing to-morrow, or one yielding enormously, while the next, after all the labor and expense of opening, gives nothing. They are called "spotted," while nearly every claim at Virginia has yielded with great regularity. How the gold came into these gulches is of little consequence to the miner. It suffices him to know that it is there, and his practical experience enables him to point out its location with great accuracy, though without any scientific knowledge of its origin. Most probably, far away in the Preadamite periods, when these mountains were much loftier than to-day, they were cloven and pierced by volcanic fires, and then into their innumerable vents and fissures infiltrated the molten quartz and the base and precious metals. Afterwards followed the period of the glaciers, and all the working of the seasons and chemical decompositions. Traces of the glaciers and the rotten burnt quartz of the volcanic periods exist everywhere. Thus washing and crumbling away in the waters and suns of untold springs and summers, the gold has come down the mountain gorges into the valleys below. The manner of gathering it is rude and incomplete enough. In all the gulches, at depths varying from six to fifty feet, is a bed-rock of the same general conformation as the surface. Usually this is granite; but sometimes before reaching the primitive rock two or three strata of pipe-clay—the later beds of the stream, upon which frequently lies a deposit of gold—are passed. Upon the bed-rock is a deposit, from three to four feet in depth, of gravel and boulders, in which the gold is hidden. This is called by the miners "pay-dirt," and to remove it to the surface and wash it is the end of mining. It is an expensive and laborious process indeed. The water has first to be controlled; and in mines of not too great depth this is done by a drain ditch along the bed-rock, commenced many claims below. In this all the claim-holders are interested, and all contribute their quota of the labor and expense of digging it. The district laws permit every person to run such a drain through all the claims below his own, and force every man to contribute alike towards its construction, on pain of not being allowed to use the water, even though it flows through his own land. The water controlled, the rest is mere physical labor, which only bones and sinews of iron can endure. In the shallow diggings the superincumbent earth above the pay-dirt is removed, and the process is called "stripping." In deep diggings a shaft is sunk to the bed-rock, and tunnels are run in every direction—and this is called "drifting." The roof is supported by strong piles, but these supports too frequently give way, and hurry the poor miners to untimely deaths. The pay-dirt, in whichever way obtained, is then shovelled into the sluice-boxes,—a series of long troughs, set at the proper angle to prevent the gold from washing past, or the dirt from settling to the bottom. Managed with the skill which experience has taught, the constant stream of water carries over the sand, while the gold, being seven times heavier, sinks to the bottom, and is caught by cross-bars called "riffles," placed there for the purpose. In the lower boxes is frequently placed quicksilver, with which the lighter particles amalgamate. During the washings the larger stones and boulders are removed by a fork. These boxes, after a successful day's work, are a pleasant sight to see, all brilliant with gold and black sand and magnetic iron. All is gold that glitters. The heavy sand and iron are separated by a more careful washing by hand and by the magnet. Of course, all this system is very rude and imperfect,—so much so, that it has been found profitable in California to wash over the same earth nine times.
The gold-dust thus obtained is the only circulating medium in the Territory, and is the standard of trade. Treasury notes and coin are articles of merchandise. Everybody who has gold has also his little buckskin pouch to hold it. Every store has its scales, and in these is weighed out the fixed amount for all purchases according to Troy weight. An ounce is valued at eighteen dollars, a pennyweight at ninety cents, and so on. It is amusing to notice how the friction of the scales is made by some men—particularly the Jews, whose name is legion—to work them no loss. In weighing in, the scale-beam bows most deferentially to the gold side; but in weighing out, it makes profound obeisance to the weights. The same cupidity has given rise to two new terms in the miners' glossary, trade dust and bankable dust. Bankable dust means simply gold, pure and undefiled. Trade dust is gold with a plentiful sprinkling of black sand, and is of three grades, described very clearly by the terms good, fair, and dirty. The trader, in receiving our money, complains if it does not approximate what is bankable, but in paying us his money pours out a combination in which black sand is a predominating ingredient. Many merchants even keep a saucer of black sand in readiness to dilute their bankable gold to the utmost thinness it will bear.
As might be expected, the courts were hardly opened before grave questions arose as to the construction of contracts based on this anomalous currency. Notes were usually made to pay a given number of "dollars, in good, bankable dust." But the laws recognized no such commodity as a dollar in dust. The decision of the court protecting a trickster in paying treasury-notes worth but fifty cents for the gold loaned by a friend, savored to the plain miner of rank injustice. To avoid even this opportunity for a legal tender, sometimes notes promised to pay a certain number of ounces and pennyweights with interest at a fixed rate. The question was immediately sprung as to whether such an agreement was to be construed as a promissory note, or was to be sued for as a contract to do a specified act, by setting out a breach and claiming damages for the non-performance. The miners listened to the long discussions on these points impatiently, and compared the courts unfavorably with the miners' courts, which unloosed all such Gordian knots with Alexander's directness.