The decent, law-abiding citizens of Virginia City, Montana, had had enough. They wanted to send a strong, clear message to Henry Plummer and his road agents who had been robbing and killing the innocent people of this frontier town. With no formal legal system in place, the vigilantes decided to take matters into their own hands.
The group turned to a young carpenter, William Thompson, who was building a simple log-framed drug store, and asked if the building could be used to hang five of the road agents. Thompson busily went to work, hastily constructing a make-shift scaffold around the building’s uncovered beams. This was where the “criminals” were hanged on January 14, 1864.
The Hangman’s Building (1863-4) is one of roughly 50 preserved in Virginia City that date back to when the town was a booming mining camp. Several were built by my great, great grandfather William Thompson (1838-1900) and his partner Joseph Griffith. While other town folk pursued get-rich-quick mining schemes, mostly panning for gold by day in Alder Gulch and drinking by night in one of the town’s many saloons, Thompson and Griffith built a successful building business.
Today, the Hangman’s Building contains a diorama depicting construction of the gallows, along with signs pointing to the center support beam from which the five criminals were hanged. Notches in the support beam were ostensibly left by the hanging ropes. The building went on to house the ancestor of today’s Rank’s Drugs. It later became a post office and then the Virginia City Water Company.
The seemingly non-descript Hangman’s Building apparently was an important contributor to Virginia City’s architectural heritage. It contributed to the evolution of Virginia City from a ramshackle frontier settlement into a town with public architecture, according to an essay by historian Ellen Baumler. The Hangman’s Building, she writes, is “significant for its simple gable-front construction of planed logs covered with beveled siding and its prominent false front.”
It’s hard to believe strolling through the largely abandoned town today, but more than 1,000 buildings were hastily constructed along Virginia City’s swollen, often lawless streets during its heyday in the mid-1860s. The vast majority are gone. But about 250 buildings remain, including 63 that date to the 1860s and 51 that were built during the height of the gold rush from 1863 to 1865. The state of Montana purchased much of the town, 250 buildings, in 1997.
A leisurely walk along the main drag reveals that most of the relics show signs of extreme old age—twisting timbers, tottering French doors, wavy glass window lites with cracked caulking, and crooked siding that won’t put up much resistance to wind-driven rain. Virginia City may well have become a ghost town if it weren’t for the efforts of preservationists. Virginia City was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
Roughly $30 million in precious metals was wrenched from Alder Gulch during its five-year heyday from 1863 to 1868. During this time, Virginia City became the territory’s first overland transportation hub, its cultural center, and its first territorial capital.
Thompson and Griffith were responsible for several of the buildings that remain. Their most significant contribution to the town’s architecture, besides the Hangman’s Building, may be the iconic Creighton Block (1864), which was often featured front and center in many early drawings of the town. Done in Renaissance Revival style, and the subject of a recently highly sympathetic renovation, it was the city’s first building done with locally quarried stone. The stone came from a quarry in the hills outside of town opened by Thompson and Griffith.
The building’s nine arches defined three separate storefronts. Edward Creighton, who endowed Omaha’s Creighton University, planted the first telegraph pole at the corner of this building in July 1866, connecting Montana to the States. For more than 100 years, Montana’s longest continuously published newspaper, the Madisonian, was headquartered in the east third of the building.
William Thompson’s modest family home, built into the slide of a gently sloping hill, is also among the surviving buildings. Constructed in 1864, it is one of the oldest frame buildings in town. The building’s humble architecture has been enhanced by the addition of a satellite TV antenna. Unlike many of Virginia City’s important building specimens, this one doesn’t have a commemorative plaque out front. On a previous visit, a local historian offered to let me buy a sign.
Thompson and Griffith likely also built the first county office building in Virginia City, according to the official building landmark inventory. Constructed in 1866, the building served as the county courthouse during Virginia City’s stint as territorial capital (1865-1875). It’s the oldest standing frame courthouse in Montana.
After it was replaced by a bigger brick structure, the building was used as a hospital by The Sisters of Charity from 1875 to 1879. In 1949, Charles Bovey, who was responsible for most of the early preservation work in town, remodeled the interior as a hotel. He didn’t touch the exterior, with its clapboard siding, simple dentil molding, and tall false front. The common name for the building is the Bonanza Inn.
Thompson isn’t credited with building the S.R. Buford grocery, but he supplied its all-important bricks. The town’s first brick building, with the same false front as its counterparts, the project was reputedly a test for locally made bricks that were later used on the new county courthouse. Buford’s operated as a regional grocery supplier until Virginia City’s status as a regional distribution center was derailed when the railroad in 1881 went to Butte instead.
Virginia City was dealt another setback when the state capital was moved from here to Helena. But the city could still point its status as the seat of Madison County. So, as a point of pride, Loren B. Olds was commissioned to design a new courthouse, replacing the old wood structure done by Thompson and Griffith.
Later on, after he had split with Griffith, Thompson received a $8,400 contract to build the Virginia City School, also designed by Olds. The territory’s first high school, it was used from 1876 to 1972. An addition was added at some point. City Hall is now housed here.
Thompson’s father-in-law, J.R. Boyce, is responsible for at least two buildings in town. His home, built the 1860s, is officially known as the Scheitlin House. It’s named after Ed Scheitlin, who owned it in the 1960s.
Boyce also led the campaign to build the city’s iconic Masonic Temple (1867), the first such temple in Montana. His signature can be found on an old stock certificate in the city library, certifying that the Virginia City Commandery had paid for nine shares of stock at $25 per share.
The Temple was the most expensive building in the territory at the time, built for $30,000. The lodge’s furniture, shipped by steamboat and ox team, is still in use. The cut-stone facade, designed by Olds, remains unchanged. Boyce operated his store, Tootle, Leach & Co. on the first floor from 1867-1868.