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Virginia City

Virginia City has a number of operating commercial enterprises interspersed with the historical stuff. Along the main thoroughfare you'll find the village centerpieces: the Fairweather Inn, the Wells Fargo Overland Company building, and the Virginia City Historical Museum. One of the oldest structures, the Montana Post Building, once housed the state's first newspaper; the paper's original press is still used locally for menus, playbills, and placards.

You should start your visit to Virginia City at the Visitor Center and Museum Store, at the end of Main Street. The center has photos, a brief explanation of the history of the town, and a friendly staff of volunteers. The government shut down gold mining for good in 1942, and a few years later the Boveys began buying up the property.

The Virginia City Players have been an entertainment staple in town since 1949, operating out of the Smith and Boyd Livery Stable (1900). The players are Montana's oldest professional acting company. For information on showtimes, prices, and days for the Virginia City Players, call tel. 800/829-2969, or visit www.virginiacityplayers.com.

A little farther up the hill is the Hangman's Building. On January 4, 1864, the building was still being constructed, and a stout beam was exposed in the unfinished structure. The vigilantes took advantage of this situation to hang four road agents. The history-oriented J. Spencer Watkins Memorial Museum (tel. 406/843-5500), also on the main street, has some photos of the vigilantes on exhibit and a nice collection of period clothing.

Up above the town, looking down over the main street, is Boot Hill, the last resting place of several road agents, who required hasty burial after they died with their boots on.

If you really want to see the Old West come to life, check out a Brewery Follies production. Famous statewide for its funny cabaret-style revues and entertaining period melodramas, the company performs nightly during the summer. The Brewery Follies have a loyal following. For information on showtimes and prices, call tel. 406/843-5218, or visit www.breweryfollies.net.

Nevada City

With your walking-tour booklet in hand, begin your excursion behind the Nevada City Hotel, where you can view the state's only double-decker outhouse, and stroll along the streets to see what a Western mining town might have looked like. Boardwalks pass barbershops, homes, a schoolhouse, and even an Asian section. Some of the buildings are closed, but many include period furnishings and wares.

When you hear a cacophony of horns and whistles, follow the noise to the Nevada City Music Hall, located next door to the hotel. There you can see the "famous and obnoxious horn machine from the Bale of Hay Saloon!" A sign on the machine begs visitors not to miss hearing "the machine that has driven 28 change-makers, 72 bartenders, and near a million tourists to the brink of insanity!" The music hall is a fascinating place to spend an hour listening to the many music machines and reading about their history. It's one of the largest collections of its kind on display in the United States today. The building was originally the Canyon Lodge Recreation Hall in Yellowstone.

Across the street is the railroad museum, where you can board the steam-powered Locomotive No. 12 for the short train ride to Virginia City (the railroad depot there is at the west end of town). The museum has an observation car once used by Calvin Coolidge and the last "Catholic chapel car" in the world. The train runs every hour, and costs $6 to $15 round-trip (free for children 6 and under).

Another local attraction is the Alder Gulch River of Gold Mining Museum, 1552 Mont. 287 (tel. 406/843-5402), featuring myriad historic mining tools and vehicles, including the Mount Vernon Dredge (1935), one of the few gold-dredging boats on display anywhere, and gold-panning for visitors. It's open Memorial Day to Labor Day daily 10am to 6pm and admission is free.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.