On my first visit to the Inland Northwest in 1988, I heard tales about the town of Wallace, Idaho, as a place where the raucous Wild West lived on. My Yankee uncle who had visited the old mining town spun stories of saloons on every block and houses of ill repute that thrived with a nod and wink from law enforcement. Long before I ever stopped at the famed last-traffic-light-on-Interstate-90-between-Boston-and-Seattle, which was replaced by a raised freeway viaduct in 1991, Wallace was firmly implanted in my mind as a place I'd drive through with my doors locked.
When I sit at a table in Wallace City Hall this week to chat with current and former City Council members, I mention that I'd heard early on about the city's, um, reputation.
"I was wondering how you were going to say that," drawls Joann Branstetter, lifelong resident of the Silver Valley, drawing laughs all around the table.
Her fellow City Council member, Jamie Winterset, adds with a sly smile, "Ah, yes, our bawdy past."
Wallace's history - as a place where fortunes were won and lost and generations of miners sought ways to spend their paychecks - is a constant presence hovering over the town like the freeway viaduct. Now, the city is banking on its history to finance the future. Much of Wallace retains a turn-of-the-century charm, with many of the buildings dating from the city's resurrection following massive fires in 1890 and 1910. Nearly every building in town is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Wallace Historic District, originally formed in 1979.
"The goal is to preserve the historic integrity of Wallace," says Dorwin Hinman, who recently stepped down after serving eight years on the City Council. "Everything within the city limits of Wallace is on the historic register."
When the freeway viaduct opened in 1991, many worried that people would bypass Wallace, further depressing the local economy. Instead, the lack of heavy traffic has turned downtown into a marvelously walkable neighborhood. The Chamber of Commerce produced a guidebook with walking tours of the business district and the residential blocks just west of downtown. Parking is free and easy in Wallace today, and pedestrians no longer have to dodge 18-wheelers to cross Bank Street.
"Every truck that you see when you travel I-90 came right through town," Hinman recalls. "There wasn't an opportunity to look, to see, to stop. Now that's changed. [The raised viaduct] has proved to be a tremendous asset, I think."
The biggest and most contentious issue facing Wallace today involves compliance with EPA wastewater requirements. Feelings toward the EPA run high around here due to the agency's designation of the area around the former Bunker Hill smelter as a Superfund site and its proposal to expand the designation throughout the watershed. On this issue, the citizens show remarkable unity; signs reading "Just say NO to EPA" bloom all over Wallace, up into Burke Canyon and all along the South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River. The issue is complex - scientifically, economically and politically - but essentially Wallace residents resent what they see as meddling from outsiders imposing arbitrary rules. Given the region's strong mining identity, most people living in Wallace view the mining companies sympathetically, even if they favor some level of environmental protection.
"We're a global community," says Winterset. "If we look provincially and say we're only concerned with [environmental quality in] our own area, we lose sight of the big picture. If we discourage mining in North Idaho, where it happens under the best ecological mining practices in the world, mining will occur someplace else on the planet, someplace without those constraints. What about the people who live there?"
Despite the EPA-related struggles, there's a sense around town that Wallace is on the rebound. People on the street greet a stranger with a smile and everyone is friendly, from the supermarket to City Hall. The city council members agree that much of the credit for this prevailing positive attitude goes to Mayor Ron Garitone, who's held the office for eight years.
"We have a very proactive mayor," Hinman explains. "He has a tremendous ability to take adverse situations, adverse people, and marry them to a progressive project. He's just amazing at that."
"Before Ron became mayor, there were a lot of people bickering [on the council]," says Winterset. After Garitone's election, "It really went away. There's a consensus. With any conflict, [he takes out] the personal issues and focuses everybody on what's in the best interests of the city, so he's able to galvanize people to make a decision. That's his strength."
Long before the moniker "Silver Valley" emblazoned tourist brochures, this valley was the Coeur d'Alene Mining District, one of the richest sources of silver and lead in the world. The lure of precious metals first drew prospectors to these deep ravines and rugged precipices and the discovery of gold near Prichard and Murray around 1883 set the stage for the first great influx of Americans and Europeans. The gold rush proved futile for most, but soon miners switched their attention to the shiny galena ore, source of silver and lead, and the valley boomed.
The community now proudly proclaims its heritage as a mining town and puts all aspects of its past on display, warts and all. The three museums in town are dedicated to the three historic industries of Wallace: mining, railroads and prostitution. The Oasis Bordello Museum, mysteriously and unceremoniously abandoned by its previous residents in 1988, now allows tourists an unromanticized view of Wallace's working women.
"What amazed me when I went through it was the time cards they had to keep," says Branstetter. "[The museum staff] left the place the way it was."
The Wallace District Mining Museum on Bank Street captures the region's mining history with exhibits and a video presentation for visitors, and the gift shop carries jewelry made from local silver and an extensive selection of Silver Valley postcards. Tour buses now stop here on a regular basis and genealogical researchers will find a wealth of old records, from business directories to personnel records of the mining companies. But perhaps the strongest asset is director John Amonson, who grew up in Wallace and worked underground in the mines before taking the helm of the museum 15 years ago. Amonson's experience and first-hand knowledge of both the industry and the region prove invaluable to researchers, and he sees the museum as a repository of the region's authentic past.
"My belief is if you do a good job of presenting your history and demonstrating your history, then the money will come," he says. "My philosophy here at the museum is to do things because they make sense, not just because it will make money."
Over the decades, he's seen quite a few changes in town, "from a labor-intensive, high-residency, wild, crazy, rough-and-tumble mining town atmosphere when I was a young kid to a more refined, more law-abiding, almost too-quiet kind of place," he laughs. "I like peace and quiet, but the term 'rolling up the sidewalks at dusk' comes to mind, too. In my own opinion, there's a balance between those two extremes that I would prefer. Now, [the economy] has switched over to primarily a tourist economy, which I'm not opposed to, but I'd still rather see a strong mining economy."
Mining is not entirely relegated to Wallace's past, although it may not be as strong as Amonson would like. Production continues at the Galena and Lucky Friday mines, and investors are looking to start production again at the Sunshine mine now that the price of silver has rebounded consistently above $7 per troy ounce for the first time since the mid-1980s. In addition, forestry remains a strong source of revenue for the region, with much of the acreage in Shoshone County contained within the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. The resource economy in the Silver Valley is far from dead.
As Wallace moves along the spectrum from "rough-and-tumble mining town" to up-and-coming tourist destination, the real estate market is starting to pick up, thanks to retirees and second-home buyers. Broadband Internet access makes telecommuting and e-commerce possible. The Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes, a 72-mile paved pathway from Mullan to Plummer that passes through Wallace along the old railroad grade, now draws thousands of visitors who bike or hike its length. And in a normal winter, the ski areas at Lookout Pass and Silver Mountain and the snowmobile trails in the surrounding forests draw plenty of tourists as well. The out-migration has slowed, and those who remain share a distinctly upbeat attitude and genuine fondness for the community.
Among the relative newcomwrs to Wallace are Mike and L.V. Montgomery who moved here from Seattle 10 years ago. Both left corporate jobs to become entrepreneurs, purchasing and expanding the historic 1313 Club saloon on Bank Street. They've made the bar a familiar hangout for locals yet comfortable enough for the solo traveler just passing through.
"We wanted to create the kind of place that we'd want to stop at if we were driving through town," L.V. says.
"It's been a lot of fun," Mike adds. "And a learning experience, because we'd never been in this business before. If you want to get rich, this is not the thing to do."
Their biggest challenge - besides simply learning the business - has been attracting and keeping good employees, but both say they've been lucky to find good people. Although neither of them had lived in a small town before, they say they had no problem being accepted into the community once people realized they were in Wallace to stay.
"When our roof collapsed a year and a half after we purchased the building and business, we didn't turn it into a parking lot, and I think that was a shocker to a lot of people," says L.V. "We spent a lot of money to rebuild it and make it what it is today. This is our home, and I can't imagine being anywhere else."
Living within a historic district hasn't been a problem for the couple, who created a residential loft in the attic for themselves following the roof collapse. "People are here because they like that old feel," says L.V. "We get a lot of architecture students who come to draw the buildings, and we get people from Europe and all over the world [who] admire that we've maintained that [historic integrity] and we're keeping that up. They appreciate that a small mining community has maintained what is has and made it work. We're fortunate that way."
Still, it took time to get accustomed to the fishbowl existence of a small town after years of big-city anonymity.
"It's an adjustment because people [in town] know your business better than you do," L.V. says. "But in Wallace, the business people talk to each other and work together for the greater good of the bottom line. Everybody's there to help each other out. I think we all benefit, and that's what's made us successful."
2003 887 (est.)
(from Idaho Department of Commerce)
Wallace School District 393 includes students from Wallace and Osburn. The district oversees three schools that enroll 599 students in grades PK thru 12. Fifty-five percent of elementary students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, compared to the 40 percent statewide average.
Elevation: 2,744 feet
Zip code: 83873
Median household income: $22,065 (year 2000)
Median age: 41.8 years
(from U.S. Census Bureau, year 2000)
Form of Government: Mayor-Council
Galena Mine; Magnuson Hospitality; Wallace School District
A Town's Timeline
1859-1860: Captain John Mullan and his crew build the Mullan Road from Fort Benton in Montana to Fort Walla Walla in Washington. Part of the road passes through today's Silver Valley, following the South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River.
1876: Telegraph stations are built along the route of the Mullan Road.
1883: The discovery of gold near present-day Murray and Prichard draws hordes of prospectors to the area.
1884: Prospectors find silver in the hills above Burke Canyon; the city of Wallace is founded with the original name of Placer Center.
1885: The Bunker Hill silver mine is staked near Kellogg.
1886: The first school opens in Wallace.
1887: The first railroad, a narrow-gauge line run by the Coeur d'Alene Railway and Navigational Company, arrives in Wallace from Cataldo Mission.
1889: The first standard-gauge railroad, the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company, reaches Wallace.
1890: Northern Pacific railroad completes its branch line to Wallace from Missoula over Lookout Pass; the narrow-gauge service is discontinued. A massive fire consumes the downtown business district, leaving only two buildings standing. The city begins rebuilding immediately.
1892: Labor disputes in the mines turn ugly, resulting in the destruction of the Frisco Mill along Canyon Creek; Wallace is placed under martial law.
1893: A financial panic grips the country, resulting in a steep drop in silver prices; many mines shut down and miners are thrown out of work.
1899: Labor disputes escalate once again; union miners hijack a train near Burke, load it with dynamite, travel through Wallace and up to Wardner, above Kellogg, where they unload the explosives and blow up the Bunker Hill concentrator. The governor again declares martial law and hundreds of union miners are rounded up and held in a makeshift prison camp for months.
1910: The largest forest fire in American history sweeps into Wallace, burning the residential areas on the southern slopes and the eastern part of the business district. Once again, the city rebuilds.
1920: Actress Lana Turner is born in Wallace.
1956: The Wallace District Mining Museum opens.
1972: A fire at the Sunshine mine just west of town kills 91 miners, including many from Wallace.
1983: The EPA declares the Bunker Hill smelter site in Kellogg a Superfund site.
1984: Hecla Mining Company moves its headquarters from Wallace to Coeur d'Alene.
1985: The term "Silver Valley" appears in a newspaper article for the first time.
1986: Due to record low silver prices, the Sunshine and Lucky Friday mines shut down. The Northern Pacific Depot building is moved to a new site to make way for the freeway bypass.
1988: The women of the Oasis Bordello exit town quickly, leaving food on the tables and clothing in the closets.
1990: The last whorehouse in Wallace quietly closes. The Silver Mountain gondola in nearby Kellogg opens, drawing tourists to the region year-round.
1991: The FBI raids saloons and other businesses in Wallace looking for evidence of gambling, drug-dealing and prostitution. The Interstate 90 freeway viaduct opens on the north hillside above town, eliminating all but local traffic on the city's streets. The community holds a mock funeral procession for the last traffic light on the transcontinental route.