Billed as the “Silver Capital of the World,” Wallace is a living ghost town located in what is known as the Silver Valley of northern Idaho. Although the town has about 1,000 residents, Wallace packs a powerful punch for its small size. These days, Wallace has found its silver in the lucrative business of tourism, claiming to be the “Center of the Universe” and being the staging center for forays into a gilded past of the Wild West.
Of Miners and Millionaires
Andrew J. Prichard discovered gold in 1880, near the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River. Pickings soon proved to be meager, but as any hard-rock underground miner knows, where there is gold, there is silver. By 1884, silver was discovered on the south side of the Coeur d’Alene Mountains, near Wallace, along with base metals such as lead, zinc and copper. In 1888 the Union Pacific Railroad line was built to haul off the treasure trove of precious silver and timber.
By 1890, Wallace had become known as the “Silver Capital of the World.” From 1884 to 1985, Silver Valley produced over one billion ounces of silver and extracted over $5 billion worth of metals from the high mountain terrain. In 1920, Wallace had the greatest number of millionaires per capita in the country —a direct result of the plenteous silver mines in the area. Millionaire mansions were built with Victorian opulence, each ostentatious home designed to outshine the other. Other styles emerged to include neoclassical, Renaissance revival, Queen Anne, and art deco.
Bawdy Boomtown Breeds Resiliency
Of course, with fast money came fast times and Wallace made sure it offered plenty of pleasures. Once a bawdy boomtown of bars and brothels, Wallace easily acknowledges a torrid past with gambling and ladies-of-the-night (The last brothel closed in 1988). Wallace also acknowledges that it is a town of people afflicted with a resiliency of spirit when confronted by adversity, something akin to the saying: “Don’t tread on me.”
Rick Shaffer, resident and self-appointed Prime Minister of Wallace, recalls that the town was even wayward in opposing the “Feds” on various occasions. "Government intervention came about due to classic mining wars, union uprisings and other intrusions to miners. It met with strong resilience and an earnest desire to not be controlled. In 1991, the FBI raided all gambling establishments: This was considered payback by the populace for Wallace’s previous intransigence."
The Silver Lining Today: From “Silver Capital of the World” to “Center of the Universe”
Through resiliency Wallace has found silver lining where once there was silver. By capitalizing on its beginnings of mines, railroads, and brothels, Wallace offers a variety of activities and museums that attract visitors from around the world.
Stay at the conveniently located Wallace Inn, everything in town is within easy walking distance. Shaeffer recommends that visitors first “hang” out on the storied streets of Historic Wallace and soak in the eateries, microbreweries and Western boomtown atmosphere. After all, this is about as authentic of a Wild West experience as one can come by.
Next, learn about the heyday of railroads at the Northern Pacific Railroad Museum (an elegant chateau-like depot at 219 Sixth Street), and later visit the Oasis Bordello Museum for a “frozen-in-time” peek at how the ladies lived and rates they charged for a sundry of services. You can also catch a melodrama with heroes, heroines, and villains of yore at the Sixth Street Theater and Melodrama.
For a foray into the silver mining past, join a hard-hat exploration of a silver mine with Sierra Silver Mine Tours. A retired miner leads and narrates the way. Follow this up with the Silver Streak Ziplines, where two courses speed riders at 1,000 feet above Historic Wallace at speeds up to 55 mph. Head first!
Save time to shop for antiques, buy silver coins, sip a huckleberry shake, or find the center of the universe at the corner of Bank and Sixth Street, where a manhole cover marks the spot. Then find the town’s spaceship close-by.