Once the largest city in Shoshone County in northern Idaho at the end of the 19th century, the town of Wallace boasts a storied past that includes silver strikes, prostitution, devastating fires and government battles. Today, the town exudes an Old West ambiance and a legacy for producing 1.2 billion ounces of silver since the late 1800s.
Wallace came into being in 1884 when Colonel W.R. Wallace, drawn by deposits of silver, gold and other precious metals, bought 80 acres of land and built his cabin in the area that became the site of the present city. Within three years, the downtown contained numerous businesses, mining claims dotted the hillsides and the railroad came to town.
Once laid low by the Great Fire of 1910, Wallace lost one-third of its downtown to the fire that ravaged 3 million acres in Montana, Idaho and Washington. It faced potential destruction again in the late 20th century as an Interstate Highway expansion of the I-90 threatened to destroy a major portion of the downtown.
By placing every downtown building in the National Register of Historic Places, the Federal Highway Administration was forced to reroute the freeway away from Wallace in 1991 via an elevated viaduct that looms over the edge of town.
The downtown’s standing on the Historic Register is not folly, though, as I learned wandering the easy-to-maneuver town. History truly is around every corner and every building seemingly has a story to tell.
The historic Jameson Inn, built in 1889 by Theodore Jameson, boasts its own ghost, Maggie, who waits in room No. 3 and paces the halls waiting for a long-lost love. After striking it rich with a claim, her lover took a “quick” trip back East and left Maggie at the hotel to wait. With the promise of marriage, she stayed at the hotel for years, but he never darkened the hotel’s doorstep again. Maggie finally gave up and left herself. The story goes that after her death, she returned to the Jameson Inn to continue her vigil.
Another building with a storied past houses the Oasis Bordello Museum, which was one of four establishments offering up ladies of the night until the late 1980s, before a looming federal raid finally put the kabosh on the business once and for all. Now a museum, you can roam the halls of the Oasis to see how the girls lived and entertained clients.
Just on the outskirts of the city proper is the Sierra Silver Mine – which changed hands many times over a whiskey bottle or card game – where you can learn about hard-rock underground mining techniques. Catching the trolley from town to the mine, I wasn’t sure what to expect on the tour. But Lenny, a retired miner of Norwegian descent leading the tour, gave quite an oration, as he shared the history and techniques of mining for silver, gold, lead, zinc and copper, and his own experiences of decades under the earth.
Entering the mine, I was met with the coolness of the air and the dampness of the earth. Lights are strewn along the perimeter of the tunnel. Further in, Lenny turned them off and demonstrated how he worked all those years ago with a single headlamp mounted to his helmet. Along the way, he told the history of the mine, demonstrated equipment and playfully joked with everyone on the tour.
While this mine was cold – around 50 degrees F – he told us he used to descend into a mine with his partner daily, working in temps and humidity that hovered around 100 degrees F for up to eight hours a day.
He showed off a badly scarred leg that was crushed on the job – one he was supposed to never be able to walk on again. His doggedness got him back to work in nine months. I asked him if he was happy to be retired from such a grueling life, and he said without a doubt he’d go back in a heartbeat: “It gets in your soul.”
It seems the town of Wallace, once reputed to be the “Silver Capital of the World,” has also eased its way into the souls of its inhabitants who’ve worked so hard to preserve and share its history and legacy.
Written by Guest Blogger, Wendy Geister
Wendy Geister has had a penchant for travel and adventure for as long as she can remember, and has traveled extensively in North America, Europe and Australia. She co-launched The Adventure Post to inspire people to embrace a spirit of exploration through first-hand trip reports, travel tips, product reviews and more.