I’ve driven past the picturesque town of Wallace (population 784), nestled in the Idaho Panhandle’s Silver Valley at around 2700′, many times and had always been drawn to the historic buildings and beautiful setting. I remember telling my wife that someday we needed to exit and explore the town. We finally booked a room at the historic Jameson Inn in Wallace and were anxious to visit and explore this small but historic town.
Wallace was born during a mining boom and mining still is important to the economy. Silver was discovered near Wallace in 1884, bringing in hordes of prospectors and the expected secondary tide of merchants, saloon-keepers, bandits and brothels. By the late 1880s Wallace was a prosperous town and, with 2000 residents, the third largest city in the new state of Idaho.
In 1890, a fire started in the Central Hotel which burned most of the wooden buildings in the downtown business district. These were replaced with brick buildings, most of which still stand today. Almost every downtown building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and it was to preserve this historic setting that the I-90 freeway had to be built on stilts as it passes through. Wallace is known as the “Silver Capital of the World” as 1.2 billion ounces of silver have been produced in Shoshone county since 1884, more than any other area in the United States. One third of the town was destroyed by the deadly Great Fire of 1910, which burned about 3,000,000 acres in Washington, Idaho, and Montana.
The historic downtown core is not large and we enjoyed strolling its streets, studying the architecture, window shopping and browsing through antique stores (of which there are many, most with unusual items such as mining memorabilia). The setting of these old buildings against the snow-capped Bitterroot mountains was lovely. The city has an assortment of small museums relating to it’s history including the Wallace District Mining Museum, the Northern Pacific Depot Museum (in the old train station), and the Oasis Bordello Museum (which does a tasteful job of highlighting the life of “working girls” in that era). Several tours of actual mines are available close to Wallace.
During the summer of 1996, Wallace was the location of the movie Dante’s Peak, starring Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton. The mega-flop Heaven’s Gate was also filmed here. Actress Lana Turner was born in Wallace.
On September 25, 2004, Mayor Ron Garitone took the bold step of proclaiming Wallace to be the Center of the Universe. Specifically, a sewer access cover was declared to be the precise location of the Center of the Universe. To date no one has disproved this claim.
In recent years the beautiful mountain environment and outdoor recreation have become an important draw to tourists and outdoor enthusiasts. In the winter there are two nearby ski areas (Silver Mountain and Lookout Pass) which also offer opportunities for snow boarding, cross country skiing, snow shoeing and snow-mobiling. In the summer people are drawn to the magnificent Bitterroot mountains, with beautiful alpine lakes and rivers offering fly-fishing, kayaking, rafting, hiking and backpacking. There are two major bike paths in the vicinity, the Route of the Hiawatha (abandoned railroad rail to trails project with several long tunnels) and the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes which lies directly under Interstate 90 as it passes above Wallace, following the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River
We enjoyed our day in Wallace and would recommend that if you have a little time, stop and explore it. I don’t recommend a visit to Wallace for people in a rush — you need to have time to contemplate and marinade yourself in the historic district, enjoy a meal at one of the fine restaurants in town (we had a great prime rib dinner at the Jameson Inn), and study the light on the Bitterroots and the aging facades of the historic buildings.
(Click on thumbnails to enlarge, right arrow to advance slideshow)
Postlude: Since posting these comments someone directed me to a video clip of Wallace which I think is terrific and recommend you watch. Here’s the link.