Mike got away from work early enough Friday evening that we were able to make it to an old Motel in Hermiston. Got up this morning and flew across the flats and into the mountains of Idaho’s Panhandle. There’s silver and gold in these hills, and old mining towns galore.
We rode through this area a few years ago on our way up to Newfoundland, glancing off the freeway, doing 80mph and passing semis on the steep grade, we were both intrigued to see the old brick structures and decidedly vintage homes on the very steep hillsides. I remembered the town name and filed it away for a possible future visit.
Then last year I read an incredible book, The Big Burn, by Tim Egan, which chronicles a massive forest fire in 1910 that burned 3 million acres, and decimated Wallace and its residents. The opening chapter of the book is still so vivid in my mind, creating images of a roaring wildfire whipped by 70+ mph winds, whipping over the ridge above the town, and swooping down on the residents and the one train that will take them to safety. Really worth reading, especially if you are planning a trip to the area.
Wallace, after the fire
Although the fire wiped out about 1/3rd of the town, many of the original buildings are left. And what buildings they are! At the turn of the last century, Wallace was one of the richest cities in the west, producing more than a billion ounces of silver by the 1980’s. So, there was some money here, and plenty of it was spent on beautiful homes and business establishments.
We arrived in town around 11am, and pulled into our motel, the Stardust.
Stardust Motel Sign, with accompanying "escape pod"
The gal at the desk was very accommodating, juggling things around to get us a first floor room, then asking the maid to clean it right away so we could get in early. The maid happily dragged her cart from a completely different section of the hotel, cleaned the room in 20 minutes and we were in. Unfortunately, there was no refrigerator, we asked a guy who was fixing a lock on the room next to us if the other rooms had a fridge, he said yes. He talked to the desk clerk, who said our room was one of the few without, and so he simply unplugged the fridge from the room he was working in, and lugged it to our room!
Turns out the “maintenance man” was actually Scott Lasley, the president of the Wallace Chamber of Commerce! He made sure we had a local map and tour book, and said to just ask if we needed anything else. Wow! We’re in town for 20 minutes and already we’ve been treated like royalty! Turns out everyone we met here was just as friendly and accommodating. I can’t say enough nice things about the people here. Just amazing.
We hiked a few blocks down to the Sierra Silver Mine Tour building, and purchased tickets for the tour. I was hoping to also do the Burke tour, but missed out on the season opening by a few days. We didn’t really know what to expect from the Mine tour, only that we’d be taking a trolley (with some color commentary by the driver) up to an old mine, then be taken underground by a “real miner” and shown some mine operations.
Good thing they gave me this hat
This description makes it sound a bit cheesy, but the tour is really quite amazing and a little dangerous. Our mine guide was tall, gangly and a bit rough around the edges, probably about our age, and he’d been mining off and on his entire working life. Articulate, and very good at creating a word picture of what mining was like “back in the day”, and what it was like for miners today. Amazingly, he demonstrated mine equipment including a drill, a drag instrument, and a loader, all of which were of course, loud, and astonishingly evil-acting pieces of pneumatic machinery which could maim or kill you in a variety of ways.
Tour goers check out what's keeping the roof from becoming the floor
After the Mine tour, we wandered around town, taking pictures and checking out antique stores. Wallace has done a great job of showcasing the old while allowing new businesses to survive. I was very surprised at how quiet it was for a 3-day weekend, I really expected the place to be packed. I know that during the ATV jamboree it’s a madhouse, and I hope they get enough tourists during the rest of the year to keep things going.
I can’t express enough how nice the people are here, everyone, at every store, went out of their way to make sure we had a great time during our visit. Whether you are interested in history, love riding high mountain ATV and MC trails, or just enjoy wandering antique stores, go to Wallace, you’ll have a great time, guaranteed!
For us history buffs, Wallace has put out a great booklet with maps and descriptions of every historic building in town. It’s broken up by residential and business districts, and is very easy to follow. A huge asset, and it made our visit even more interesting.
Even furry residents of the town are ready to smile for the camera
As evening approached, our grumbling stomachs forced us to turn in to the Pizza Factory for their salad bar and some garlic breadsticks. After a filling meal, we headed back towards our room, on the way “home” this little sweetie rolled past, fitting cap to a great day in Wallace.
Back in our room at the Stardust, tired feet, tired bodies, comfy bed, ready for some sleep!