I've driven past the picturesque town of Wallace, Idaho (population about 800) 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, and finally we did. Wallace is nestled in the Panhandle’s Silver Valley at an altitude of around 2700 ft (825 m).
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 1880's Wallace was a prosperous town and, with 2000 residents, the third largest city in the new state of Idaho.
(Northern Pacific Depot Museum, Wallace, 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. It was to preserve this historic setting that the I-90 freeway had to be built on stilts as it passes through the city. Wallace has been called 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. The region was again struck by tragedy when 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.
(Insurance Building, Wallace, Idaho)
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, all reasonably priced and 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.
(The Center of the Universe, Wallace, Idaho)
But being a movie setting isn't Wallace's only claim to fame! 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 snowmobiling. 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.
(Mining display at the Visitor Center)
We enjoyed our stay 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 at least a day 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 mountain light on the Bitterroots and the aging facades of the historic buildings.
To see more on Wallace, here a helpful and well done video link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJmslcYYcmU