Visiting museums is like finding a window into the past. A community’s history shows the struggles and tragedies they collectively have endured.
Fires, crop failures, natural and man-made disasters, industry closures and foreclosures are all dutifully displayed and described.
Through it all, most communities survive, rebound and eventually build a museum. There is a lesson there for all us about overcoming adversities.
Museums are not all about doom and gloom. They also represent communities at their best. Picnics, 4th of July celebrations, school functions, swimming holes, and images of Christmas show the fabric of a town which sets it apart.
In this area, one of the best examples of a community overcoming adversity and not just recovering but thriving is Wallace, in Idaho’s Silver Valley. The town itself and its many museums weave many facets of the town’s colorful history into a very interesting community historical story.
In just over a century, the Silver Valley has produced over 1 billion ounces of silver plus other metals and minerals. That statistic was earned through hard rock mining and smelting where the technology has progressed from the use of candles, oil lamps and picks to modern machinery and extraction methods.
The discovery of gold and silver in the area put the town of Wallace on the map with thousands of gold seekers flooding the surrounding mountains. They needed food, supplies and equipment and the town responded.
An 1890 fire leveled much of the town. Remaining buildings as well as the rebuilt downtown area, (mostly built with bricks), has put the entire community on the U.S. National Historic Register.
Local residents cannot paint their homes without approval concerning house color. In other words the entire town is a museum. The buildings still exhibit what an old mining town did and still looks like. Driving through town is like passing through a time machine into the past.
Wallace’s history not only celebrates mining and the fires but the face that everyone in the past and present loves a party.
Some older miners were known to work hard and play hard. Gambling, drinking, drugs and brothels were all an established fact of life for many until the 1980s when the mines began to close and the FBI and state law enforcement arrived.
The city’s rich history also included the early trains, the Sunshine Mine disaster, and union dissent with bombing a mine, causing National Guard deployment. All of these events and more can be found in the downtown museums, all within walking distance.
Northern Pacific Depot
This building has a classic railroad design. Built in 1901 using bricks transported from China and concrete panels from mine tailings, the building was a center for activity in the growing town of Wallace.
The railroads were the main way that ore and passengers were transported. The depot has been preserved inside like the busy terminal it once was; office furniture, waiting room and luggage scattered around. Upstairs are wonderful black-and-white photographs of trains, plus uniforms and equipment.
Several stories/photos are recounted about train wrecks, track construction and other interesting facts. The effects of the 1910 fires are displayed including the burned- out town of Wallace.
One example of the trains’ importance and use during the fire is described, “The most exciting evacuation concerned a last-minute rescue that was apparently unplanned.
The Providence Hospital at the eastern end of Wallace became threatened by fire. Dr. Quigley spied a Northern Pacific engine and caboose just up Canyon Creek, at the Federal concentrators. He asked the conductor for help and the train was quickly brought down to the hospital. With fire burning on both sides of the track the train took off for Missoula.
The journey was a nightmare of smoke, heat, and flame. As the train approached the “S” bridge it was already burning but the engineer raced across reaching the other side with the caboose smoking…” Other exciting stories can be found here.
Wallace District Mining Museum
Mining and timber were the main economic forces in this area and a good historical perspective is provided here, and plus a thorough look at how mining was and still is accomplished underground. There are exhibits showing how the interior of the mine is supported, exploration and production of the ore, and transitions from primitive equipment to present day methods.
There are photos of early day mining and health and safety issues. Also life in a mining town is on exhibit like a bank safe with an extremely heavy door (try to close it) and a printing press.
The infamous traffic light that was the last one on Interstate 90 between Boston and Seattle can be found here, along with a great political story of delaying interstate progress and construction requiring the interstate traffic to pass through the town.
Oasis Bordello Museum
Old-time residents may remember their names: Armend, The Lutz, Oasis, Luxette, U and I, and Jade Room. They were all the area’s brothels, establishments not unlike many other Western mining towns.
Wallace had a cluster of brothels conveniently located just down the street from the police building. Like gambling, prostitution, although illegal, was an accepted business practice, or least an activity which local authorities generally ignored.
Although the brothels are now all closed, some of the buildings still stand. The building where the melodramas are now performed is one example. Another building that housed the Oasis has been turned into a museum.
In the early 1980s the Oasis was still a thriving business. Informed that the FBI was on the way into town to “bust” the house for tax evasion, the women all left in a hurry. They left the rooms as they used them and many personal effects were also left behind.
A guided tour reveals a lifestyle many have never experienced. Surprisingly, the most interesting aspect of the tour may be the efficient business end of the profession. The sessions were timed with a maid knocking on the door when the timer went off, individual locked boxes for the money collected with a 60/40 split with the madam. The madams were known to financially support many community activities.
In fact a high school band uniform hangs in this museum because the Oasis bought many of the local uniforms. The tour is done in a tasteful way with a guide that has been showing the museum for the last 14 years.