SILVER CITY, Idaho – High on scaffolding beneath the Our Lady of Tears Catholic Church’s front gable, David Wilper applies a final coat of paint to the window arch.
He’s installing new stained glass in the church, built in 1898 and still host to one Mass every summer month when members of 50 families live in Idaho’s best-known ghost town. November through June there’s a watchman here, to keep vandals on snowmobiles in check.
“That window has been boarded up for 50 years,” said Wilper, the church sexton, of his handwork.
More than a repair job, Wilper’s renovations at Our Lady of Tears are part of a broader effort to preserve a delicate balance: Preventing Silver City from dying out, while keeping it from becoming just another tourist trap huckstering frontier kitsch to ATV-riding hordes streaming into Idaho’s once gold-rich hills from the growing Boise suburbs.
It’s the same challenge faced by its ghost town brethren across the northern Rocky Mountains, including Bannack and Virginia City in Montana, or Berlin in Nevada, all of which eventually shifted to state ownership to help preserve them.
In Silver City, the Bureau of Land Management owns much of the townsite, but its 70 structures remain in private hands. Residents of town, on the National Register of Historic Places, can’t build new, they can’t alter exteriors except for repairs and a new law is in the works to keep the surrounding 10,000 acres looking much as they did a century ago.
Thom Couch heads the Owyhee County Historical Society in Murphy, 28 miles down a dirt road where the county seat moved in 1934 as Silver City’s mining fortunes waned. He calls the region “the real thing.”
“The Oregon Trail is just across the highway. We had stagecoach robbers, gunfights, Indian attacks,” Couch said, of Owyhee County, which is two-thirds Belgium’s size but has just 11,000 residents. “The Wild West happened here.”
In 1863, the West was in gold fever, and a party exploring southwestern Idaho’s Jordan Creek found some; Silver City and the region’s other mining towns were born. Census reports show a population of about 1,000 in 1870. By then, a stamping mill to crush ore had been hauled overland from California. Photos show the hillsides bare of foliage.
“They took anything they could build with, and what they couldn’t build with they burned as fuel,” said Roger Nelson, who bought Silver City’s 1866 Idaho Hotel in 2000. The hotel’s 18 rooms are often filled on weekends.
His lobby was once the stage depot. By 1868, Wells Fargo ran daily from the railroad at Winnemucca, Nev., 200 miles to the south. Nelson concedes it’s not easy keeping alive a hotel erected when Andrew Johnson was president.
“These places are the biggest money pits,” he said, walking through upstairs rooms where wallpaper is peeling but the atmosphere remains.
Silver City was among Idaho’s first electrified towns in 1903, but transmission lines were torn out in the 1940s. Many structures were also demolished; recycled materials helped build the World War II-era Mountain Home Air Force base nearby. Solar panels now provide 12-volt power.
Today, when one of Silver City’s 70 remaining structures sells, it happens quietly, often between family or friends.
But the properties weren’t always in demand.
Jim Hyslop’s grandfather was prosecutor in Owyhee County from 1916 to 1919; family records show he bought his house for $275 empty and sold it three years later for the same amount – but with all the family’s furniture.
“That indicates the decline of the town during World War I,” said Hyslop, on the porch of the house his mother bought in 1954. On the horizon is War Eagle Mountain, once home to the town’s richest mines.
Much of Silver City’s decay has been arrested, and change is under way.
Along with the church upgrades, the 1868-era water system was rebuilt a few years ago, with help from the Bureau of Land Management that oversees the surrounding Owyhee Mountains and runs a campground near the former Chinese district.
Eighteen months ago, residents also re-established a volunteer fire department, to help prevent Silver City from burning, as the Idaho Hotel nearly did in 1868. A young lady back from a sleigh ride with her beau left a candle burning.
“It’s better to marry than to burn – the town,” the Owyhee Avalanche newspaper reported at the time.
A quarter century ago, a busy weekend meant a dozen visitors.
Now, Pat Nettleton can stand on the porch of her “What Not” gift shop inside the old Owyhee County Courthouse and see a dozen new faces an hour wandering the dirt roads. “Greenhorns” peer into the windows of the Getchell Drug Store, where dust collects on period concoctions, or imagine an evening of raucous dancing in the nearby 1868 Masonic Hall.
The town, surrounded by trails, is also besieged by all-terrain vehicles whose riders rumble past in colorful outfits and body armor like post-apocalyptic cowboys. As the Boise Valley to the north fills up with more than 500,000 people, Silver City has been rediscovered.
“When we started coming here, the kids could go out and play in the streets,” said Barbara Carr, who first came in 1954. “Now, with the traffic, you’ve got to keep an eye out.”
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