Wallace, Idaho: History of a Small But Mighty Mining Town With Idaho Humanities

by Sydney Boyd, project manager, Humanities in American Life

Wallace, Idaho sits on the pristine eastern edge of the Idaho panhandle in Silver Valley, the Shoshone County Coeur d’Alene Mining District. Established in 1884 with a current population of about 946, Wallace may be small, but it’s mighty—the town has held the title of the world’s largest silver producer for more than a century while facing environmental challenges from devastating fires to invasive highway construction and serious lead contamination.

“The Coeur d’Alene Mining District is 24 miles long by nine miles wide….we’re surrounded by 600 miles of national forest—and we mined 53 million dollars of production ore last year,” said Northern Pacific Railroad Depot Museum Director Shauna Hillman in “The History of Wallace, Idaho” a webinar recorded on Dec 1, 2020 as part of Idaho Humanities Connected Conversations series.

Wallace’s rise to mining fame begins with the construction of a highway in 1859. Embroiled in wars across the area (the Yakima War and the Utah War), the military commissioned Lieutenant John Mullan Jr., to build a highway from Fort Walla Walla, Washington, to Fort Benton, Montana, Hillman explained. During the extensive construction process, Mullan and his troops discovered gold.

Mullan ordered his troops to keep the news quiet, Hillman said, but it didn’t take long for others to realize the riches available there. The Northern Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad started aggressively competing for ore concentrates, and the next several years opened onto the stuff of Western blockbusters—gold rushes, new mine constructions, train robberies, labor disputes, and ultimately, rebellions. Another thing that makes Wallace historic? It’s one of a handful of cities that has been under martial law.

“Martial law came about from the mine labor wars, and today it doesn’t seem like such a stretch for the laborers to request $3.50-a-day wages, a six-day work week, and hospitals within the district—it was a big deal back then,” Hillman said. “And maybe it was because miners were kind of a commodity and not thought of as working people with families and lives in 1892, that’s a great example of what can happen when you anger the laborers, and the laborers have access to dynamite.”

After the labor riots, Wallace grew as a mining camp built by mine owners, but in 1910, a massive fire destroyed one third of the town. And that wasn’t all—more than a century after Mullan began road construction, highway infrastructure threatened the town’s survival and intersected with environmental protections.

“The first draft of Interstate 90 was submitted to the town in 1977,” Hillman said. “There were no favorable opinions. The freeway [was] proposed to be elevated 25 feet, cut through the north side of the business district, and encased the [Coeur d’Alene] river in concrete. Certainly the town would have died a noisy death.”

In an effort to stall the freeway construction and give the community time to devise a way to save Wallace, Silver Valley mining magnate Harry F. Magnussen filed a lawsuit against the Idaho Department of Transportation for the lack of an environmental impact statement on the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River. It worked—the lawsuit was tied up for 17 years, and in 1984, resolved in a compromise that elevated Interstate 90 over the town and the railroad so that the South Fork River was not interrupted and no buildings were harmed in designated historic Wallace, which involved carefully re-locating the Northern Pacific Railroad Depot, among other protections.

But larger environmental disasters loomed. In 1983, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated 21 square miles of Silver Valley the Bunker Hill Mining and Metallurgical Complex Superfund site (in 2002, the EPA expanded it to 1,500 square miles). Hillman described how the old Bunker Hill smelter was scrapped and buried, and the leaded yards of the community began a comprehensive remediation.

“The air was tested, the water was tested, the yards were tested, the children were tested, the parents were tested, and the results were, the lead levels were too high. The ground would need major work,” Hillman said.

Today, Wallace bustles with outdoor activities like kayaking, fishing, hiking, skiing, and biking—Hillman estimates that around 60,000 cyclists passed over the 15-mile stretch of the Hiawatha Route last season—but Wallace’s storied mining and environmental history remains a key part of its identity.

“The South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River was flowing the color of molten lead and probably didn’t have the fish habitat it does now, and it’s a fun little river to fish,” Hillman said. “There’s not a parking place in Wallace from Thursday until Monday, and on Tuesday, Wallace is a quiet town again.”

This post is part of “Humanities in American Life,” an initiative to increase awareness of the importance and use of the humanities in everyday American life.

Photo Credit: Northern Pacific Depot Foundation, Inc., Historic Wallace Preservation Society, and the Barnard Stockbridge Collection