Idaho’s Silver Valley, as the name implies, has a rich mining history. Of course, they would never let history buffs go into an actual mine to see what that was like. Wait. You can go into a silver mine?
Wallace, Idaho is a quirky little town where they’re not afraid of the dark. Go to the Wallace Mining Museum first, where you can see and touch the mining equipment, and spend a moment of silence standing over the coffin of the last stoplight on I-90, which died in 1991, was buried, then brought back to lie in state. Did I mention quirky?
From the mining museum you can take a trolley to the Sierra Silver Mine tour. There you’ll be led into the bowels of the earth by a tour guide with mining experience. You’ll learn how silver was mined on the 75-minute tour.
If you didn’t get enough of the dark down in that mine, rent a mountain bike—or ride your own—and follow railroad history through the tunnels and across the breathtaking bridges along the Route of the Hiawatha. Pro tip: You will need a light. Some of those tunnels are looong and dark. Tip two: Take a jacket. Even in summer it gets a little chilly in there.
The railroads in the area used to haul ore for processing, but today they serve as scenic bike paths. In addition to the Route of the Hiawatha you’ll want to try the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes. This old railroad route snakes through the Silver Valley all the way from Mullan to Plummer, a 72-mile-long paved path that is worth the trip all on its own.
Another path you should consider is for hiking. It’s the Pulaski Tunnel Trail. It’s an easy two miles each way. It doesn’t take you through a tunnel, but it does go to one. Ed Pulaski forced his firefighting crew to shelter in an old mine when they couldn’t outrun the Big Burn in 1910, one of the largest forest fires in history. He kept the men in that tunnel at gunpoint, saving the lives of most of them.
While you’re in Wallace, you must see the Oasis Bordello Museum. Really. When will you get another chance?
Near the bordello museum is the stately Northern Pacific Depot. The tracks are all gone, but the history is right inside this beautifully restored building.
Nearby is the Sixth Street Melodrama. Here you can boo and cheer villains and heroes, just as they did at the turn of the century. The last century. The wooden building is the only one in town that survived a fire in the 1890s.
Before you leave town, ask someone to direct you to the center of the universe. It’s here. A bronze marker embedded in concrete proves it.
Head west on I-90 to Kellogg. Pull off at exit 54 to see the Sunshine Mine Memorial. This 13-foot-tall bronze sculpture stands behind 91 miniature tombstones memorializing the men who lost their lives in America’s largest silver mine in a fire in 1972.
Mining memorabilia is at the heart of the Shoshone County Mining and Smelting Museum. The museum is located inside the Staff House, built in 1906 for the general manager of the Bunker Hill and Sullivan Mining and Concentrating Company. It houses artifacts from mining days, and for the more serious researcher also contains significant mining operation archives. You’ll see a 3-D model of the Bunker Hill Mine, an 1899 Norberg compressor, a mineral collection and much more.
Kellogg got its name from miner Noah Kellogg. He discovered a jackass. His four-legged mining companion got loose one day and led Kellogg on quite a chase. It seemed always just out of reach ahead of him when finally, the beast came to a complete stop and stood there staring across the canyon. When Kellogg caught up with the critter, he saw that it was a glint of reflected morning light that had its attention. It was a vein of galena that would become the bunker hill mine. The jackass is credited with discovering it, but it was Kellogg who knew what to do with it.
The last must-see in the Silver Valley is just west of Kellogg at exit 39. The Coeur d’Alenes Old Mission State Park sits on a little hill overlooking the Coeur d’Alene River. Nearby Mission Landing was where steamboats stopped to drop off supplies for miners in the early days.
The Mission of the Sacred Heart came along even earlier. It is Idaho’s oldest standing building, constructed between 1850 and 1853 by Jesuit missionaries and Coeur d’Alene Indians. Managed by the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, it is still owned by the Tribe. Plan to spend a couple of hours looking at the mission, the adjacent parish house, and the mission cemetery. Spend another hour going through the high-quality Sacred Encounters exhibit at the visitor center. The exhibit tells the story of how Jesuit missionaries came to the interior of the Pacific Northwest at the invitation of the Coeur d’Alene and Salish tribes and the profound effects this sacred encounter had on both cultures.
When you’re finished learning about the history of the mission and the tribes, cap off your day at the nearby Snake Pit. The restaurant and bar has been serving the Silver Valley since 1880 in one form or another. You are guaranteed to see antlers used in ingenuous ways as well as dogs playing poker.