The City of Wallace in Idaho’s panhandle might be one of the most interesting small towns I have ever visited. I later read; it is rated the Best Small Town in Idaho by Discoverer.
History of Wallace
The City of Wallace was founded in 1886 (sort of) by Colonel R Wallace, a civil war veteran. I say sort of because Wallace and Richard Lockey bought Sioux half-breed scrip from a bank to purchase an 80-acre townsite. The scrip entitles the owner to claim unoccupied and unsurveyed public lands. Wallace filed an application to secure the townsite with the General Land Office, but the GLO denied it due to the scrip being reported as lost.
Under the direction of the Coeur d’Alene land office, Wallace sold plots anyway. By 1888, the Wallace Townsite was flourishing, and the GLO’s actions were determined to be fraudulent as the scrip was never reported lost.
That said, by 1889, the Department of Interior denied a land claim in Montana scrip as it was supposed to be used for the benefit of mixed-blood persons. This decision led to “lot jumping”, the act of townspeople taking land and claiming it as their own. The Wallace Townsite entered into 13 lawsuits to be paid $1,000 each for the stolen lots!
Fires in Wallace
If that were not a controversial enough start to Wallace, in 1890, much of the town burned, and this fire wasn’t part of the 1910 Big Burn which destroyed parts of Wallace along with 3 million acres in Washington, Idaho, and Montana due to dry climate. As it relates to wildfires, 120 years later, it seems we’ve come full circle. Actually, it was far worse than any of the recent fires in terms of acreage, and second only to the fire of 1871 in Wisconsin. But I digress.
The Wallace Townsite battled through the fire setbacks and continued its thriving mining days in the Silver Valley. In fact, the Silver Valley is known for having produced over 1 billion ounces of silver, 3 million tons of zinc, and 8 million tons of lead estimated at $6 billion. And today, one mine, the Lucky Friday Mine, is still operating!
I-90 Expansion Through Wallace
Despite the rich ore, Wallace continued facing challenges including EPA pressures, the collapse of the silver market due to the Hunt Brothers, and the proposed expansion of I-90 through the center of town.
Used to violence related to mining wars and controversy related to brothels that operated openly through 1988, the tough townspeople of Wallace kept fighting back. To block the highway from destroying their town, they listed all the buildings on the National Register of Historic Places so they couldn’t be torn down!
I have to commend them and laugh at our government since interstates are partially funded by the National Government and the National Parks Systems operates the Register of Historic Places. Clearly, the left hand wasn’t talking to the right, and I-90 had to be raised to bypass the town!
Things to Do in Wallace
Today, the City of Wallace focuses on tourism and does a fine job with it. There are many things to do in Wallace. I spent five days here and loved this hidden Idaho gem, once known as the Silver City, and now known as the Center of the Universe.
Visit the Center of the Universe
Yes, that’s right…the Center of the Universe. One day some folks in Wallace decided a manhole, located on 6th and High Bank St, would be the center of the universe based on the theory, if you cannot prove that it isn’t, then it is. Since then, the mayor has declared Wallace the Center of the Universe and the manhole is painted and encoded with initials of prominent, local mining companies.
Stroll the Streets of Wallace
After visiting the Center of the Universe, be sure to stroll the streets of the historic downtown. Afterall, if the citizens of Wallace didn’t tie up the Interstate project in a lawsuit, these buildings wouldn’t be here anymore.
And don’t forget the stairs. The town had to grow up the mountainside, so there are lots of stairs which reminded me of Zagreb, Croatia.
Also, check out the brick buildings on the East side which used to be the red-light district. You can still see the covered back steps to the second floor of the brothels that protected clients that needed to be discreet.
Tour the Oasis Bordello Museum
If you want to learn more about a brothel, stop in the Oasis Bordello Museum. Leigh’s tour is worth the $12 price of admission. She had a vested interest in the museum as her stepmother used to be a working lady over at the U&I Bordello. It was truly fascinating to hear her stories.
The townspeople liked having them since due to mining the men outnumbered the women substantially. The brothels gave the miners an outlet. Additionally, they donated a substantial amount of money to the community via the sheriff for Little League uniforms and the like.
Life of a Working Lady
The working ladies never stayed at a brothel for more than 30 days. The rooms at the Oasis were all color coded, and the ladies’ belongings have been there since the Feds raided the town in 1988. The list of tricks with pricing is posted in the owner’s suite. Ginger, the owner, loved Atari, so all her games and joy sticks are still there.
The men waited upstairs in one of the two waiting rooms as the women came to them for selection. Men put money in the juke box for whiskey which was stored in the kitchen and dining area. The ladies kept the money box and timers in the dining area too.
The ladies retired with their clients to their respective room, red, gold, green, etc…or the single bathroom if the men paid for a bath. All six ladies lived in the house while they worked. Can you imagine six girls sharing the bathroom that was sometimes locked when in use with clients?
It was crazy to see all the time period décor and outfits too! I was truly fascinated by this tour, likely because it will be the one and only time I will have set foot in a brothel, even if it is just a museum.
Leigh did a great job shedding light on the working ladies and making them human. Most were abused as children, and that is how they ended up in the business. But as I mentioned above, they gave back to the community and were apparently good tippers because they couldn’t go walking around town so they had many things delivered.
Buy a Pass for the Other Three Museums in Wallace
If you think $12 is too much for the Bordello Museum Tour, you may pay $10 for the museum pass and go to the three other museums in Wallace. The three museums on the pass are the Branard-Stockbridge Museum, The Northern Pacific Railroad Depot Museum, and The Wallace District Mining Museum. The museum hours are limited, so be sure to pick a day when all three museums are open.
The Branard-Stockbridge Museum may be found in the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on 4th and Cedar St. The museum name won’t come up on Google, so just type in the church. It features old black and white photos of Wallace on the main floor. In the basement, there are photos of some of the working ladies.
Northern Pacific Railroad Depot Museum
The train museum is in the old train station which was moved from the opposite side of I-95 to its current location. I think it cost less than $1,000 to build back in its day, but over $500,000 to move!
The posted sign says “self-guided tour”, but the volunteers are gung-ho and provide lots of history. We toured the women’s waiting room, which was for safety, not discrimination. It included old photos of the President visiting along with the flag which had yet to have 50 stars.
Then we saw the ticketing booth which includes a telegraph, telephone, a safe, and lots of other noisy machines.
Upstairs, the volunteer who is dressed as a conductor, took us through the station master’s quarters which is set up as a museum. It includes an old train bell and model train set that the kids love, and posters from movies that have been filmed in Wallace, the most notable being Dante’s Peak.
This museum reminded me very much of the one I visited in Dayton, Washington last year.
Wallace District Mining Museum
The mining museum includes all sorts of things from an exhibit on the Buffalo Soldiers, to diagrams of mines that go thousands of feet underground, to the history of the Silver Valley, to a replica of a mining tunnel with dynamite displays and such.
I was stunned to learn that the Silver Valley ranks in the top ten mining districts in world history! And the valley still provides a substantial amount of silver to the USA. At least not all the silver is farmed out overseas! If only we could use silver for gas 😊. I’m paying $6/gallon for diesel right now! I guess I should count my blessings that we aren’t part of the war and paying even higher prices in Europe.
I also really liked this letter: “Dear Sir, Conscience payment for a few tools I stole from the company in the depression days.” $20 was enclosed in 1977.
Stop by the Wallace Chamber of Commerce
Anyway, if you want to know even more about Wallace’s mining history, stop by the exhibit at the Wallace Chamber of Commerce. It is outdoors, free, and colorful which makes it fun for the kids. It includes lots of old mining equipment with interpretive signs and an occasional chipmunk! Wallace is clearly very proud of its mining history.
Take the Sierra Silver Mine Tour
In fact, it is also possible to take a tour of the Sierra Silver Mine. The tour is one hour and fifteen minutes. It begins on a trolley car in town which then drives you to a mine on the other side of the highway. The tour guides are old miners that show you how to operate the equipment in the mine! If mining fascinates you, like it does me, you’ll like it.
Take a moment to check out the store where they book the tours. It includes gold panning for kids, a coffee and ice cream shop, and some cute souvenirs. Cute and souvenirs usually don’t go together in my book.
Visit the old Town of Burke
If you still haven’t gotten enough of mining, check out the old Town of Burke and the Star Mine. Most of the property around there is private, so there are a lot of no parking signs. But I found one spot to park so I could go wander and snap a few photos.
I came across a sign that said:
“Don’t sit on the ground, use a blanket”
“Don’t wash anything in the river or drink the water”
It led me to believe this was a superfund site, and it is. Not only is Clear Creek in Burke Canyon contaminated by heavy metal levels so high that fish don’t live in long stretches of it, but also the residents dumped their raw sewage in the creek up until 2007! WOW!
Well, the good news is Wallace and nearby Kellogg have transformed themselves from Superfund sites to recreational areas and resorts, respectively. And the only operating mine, Lucky Friday Mine, follows EPA guidelines. You can get a glimpse of the Lucky Friday Mine as you drive to a nearby hike.
Go For Hike
There are a ton of hikes near Wallace. If you want to hike to Stevens Lake or Lone Lake that are at the same trailhead, you’ll pass by Lucky Friday Mine. These two hikes are hard, but not that long and reward trekkers with views, waterfalls, wildflowers, and lakes. Find out more at my post, Hikes Near Wallace.
You pass right through Burke if you plan on hiking the Pear Lake Trail. There is also some camping up that way, but I wouldn’t drink the water!
The other road for multiple hikes, including the famous Pulaski Tunnel, follows the viaduct that runs through the west side of town. You may find a list on my aforementioned post, Hikes Near Wallace.
Seek Some Adrenaline
Along with hikes, there are many other outdoor activities in Wallace. Try a zipline tour operated by Silver Streak Zipline or rent a RZR from Mountain Meadow Adventure. Off-roading is definitely popular among the locals, and people will ride through town on their OHVs.
Ride the Hiawatha Trail
Another favorite outdoor activity among the tourists is bike riding the Route of the Hiawatha. The Route of the Hiawatha was once considered one of the most scenic stretches of railroad in the country. It is now a rails to trails project and holds many awards. It is the #1 Scenic Bike Path in Idaho, a top 10 pick by USA Today, and in the Hall of Fame for the Rails to Trails Conservancy.
The route travels 15 miles through many tunnels and along several trestles. It is most famous for the 1.66-mile Taft Tunnel. The dark, wet and cold tunnel crosses the state lines of Montana and Idaho at the beginning of the ride. The views are nice, but I liked my hiking view better.
Tickets are required and they may be purchased at the Lookout Pass Ski Area. Bike rentals are also available. This is such a famous and popular ride, that I have written a separate post. For those who prefer solitude, this activity is not for you! You might try the Friends of the Couer d’Alene Trail instead. But a typical tourist will love it. Personally, I preferred the Mineral Belt Trail in Leadville, Colorado.
Where to Eat in Wallace
After a day on the trails, come back to town to enjoy dinner, drinks, and the local theatre. I tried out the ice cream shop at the Sierra Mine Tour, Blackboard Café, and Fowl Mouths WTF (Wings, Tea, Fries). I likely wouldn’t have tried Fowl Mouths WTF because it is just a walk up to the window type place with a few picnic tables in the parking lot.
But my museum pass was sponsored by them for the month, and I got a 10% discount. And frankly, the boneless wings with traditional buffalo sauce were outstanding! Had I been in town longer, The Fainting Goat Wine Bar and Restaurant would have made the list as it has a good menu and cute patio. Muchacho Tacos gets rave reviews on Google. And, well it is hard to be in a mountain town and not grab a beer, so Cogs Gastropub (located next to the Center of the Universe) and the Wallace Brewing Company would have been a draw.
Support the Sixth Street Melodrama & Theater
After dinner, definitely check out the local theatre. It is the only wood building remaining from the original downtown that wasn’t destroyed by the 1890 fire. You may easily purchase a $12 ticket online for performances Wednesday to Sundays. Most scripts are written by locals, and the actors are mostly high school and college kids. It feels a little bit like a talent show or high school musical, but the kids were hilarious!
I have never been to a melodrama. When the main character rolls her eyes, the audience exclaims “Ugh!” and when she smiles, she elicits an “awe” from the crowd. Finally, the audience can boo whenever it feels like it. For a little entertainment, it is fun and a great way to end the evening. I laughed out loud!
Where to Stay in Wallace
After your night out, return to your hotel room or camper. It felt like there were way more accommodations available than there were people in Wallace, even with the Wallace Blue Festival going on. There is a hotel on practically every corner. A few are The Stardust Motel, Wallace Inn, and the Brooks Hotel. There are also several AirBnB’s, including a stay at the old Luxette Brothel!
Additionally, the nearby resort town of Kellogg features many options, and if camping is more your style, there are RV parks, campgrounds, and dispersed camping options in Burke Canyon and up High Bank Street. For that matter, many people just parked their campers under the highway and in downtown parking lots to hear the Blues Festival for free! I selected a roadside option, just outside of town that had good cell service, which is intermittent, even while in Wallace.
I really can’t say enough nice things about Wallace. It might be my favorite small town in Idaho. ETB
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Here is my offline, GPS guided travel article about Wallace on GPSMyCity.
3 thoughts on “Things to Do in Wallace, Idaho”
Sounds like there are more museums per capita than most large centres. Lots to do in this little town.
And don’t forget to check out Johnson’s gyms at the center of the universe it’s the largest gym in mineral store in the inland Northwest don’t forget to check out Johnson’s gems at the center of the universe it’s the largest gem and mineral store in the in the northwest with thousands of different collectibles fun for the whole family and a Galaxy room experience you’ll never forget
I strolled through there. Lots of baseball cards, rocks, gems, etc