You have to take this next statement with a grain of salt, realizing that I have not visited every small town in northern Idaho. That said, I think Wallace, Idaho may very well be the most enjoyable little town you’ll find in this part of the state. There’s just something about mining towns that make them a little quirky, a little rough-and-tumble. But that’s just where the fun begins in Wallace.
Exit the interstate, and there’s a welcome center waiting to greet you, complete with a park filled with old mining equipment. A five-minute walk around the exhibits gives you a chance to learn what towers like this…
… and machines like this do. By the way, this machine is a stamp mill. It was used to separate gold from rock, by pounding it into bits. This particular model had five separate stamps.
You can also view a large collection of drill bits, which come in a surprising variety of shapes. All of which were necessary to drill the proper size holes in the rock, which would then allow dynamite (inserted in the holes) to blast away tons of rock.
Wallace isn’t famous just for its mining roots. In fact, many interstate travelers probably remember it as the site of the very last traffic light on Interstate 90. As recently as 1991, drivers would have to hit the brakes as they entered Wallace, because for just a few hundred feet, the 4-lane interstate highway wasn’t complete. All traffic had to drive through downtown Wallace, and pass underneath a single stoplight.
I don’t think there’s a single fact about Idaho that better illustrates the remoteness and backwardness of this area. As recently as the 1990’s, you could drive the 3,099 miles from Boston to Seattle on the nation’s longest highway, a modern interstate, and you’d still have to stop at a stoplight here.
Of course, the delay in I-90 construction didn’t occur simply because of some obstinate hillbillies who didn’t like horseless carriages. In fact, the reason is quite noble. The original plans for Interstate 90 would have required the concrete slab fill much of Wallace’s narrow valley. The town was already squeezed between two hills, with just enough room for a few city blocks. So, to protect itself, the town of Wallace had its historic downtown placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The move stopped highway officials from bulldozing their way through the community, and forced them to come up with a better plan. You can see the result in the picture above: an elevated viaduct that hugged the hillside, completing the coast-to-coast highway while keeping downtown intact.
Wallace realized it had unintentionally written a page in highway history, and rather than allow it to pass unnoticed (and this is how you know the town leaders definitely aren’t ignorant hillbillies), decided to capitalize on it. They held a funeral for the stoplight, then placed it on display in the Wallace Mining Museum. More on that in just a moment….
First, let’s explore downtown Wallace. As I mentioned before, this is one of those great little mining towns with old-fashioned drug stores and five-and-dimes, neon signs, and 3-story brick buildings, with advertisements painted on the sides. Mountains rise up all around it, giving you the feeling that you’re in the middle of a very remote and foreign place. Cars drive slowly through town, and people still walk along the streets. Everything feels genuine and real. And just when you begin to forget what the rest of the world is like…
… you discover that indeed, you are standing at the center of the universe.
Now I know this is one of Wallace’s silly tourist tricks, but you can’t deny the logic that led this town to declare itself as the center of all that is or ever was. In 2004, mayor Ron Garitone proclaimed that the center of the universe had been discovered to be located underneath a manhole cover, in the middle of the intersection of 6th and Bank Streets. To prove this theory, the good mayor pointed to the science of Probalism. It seems the Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies had used probalistic modeling to determine the necessity for federal meddling in local affairs. By the EPA’s logic, if local officials couldn’t prove that the area was a healthy and safe place to live, then it therefore must not be healthy and safe, and the feds could continue to meddle. By the same token, no one could definitely prove that Wallace was not the center of the universe, so therefore, this bold claim must also be true.
And there you have it, the town gains a new identity, a tourist draw, and takes a healthy jab at the federal government, all with one proclamation.
By the way, if you look at the picture above, you should note that the Center of the Universe is in the middle of the intersection, not the base of the sign. For a small town, the street was surprisingly busy, and I didn’t want to look like an idiot wandering into the middle of traffic to look at a manhole cover. Of course, as so often is the case, I chose to avoid a moment of feeling foolish, and ended up with a lifetime of regret. Take my advice: walk out into the middle of the intersection, and stand on the manhole cover. It would be a shame to come so close to the center of the universe, then miss it by just a few feet.
Update: my lifetime of regret only lasted until 2014…
… and this time, darnit, I wasn’t about to let anything get in my way of taking this picture (not even traffic — after all, this is in the middle of a road that suddenly becomes surprisingly busy when you have the desire to stand in the middle of it).
OK, you’ve seen the viaduct, the mining exhibit at the welcome center, the old brick storefronts, and the Center of the Universe, but there’s one more place you need to stop (if only to pay homage to that great old stoplight): the Wallace District Mining Museum.
The Mining Museum is on Bank Street, just a block or so from the Center of the Universe (what other museum can say that?). It’s inside an old storefront, that now displays old mining tools, equipment, and photos, as well as an assortment of other old junk that may or may not have anything to do with mining. Supposedly, there’s an admission fee, but it looks like the museum’s curators gave up on trying to charge everyone $2, and instead placed a jar by the door. You gotta love that.
One side of the museum simulates mining tunnels, and gives a brief explanation of what the miners wore, the tools they used, and the contraptions that would haul the ore back to the surface. After wandering around for a few minutes, you think, “OK, this is nice, but where’s the stoplight?”
I think I walked by it about three times before seeing it. The old stoplight–the last traffic signal on Interstate 90–now lies in a rather ugly coffin underneath a table. Next to it is a wreath of sorts–a tread-bare tire, covered with flowers and just a little bit of roadkill. True, the light lived well beyond its years. But it had so much more to give! And now, it will never shine again. A tear comes to your eye. You sniffle a bit. You reach for a Kleenex.
Then, you smile, because you realize it’s just a stoplight. And further, you’re ready to move on to the Route of the Hiawatha–one of the coolest places you’ll ever visit on a bicycle. It’s just to the east, along the Montana state line, and it’s our next stop.
Note: This trip was first published in 2006. Much of the same area was covered in the Big Sky trip in 2014.