This post was most recently updated on August 15th, 2018
I’m going to tell you about a town called Wallace, in northern Idaho’s panhandle. It’s a curious tale — full of inspiration, grit, and tenacity. And how the Wallace of today still reflects those same qualities and more. Keep reading to see why it’s a town you’ll love, too.
Wallace as a Mining Town
Wallace was established in 1884, named for Colonel William Wallace, the first settler. When silver lodes were discovered at about the same time, a boom community sprang up around William’s cabin. Wallace became the principal city of “Silver Valley” — an area that has since produced over a billion ounces of silver. Plus a significant amount of lead, zinc, galena, and copper.
As the small town grew within its limited physical space (surrounded by mountains and the south fork of the Coeur D’Alene River), homes were built on the hillsides with a series of wooden stairs and raised boardwalks to access them.
Perhaps that sounds like a rather benign beginning — and a very successful story of fortune and progress. But you’d only be hearing part of the story if I stopped there.
in 1890, a fire broke out in town, burning down all the wooden buildings. So the town rebuilt — this time in brick. But in 1910, the “Big Burn” hit north Idaho and Montana, burning more than 3 million acres and one third of Wallace. And only three years later, in 1913, Wallace was damaged by the Great Flood, caused by heavy rains and a swollen river. Every time, Wallace rebuilt with what seemed like unlimited mining proceeds. Despite mine disputes, natural disasters, and the collapse of silver prices, the town held on with determination.
20th Century Attacks
One might have thought that if Wallace had survived all that, the rest would be easy-going, but that’s not the case. After World War II the demand for lead and other ores decreased. Mines reduced their production or closed altogether, and Wallace’s population dropped to less than 1000. Air pollution regulations also took their toll on the mining industry and caused shutdowns.
In the 1970’s, Wallace residents learned that the Federal Highway Administration planned to build Interstate 90 right through the middle of town. The fight to stop I-90 from demolishing the town lasted 17 years. During that time, city leaders placed every single building in town on the National Register of Historic Places. This forced the redesign of I-90 to bypass Wallace’s downtown.
In 1991, the residents gathered to hold a mock funeral for the last stoplight on the old I-90. It was a national media event! You can still see the last stoplight “buried” in a coffin in the Wallace Mining Museum.
What is Wallace Today?
Lots of words come to mind — quaint, historic, frozen in time, friendly, self-aware, creative, scenic, and the gateway to many great outdoor activities. Wallace has had to find another way to subsist — relying on tourists and savvy business-minded residents to attract them. It hasn’t been difficult, but it has required the same tenacity and creativity demonstrated in earlier years. You just don’t mess with Wallace!
You may also be surprised to learn that Wallace is the Center of the Universe! In 2004, Mayor Ron Garitone made the announcement that “Wallace MUST be the Center of the Universe, because you can’t PROVE otherwise!” A special man-hole cover was made to mark the exact center, and it is a popular place to take Instagram photos.
Residents of Wallace are delightful! Everyone my husband and I spoke with was friendly and eager to share what makes the town special to them. Whether it was Rick Shaffer, the Prime Minister of Wallace or David Copelan, Chamber Coordinator, or Fast Freddie, our mine tour guide…or the woman who designs silver jewelry at the Silver Shop or the gentleman who served me my huckleberry shake at the Red Light Garage — there’s just something about Wallace that makes it a special place to be, and I think a big part of it is the people who live and work there.
Why Visit Wallace?
Today, Wallace is the gateway to two popular rail trails: the Trail of the Coeur D’Alenes and the Route of the Hiawatha. If you had no other reason to visit, it would be more than enough. These trails take you through pristine forests, where you can ride along the river or across abandoned railroad trestles and into old train tunnels.
You can hike the 4-mile round-trip Pulaski Tunnel Trail and learn the story of Ed Pulaski and how he saved the lives of his firefighters during the “Big Burn” by forcing them into a mine tunnel at gunpoint.
Unique restaurants and boutique shops line the streets of town, displacing the grittier businesses of an earlier day. Traces of the mining past are found everywhere, from the Wallace Mining Museum to the Silver Shop‘s custom silver jewelry, to old mining carts filled with flowers on the street.
One of my favorite activities was the Sierra Silver Mine Tour, where you ride a trolley car to the mine, don hardhats and learn all about silver mining from an actual retired miner, who also demonstrates how to use the equipment. (Don’t worry — they don’t actually light the fuses on the dynamite!) For a more detailed review of the Sierra Silver Mine tour, see my post, “The Best Way to Learn About Silver Mining”.
The town’s railroad history is well-documented at the Northern Pacific Railroad Depot Museum and you can enjoy an audience-participation melodrama with villains and heroes to cheer for (or “boo”) at the 6th Street Melodrama Theater. We loved meeting the actors afterwards — they’re just so nice!
The Historic Homes of Wallace
A map of Wallace’s historic homes can be picked up at the mining museum. Styles include American Colonial Revival, Bungalow, Foursquare, Queen Anne, and Victorian. Most of these homes have been impeccably maintained, and it is a treat to see so many beautiful historic homes within an easy-to-walk distance. If you like architecture, this is a must-do!
Where to Eat in Wallace
While we were in Wallace, I was pleased to find many great options for dining. I can highly recommend the Historic Smokehouse BBQ & Saloon for some amazing BBQ, coleslaw, and potato salad. It’s housed in the DeLashmutt building, built in 1890, which has also been the home of the courthouse, a stationary store and the post office.
The Historic 1313 Club is housed in the Heller building, built in 1891, which has also been a hotel, a bus depot, a barbershop, and a cafe. I enjoyed an amazing top sirloin steak and the best sweet potato fries I’ve ever had!
The Blackboard Cafe is a charming and intimate Italian restaurant. It is worth the wait to eat here if there is a line! The owners, Rob and Luanne Wuerfel, were traveling on I-90, saw Wallace and had to stop. They claimed it was like driving into a Norman Rockwell painting, and they fell in love immediately! And now they’re here to stay. I also have to add that when we were in a hurry to get to a show, Blackboard Cafe quickly accommodated us and didn’t skimp on service at all! My husband enjoyed Chicken Alfredo, and I had an amazing bowl of Cream of Carrot Soup with a house salad.
An absolutely must is a stop at the Red Light Garage, where you can get the “best Huckleberry shake on I-90”! You can also see their collection of license plates from all over the world (see if you can find the one from Antarctica!) and antiques, too. This is a place your kids will love, too!
Where to Stay in Wallace
We stayed at the Wallace Inn, which was very modern and comfortable. The Inn‘s Trailside Cafe serves up an amazing breakfast menu, too! After a long day exploring, I really enjoyed a dip in the jacuzzi, a seriously heavenly mattress on the bed, and quiet air conditioning. I slept like a baby!
Interesting Facts About Wallace
- Residents have established a college scholarship fund that gives scholarships to every single graduating senior who asks for one!
- Even though the town is only 4 blocks by 9 blocks, it has two freeway exits
- It’s the first and only town in the U.S. to have every single building on the National Register of Historic Places
- Wallace is also known as the “Silver Capital of the World”
- The Shoshone County Courthouse has an interesting mosaic tile pattern on the 2nd floor. During World War II, they almost had to tear out the flooring because someone thought the pattern resembled a swastika. The Ten Commandments are also displayed here — something that has been increasingly uncommon across the country. I was personally glad to see it!
- The Pulaski, a firefighting tool that’s a cross between a pick and an axe, was invented here, by none other than Ed Pulaski himself. The original prototype, with his initials on it, is now located in the Wallace Mining Museum.
- An average 3-bedroom home in Wallace costs about $140,000; this historic Victorian home, built in 1900, is currently for sale for only $128,000 (Want!)
- All parking in Wallace is free, and it is common to be able to drive right up to your destination and park in front of it. (I’m from San Diego, and this never happens in San Diego!)
The best way to find out how the small town of Wallace, Idaho, could have so much heart is to go visit it yourself — you’ll probably fall in love with it, too!
As is common in the travel industry, I was invited to tour Wallace. I’d like to thank Visit Idaho, for a fun and educational visit. While it has not influenced this review, I believe in disclosing all potential conflicts of interest.