Local History

A small town with a remarkably rich history, Wallace has survived against all odds. Originally purchased in 1886 by Colonel William Wallace (who was not actually a colonel), using counterfeit Sioux Script, Wallace has seen its share of turmoil, fame, economic booms, and busts. Use the page below to learn more about Wallace and some of the many challenges it has faced. 

A History of Wallace 

by Siobhan Curet

Founded in 1884, Wallace, Idaho is located in the mountains of North Idaho, just West of the Montana border. Situated on the Osburn fault, the area is rich in a rare ore called Galena which is composed of high levels of silver, lead and zinc. The discovery of this ore led to thousands descending upon the area to seek their fortunes in the underground mines. The community has faced many struggles throughout the years, including labor disputes, conflicts with the EPA, the boom and bust cycle of silver prices, FBI raids, and natural disasters, but has managed to survive and prosper for over a Century and played a major role in the growth of North Idaho.

Colonel Wallace

Col. William H. Wallace

The land upon which the town of Wallace sits was purchased in 1883 by Colonel William R. Wallace. It was initially named Placer Center, but a year later the name was changed to Wallace. The 80 acre area was a Cedar swamp at the time, and over the next few years, as the Poorman and Tiger silver lodes were discovered, the area became a hotbed of activity as people came from far and wide to work in the mines. By 1900, the population had reached 2,265¹. The town was booming economically, a railroad began to serve the town in 1887 ⁽², and electric lights and paved streets had become standard by 1890 ³⁾.

Silver played an important role in the global economy pre-1900, as it was a universally valued commodity ⁽⁴. Wallace, and “The Silver Valley” as a whole are rich in the precious metal, and the world noticed. Many of the companies which mined silver in the area were listed on the New York Stock exchange, and several still are. As the population of miners grew, the town grew to accommodate and profit off of them. By the early 1900s the town had several brothels, many bars and card rooms, as well as theaters, turkish baths, an Elks and Eagles lodge, grocery stores, tailors, and railroads.

The 1910 Fire

1910 Fire images. Click to enlarge and scroll

The region has faced many challenges and setbacks over the years, beginning in June of 1890 when a fire wiped out the entire town ⁽⁵. Over 1,000 people were left homeless after the town burned, and a tent city was established ⁽⁶ as the town was swiftly rebuilt – this time out of brick and stone. By Christmas of 1890, the town was reconstructed. The stone and brick construction may have helped protect the town against he next fire threat – the fire of 1910. One of the biggest wildfires to burn the US, the 1910 fire destroyed over 3 million acres, and destroyed about ⅓ of the town of Wallace. More natural disasters lay on the horizon, and in 1913  ⁽⁾., heavy flooding affected many North Idaho communities and washed out railroad tracks near Kellogg, causing several trail cars to end up in the river along which the railroad ran. The damage to the tracks crippled the Wallace station for several days

Historic Preservation and the EPA

The last stoplight on I-90 was located in the heart of Wallace, and in the 1970’s and 80’s State and Federal Highway Officials planned to route I-90 through Wallace, a plan that would destroy much of the town. However, thanks to the hard work of mining and business magnate, Harry Magnuson, the town was placed on the National Register of Historic places, which forced an overpass to be built, leaving the town intact

When Wallace and the surrounding Silver Valley were declared a Superfund Site in 1983, property values in the area were deeply affected. Mining as it was known in the area changed forever with the regulations from the EPA and many companies collapsed under the fines and cleanup costs they were shouldered with. However, the Superfund cleanup was and remains one of the most successful in history¹⁰

Silver prices are notoriously volatile and as silver prices rise and fall, the Silver Valley is strongly affected by the boom and bust cycle. Mines open and close with the price of silver, and the Valley goes from prosperous to destitute almost overnight. One of the most notable instances of this was in the 1980 when the Hunt brothers attempted to corner the silver market¹³ and it caused panic and a steep drop in silver prices. The effects of this change in the silver economy were felt for decades in Wallace, as this was also around the time when the EPA began heavily regulating the mining industry. 

Mining Wars

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In addition to the challenges Wallace has faced from natural disasters and Government entities, it has had its share of political and economic problems as well. In the 1890’s trouble and violence erupted as mine owners and union workers began to clash over union workers demanding safe working conditions and fair pay. In retaliation, mine owners and management fired union workers, employed spies and union breakers, and hired non-union “scab” workers in place of union employees¹¹. In reaction to the hostility of the striking miners, the mine owners hired armed guards, as well as an undercover Pinkerton agent to infiltrate the miners union, where he was elected secretary. His position provided him with the intimate details of the unions operations, which he in turn reported back to the mine owners. After information which had obviously come from directly within the union was published in the Mine Owners’ Association newspaper, the Barbarian, tensions grew, and ultimately erupted into violence.

On a hot Sunday night in July of 1892, armed miners from the Coeur d’Alene district began to arrive at the hills above the Frisco mine in Burke. At 5am, the strikers opened fire on the mine. The guards and strikebreakers inside the mine and mill returned fire, with both sides shooting to kill. After several hours, the striking miners sent a bundle of dynamite into the mill through a sluice which destroyed the building and killed one of the strikebreakers. The violence continued at the Gem mine. By the time the strikebreakers surrendered, three from each side were dead, and 150 strikebreakers and union guards held prisoner in the union hall. That evening, 500 strikers boarded a train in Gem, headed for the Bunker HIll mine in Wardner. Upon arrival, they took possession of the ore mill and placed a ton of explosives beneath it. In the morning, the Bunker hill manager had two choices: Fire the non-union workers, or the mill would be blown up. He chose to discharge the non-union workers. 

In reaction to the violent uprising, the governor of Idaho, Norman Willey, declared Martial Law – six companies of the Idaho national guard as well as federal troops were sent to “Suppress insurrection and violence”. More than 600 mines were confined to bullpens near mullan, without hearing or charges. The military rule lasted for four months. However, this was not the end of the mining wards of the Coeur d’Alene Mining Insurrection.

After the violence and of 1892 had been suppressed, however, the tensions remained beneath the surface. Eventually, in 1898, a group of miners hijacked a train at gunpoint as it headed down Burke canyon. The train stopped along the way down the canyon, picking up additional angry union miners and stealing explosives. By the time the train reached the Bunker hill mine in Wardner, it had near 1,000 passengers, heavily armed with dynamite and guns. Upon arrival, the men dynamited the Bunker Hill mill, and the boarded the train and returned to their homes. Soon after, marshal law was again declared and miners were rounded up and placed in bull-pens in Mullan until the organizers of the events could be identified and prosecuted¹².

Significant Locations

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Significant Locations
Kellogg - Click for more info Wardner - Click for more info Gem Wallace Mullan Frisco Mace Burke

Kellogg - Click for more info

Kellogg, ID - Click for picture

Kellogg, ID in 1901

Wardner - Click for more info

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Wardner - the site of the Bunker hill concentrator explosion.


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The remains of the Frisco Mill at Gem in 1892 after angry Union miners sent a load of dynamite down a sluice, blowing it to pieces.


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The Wallace train depot in 1918, where hundreds of angry union miners boarded a hijacked train years before.


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Mullan, ID in 1901


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A large group of men standing and sitting in front of a wooden building with railroad tracks in 1898. Many are holding lunch pails. Caption on front: "Frisco Mine Group"


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The Standard mine in Mace, ID


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View of the town of Burke, with the school in the center, taken from the hillside. Caption on front: " Masser, John W. - Mining property, Burke Idaho. School in center looking north".

Long history of Prostitution

Prostitution was openly conducted in Wallace through the late 1980’s, regulated, and taxed. It was an open secret, and most of the people of the town supported the houses as they generated revenue and in the opinion of many, provided a needed service in the community. This all changed, however, when the FBI came in and raided the town in 1991, seizing illegal gambling machines and permanently shuttering the houses. The FBI raid had far reaching effects, as visitors no longer came from surrounding areas to patronize the brothels¹⁴.

Railway Service

The astronomical expansion of population due to Silver mining lead to rapid growth of much needed rail services to the area. The Northern Pacific railroad first established service to Wallace in 1887¹⁵. The Milwaukee railroad out of Chicago began exploration in Idaho in 1905 ¹⁶. The demand for the availability of transport of people and supplies in and out of the area accelerated the creation of rail lines in North Idaho. 

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Regional Wealth and Prosperity

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The wealth generated by the numerous silver mines has had far reaching effects on North Idaho and the surrounding areas. Much of the development which took place in Coeur d’Alene was due to the increasing demand for the ability to transport supplies and ore for the mines. In addition, some of Spokane was built on the riches mined in the Silver Valley as Spokane became a major hub of commerce and business. In 1920, Wallace had the greatest number of millionaires per capita in the country, which can be seen in the rich architecture which adorns the town today¹⁷

Many major mining companies have come and gone throughout the years, including the Coeur d’Alene mines corporation, and Hecla. Hecla is one of the world’s most prominent and well-known mining companies, with operations in the US, Canada and Mexico. Hecla traces its origins back 125 years to the Coeur d’Alene mining district, and has produced approximately 340 million ounces of Silver out of the region, an is responsible for about 25% of the total silver gleaned from the area. Hecla currently operates the Lucky Friday Mine in Mullan, ID¹⁸

Hecla Mine, Burke, ID  1910

Over the last century-and-a-half, Wallace has been both exceedingly prosperous and active, as well as severely economically depressed and desolate. Through all of this, however, the town has maintained its identity and is widely known as “that sleepy historic town on I-90”. People remember Wallace for many things, and it draws thousands of visitors annually to ride the rails to trails program, tour the brothel museum, and visit the mine tour. In recent years, Wallace has begun to come alive again as more learn of its history, and come curious and eager to learn of the challenges it has faced and survived.