By the turn of the nineteenth century, the town of Wallace in northern Idaho boasted more millionaires than anywhere else in the country; in large measure, due to the lucrative mining operations in what is now called Silver Valley. Of course, with fast money came fast times and Wallace made sure it offered plenty of pleasures and diversionary delights that only dollars could buy. A bawdy boomtown of bars and brothels, Wallace had the dubious distinction of being basically a men’s town catering to men’s basic interests.
However, Wallace has actively embraced its legacy, breathing new life into what was a living ghost town. Nowadays, the entire town (population 960) is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and it is about as authentic of a Wild West experience as one can come by. Plus, Wallace is more family-friendly than ever, offering museums of history and culture, theater with virtuous heroes and damsels in distress, plenty of good eats, and some of the best bike trails in America!
Wallace – A Tale of Miners and Millionaires
It all started around 1880, when Andrew J. Prichard discovered gold near the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River. However, the pickings soon proved to be meager. But as any hard-rock underground miner knows, where there is gold, there is silver. By 1884, silver was discovered on the south side of the Coeur d’Alene Mountains, near Wallace, along with base metals such as lead, zinc and copper. In 1888 the Union Pacific Railroad line was built to haul off the treasure trove of precious silver and timber: Unfortunate for inhabitants, the railroad constructed the track bed with copious amounts of mine waste rock and tailings. The bed was also contaminated by the accidental spillage of ore concentrate. (It was not widely known at the time that there were elevated concentrations of toxic trace metals in the tailings.)
By 1890, Wallace was a thriving hub in one of richest mining districts in the world – the Coeur d’Alene Mining District. It was no wonder that Wallace became known as the “Silver Capital of the World” and the mining district became known as “Silver Valley.” During the time period of 1884 to 1985, Silver Valley produced over one billion ounces of silver and extracted over $5 billion worth of metals from the high mountain terrain. Obviously, this brought a new-found prosperity to the many isolated towns that dot the valley.
In 1920, Wallace had the greatest number of millionaires per capita in the country – a direct result of the plenteous silver mines in the area. As a result, the burgeoning millionaire class developed a need to showcase their wealth through high-end architecture. Thus, the millionaire mansions were built with Victorian opulence – each ostentatious home designed to outshine the other. Other styles emerged to include neoclassical, Renaissance revival, Queen Anne, and art deco.
The Silver Lining Today: Best Bike Trails
Fast forward a century and now Wallace is known as much for its world-class bike trails that meander through tunnels and trestles with majestic mountain views along the way. Whether you choose the outrageously scenic Hiawatha trail or the fairly level grade of the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, both are bound to please the most discerning family bikers.
Route of the Hiawatha
Located off I-90 close to the Idaho-Montana border, the Route of the Hiawatha Rail-Trail was converted from an abandoned rail-bed of the Milwaukee Railroad to become a world-class bike trail. Popular with locals and tourists alike, it opened in 1998 and expanded in 2001 with the addition of the 1.7 mile long Taft Tunnel as the centerpiece. And because the train tunnels are so long, helmets and flashlights are required equipment.
Lookout Pass Ski & Recreation Area is home base for the Hiawatha and is where you can rent bikes for the 16-mile family-friendly scenic trail. Because shuttles take you to starting point, it is a gentle 1-2% downhill grade, which makes it great for bikers of all ages. At the end of the ride, a shuttle returns bikers to the top.
According to Rick Shaffer, self-designated Prime Minister of Wallace and avid recreationist, “Biking the Hiawatha is like embarking on a magical mystery tour of adventure that showcases a host of diverse flora and fauna along with offering plenty of family fun.“ He adds that even though it is only 16-miles long and downhill, that the shared experiences and memories are the real treasures that people take away with them.
“This is a supreme bike trail that encompasses sky-high trestles with incomparable views of the Bitterroot Mountains and river valleys below,” Shaffer notes. “And because the Hiawatha is horseshoe-shaped, bikers can see where they are going and where they have been. How cool is that?”
Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes
A non-motorized paved route that is fairly level, the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes is open to bikers, walkers, skaters, skiers, and snowshoers. Leashed dogs are also welcome.
The 73-mile family-friendly path is a 10-foot wide asphalt trail with 20 developed trail heads that pass through seven mountain communities. It runs from the mining town of Mullan, near the Montana border, all the way to the prairie town of Plummer, near the Washington state line. Along the way, you sample alpine scenery, the historic Silver Valley and the preserved town of Wallace, the chain lake region, the shores of Lake Coeur d’Alene and finally, the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation.
Constructed on the defunct Union Pacific Railroad’s right-of-way, the trail is a shining example of successful remediation of toxic tailings to outdoor recreation. By using clean soil, asphalt, and gravel, the paved trail helps stabilize and seal off toxic waste, thus preventing the century of left-over contaminants from entering surrounding stream channels. However, bikers are warned to protect themselves from mine waste by staying on the trails, by washing hands and face before eating, and by eating only at designated waysides and trails.
Whether zipping the newly-opened Silver Streak, biking former “Rails-to-Trails,” touring old silver mines, or searching for the “Center of the Universe” manhole cover, Wallace has a little bit of silver lining to please the most discriminating of adventurous, family and offbeat travelers.