Ron Dionne, 61, boards an elevator at the Galena Mine in Wallace, Idaho (pop. 784), and descends 3,000 feet to a tunnel that he and his crew are drilling and blasting to expose lead-silver seams embedded in the rock walls.
“Here’s a pretty good vein,” says Dionne, a second-generation miner, plucking a glistening slab of ore from the tunnel wall.
“The shiny stuff is lead; the dull gray material next to it is silver,” adds fellow miner Clint Baskett, 58. “Silver doesn’t shine until it’s processed and the impurities are removed.”
Miners have been digging into the mountains around Wallace since Wisconsin lumberman W.R. Wallace staked a claim in 1883, purchased a tract of land, and built a cabin along the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River.
By 1886, Wallace was a mining boomtown, with thousands of prospectors scouring the nearby creeks and hillsides in search of gold, silver, lead, copper and zinc. During World War II, up to 40 mines dotted the 40-mile-long Silver Valley.
Today, only the Galena remains in operation, and a few shuttered mines, including the Lucky Friday Mine in nearby Mullan (pop. 692) and Sunshine Mine near Kellogg (pop. 2,120), are preparing to reopen. Still, Wallace proclaims itself the Silver Capital of the World because, during the last 128 years, Idaho’s Silver Valley has produced 1.2 billion ounces of the precious metal, placing it among the top silver-producing regions on the planet.
“We live or die by silver,” says David Bond, 60, a Wallace resident and editor of silverminers.com. “Silver pays the rent; it always has.”
Unlike many Western mining boomtowns that became ghost towns, Wallace endured despite a violent labor strike and martial law during the 1890s, massive fires that ravaged the town in 1890 and 1910, and several decade-long periods of falling metal prices.
“Wallace survived because it was the money town,” says Troy Lambert, 41, operations specialist for the Wallace District Mining Museum. “It’s where the mine owners lived and the mine headquarters were located. Wallace also was the central playground for the miners with its bars, brothels, entertainment and gambling.”
Wallace’s rich, raucous and raunchy past is recalled at the Sierra Silver Mine, where retired miners demonstrate how underground ore is extracted for hardhat-wearing greenhorns; at the Sixth Street Theater, where heroines and villains evoke audience cheers and jeers during summertime melodramas; and at the Oasis Bordello Museum, where tour guides expose the seedier side of the Old West mining town.
Outdoors enthusiasts and sportsmen also dine, shop and relax in Wallace after cycling, fishing, hiking, hunting or snow skiing on the nearby trails, streams, forests and slopes. The town’s downtown business district, featuring more than a dozen brick buildings dating to the 1890s, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In addition to tourism, Wallace’s future lies in its rich mineral deposits. Geologists estimate an additional 1 billion ounces of silver remain below the Silver Valley.
That’s why hundreds of miners descend thousands of feet into the Galena Mine each workday to extract a prized and precious metal that’s used to make batteries and bearings, coins and computers, mirrors and mobile phones, silverware and solar panels.
“There’s no better job in the world than hard rock mining,” says Baskett, a third-generation miner, before advising Dan Myles, 25, on the best way to grip a 120-pound pneumatic hammer.
“He’s going to make a darn good miner,” says Dionne, after watching Myles deftly drill a series of holes into the rock wall.