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Wallace Historic District
The valleys in the Coeur d’Alene Mountains in northern Idaho are so narrow and deep that the sun strikes their bottoms only during midday, even in the summer. In 1883, thousands of prospectors stampeded into the area on rumors of gold in the rivers. They crossed the mountains from Thompson Falls, Montana, the nearest stop along the Northern Pacific Railroad’s newly constructed transcontinental route. No major gold veins were discovered, but prospectors did discover silver-bearing galena ore that made the Coeur d’Alenes one of the most successful silver-mining areas in the world. Wallace, founded in one of the cedar swamps that were the only flat areas along the Coeur d’Alene River, became the major market town for the mining area.
Mining has sustained Wallace for over a century, although it has declined in national importance as a silver and lead producer. From the beginning, corporate mining operations entailed conflict between management and labor unions, leading to several decades of strife in Wallace and surrounding communities. Although early miners were well paid by frontier standards, it was not enough to compensate for their laborious, debilitating, and dangerous work. The conflict between the miners and the mine owners escalated into two major mining wars in 1892 and 1899: ore-processing mills were blown into matchsticks by miners skilled in the use of dynamite; battles broke out between miners and the Pinkerton guards hired by the owners; and federal troops imprisoned union members. Capital won. The unions were never again as powerful as they had been in those turbulent days at the end of the nineteenth century.
The underground operations required for silver and lead mining created enormous wealth as well as a thriving business community that “mined the miners” of those seemingly inexhaustible silver and lead mines. The result was a unique and vibrant architectural heritage mostly unchanged from its heyday at the end of the nineteenth century. Due to its mining heritage and geographic isolation, the frontier spirit lived for a long time in Wallace. The town was decidedly wet during Prohibition, maintaining a thriving red-light district in an otherwise puritanical, Mormon-influenced Idaho.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, Wallace transformed from a frontier mining town to a settled, commerce-based community. Local businessmen were at first rewarded for their entrepreneurial risk-taking as they established the first stores of the new town. Then, like other small towns throughout America, mass production and improved transportation allowed national firms to manufacture and deliver goods to Wallace more cheaply than local businesses could produce them. Following an 1890 fire, which leveled the town’s crude, wood-framed buildings, a new business center emerged, with merchants rebuilding Wallace’s commercial core with structures of brick, stone, and sheet metal, and decorative elements such as cast-iron ornamentation and turrets covered in pressed tin; paved streets and electricity were also introduced at the time.
Wallace was the economic center for the region and in 1898 became the political center as well, when it was made the county seat. The substantial bank buildings, mercantile houses, hotels, and courthouse built at the time all attest to the prominent role Wallace played in the development of Shoshone County. By the end of the nineteenth century, Wallace had become the financial driver of the Inland Empire, but its isolation and confinement in the Coeur d’Alene Valley limited its expansion. Instead, Spokane, more than eighty miles to the west, grew dramatically, propelled by the silver mines of Idaho.
Development of the commercial district continued into well into the 1930s. Many of the buildings were designed by prominent Spokane architects such as I.J. Galbraith, Pruesse and Zittle, Albert Held, L.R. Stritesky, and G.A. Pearson. Between 1890 and 1933, they introduced a variety of popular styles including Queen Anne, Classical Revival, and Art Deco to the downtown Wallace’s streetscape. Spokane’s concentration of talented architects was due to a substantial core of wealthy clientele, whose fortunes were directly tied to the flow of resources from the Coeur d’Alene mining district.
Many of the original 1890 brick buildings in the central business district of Wallace escaped the huge 1910 forest fire that swept northern Idaho. A significant inventory of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century commercial architecture remains intact to this day, surviving as one of the most authentic mining-era streetscapes in the Rocky Mountain region. So much so that it was chosen by the film director Michael Cimino as the location for his epic period drama, Heaven’s Gate (1980). The movie crew took down the neon signs and threw horse manure on top of Sixth Street. President Theodore Roosevelt would have recognized it as the street he rode his carriage through in 1903.
In 1976, traffic on I-90, the longest interstate highway in the United States at 3,024 miles, traveled through downtown Wallace, where it had to stop at the only stoplight on the whole transcontinental route. Highway engineers proposed destroying much of the historic downtown to complete the highway. Harry Magnuson, a local lawyer and developer, spearheaded the community’s efforts to rescue Wallace’s historic downtown by successfully pursuing its placement as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. Engineers altered their plans and constructed I-90 as an elevated bypass, sparing Wallace’s commercial heart from certain and catastrophic demolition.
Today the Wallace economy is based on tourism and recreation. The large number of extant nineteenth-century buildings gives Wallace one of the highest concentrations of Victorian commercial architecture in the state. The amount of intact cast iron throughout the town, much of it the work of Spokane and Wallace foundries, is notable. To accommodate the interstate highway, the iconic 1902 Northern Pacific Railroad Depot was moved 200 feet south, across the Coeur d’Alene River; it is now a railroad history museum run by the Northern Pacific Depot Foundation. The 72-mile Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, a paved bike path along the former rail line, also passes through Wallace.
Fraternal Order of Eagles, Wallace Aerie No. 54. Eagles Souvenir of the Coeur D'Alene Mining District: The Tenth Session of the Idaho State Aerie, June 18, 19, and 20, 1920. Wallace, ID: Press-Times Company, 1928.
Fahey, John. Inland Empire: D.C. Corbin and Spokane. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965.
Fuller, George. The Inland Empire of the Pacific Northwest: Who’s Who. Vol. 4. Spokane, WA: H.G. Linderman, 1928.
Hart, Patricia, and Ivar Nelson. Mining Town, The Photographic Record of T.N. Barnard and Nellie Stockbridge from the Coeur d’Alenes.Seattle and Boise: University of Washington Press and Idaho State Historical Society, 1984.
Hibbard, Don, “Wallace Historic District,” Shoshone County, Idaho. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 1979. National Park Service, U.S. Department of Interior, Washington D.C.
Marsh, Greg. “Historic Wallace Idaho.” Wallace, Idaho. Accessed January 17, 2019. http://wallace-id.com.
Magnuson, Richard G. Coeur d'Alene Diary.Portland, OR: Metropolitan Press, 1968.
Lukas, J. Anthony. Big Trouble: a Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America.New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Renk, Nancy, “Wallace Historic District, 1983 Boundary Extension.” Shoshone County, Idaho. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 2015. National Park Service, U.S. Department of Interior, Washington D.C.
Smith, Robert Wayne, The Coeur d'Alene Mining War of 1892: A Case Study of an Industrial Dispute.Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1961.
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