Silver and Sin

A historic town in Idaho’s panhandle offers a cultural look at two of the West’s oldest professions.

By Dennis Drabelle

Wallace Corner Hotel

Credit: Dennis Drabelle

Wallace, Idaho, is one of the few places in the United States where the dollar has a rival. Since early last year, silver coins called sterlings have circulated there and elsewhere in the Silver Valley, an 18-mile stretch of lowland along the Coeur d'Alene River in the state's panhandle. The locals refrain from calling the sterling "legal tender" for fear of provoking the feds, but the effect is much the same. In Wallace, the sterling talks.

Silver—along with lead and zinc, to a lesser extent—has long ruled here, and the Silver Valley still has a few working mines. Wallace itself has nearly everything a traveler with an interest in history and architecture could ask for: a whole town in the National Register of Historic Places, a downtown chockablock with two- and three-story brick structures from the late 19th century, affable merchants and tour guides, low prices—and a museum devoted to prostitution.

Downtown Wallace owes its uniformity to fin-de-siècle aesthetics, and a catastrophe. The town came into being in 1884 as Placer Village, after gold was struck nearby, and was renamed a year later by Lucy Wallace, the newly arrived wife of a local landowner. By 1889, with silver having replaced gold as the backbone of the economy, Wallace was being served by two railroads and at least five brothels. A year later, a chimney fire spread, destroying virtually the whole business district, which had been constructed of wood from the surrounding forest. The town learned its lesson and rebuilt its downtown in brick.

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