Road Trip: Silver City, Idaho


The Owhyee Mountains in southwestern Idaho and eastern Oregon aren’t the product of a single geologic event, or even the same series of events. In the case of the parts of the Owhyees around Silver City, Idaho, it’s more of a damaged geologic layer cake: Cretaceous granodiorite, which penetrates Paleozoic sedimentary rock, all overlain with massive volcanic deposits, chiefly pinkish rhyolite. Then the whole area has been stretched and faulted by the Basin and Range over the last 11 million years or so. In the area of Silver City, hydrothermal action – subterranean flows of very hot water laced with dissolved minerals – generated mineral concentrations. Those mineral concentrations created the veins of silver, gold and other ores that gave Silver City its existence and its name.

Silver City today, looking southwest from Ou Lady of Tears Church

Silver City today, looking southwest from Ou Lady of Tears Church

Today, Silver City is a gentrified ghost town. Unlike its contemporary mining camps from the late 1800s, Silver City still exists, largely through the restoration efforts of quite a large number of folks. Silver City shows itself off once a year with an Open House, when the general public is invited in and some of the buildings are open for public viewing. WC and Mrs. WC took advantage of the invitation, and drove down to the far southwest corner of Idaho.

Silver City straddles Jordan Creek, in a mountain valley between War Eagle Mountain and Florida Mountain. It’s surrounded by long-abandoned mines, with characteristic spoil – mine waste – cascading down the hillsides.

Silver City, looking southeast; note mine spoil at upper right

Silver City, looking southeast; note mine spoil at upper right

By some reports, there were as many as 184 mines around and in Silver City in the 1860s. Most were abandoned by the 1870s. Silver City had a resurgence at the turn of the century with larger scale, hard rock mining. But by 1914, the population had declined from a peak of about 2,500 to perhaps 100. Silver City became a ghost town, one of hundreds across the west.

By the 1960s, Silver City was in pretty bad shape. But folks began buying the old buildings and rehabilitating them. And that’s what the Open House focuses on. It’s a fundraiser for the town. For a modest fee, you can visit some of the houses and get a tour. Some of the work is extremely impressive,years-long projects.

Parlor, Stoddard House, Silver City

Parlor, Stoddard House, Silver City

You can find lingering signs of the incredible wealth that flowed through Silver City, including one house with a rare Mathushek Square Grand Piano (also called a “Coffin Grand”).

Square Grand Piano, Silver City, Idaho

Square Grand Piano, Silver City, Idaho

Only ten of the buildings were open for tour, and some of the most interesting looking ones weren’t. But you could peer in the windows.

Mrs. WC checks out the restored drug store, Silver City

Mrs. WC checks out the restored drug store, Silver City

Silver City may have been partly restored, but it is surrounded by other small boom towns, mining mills and adits that weren’t so fortunate.

Collapsed mine stamp mill, DeLamar, Idaho, a few miles from Silver City

Collapsed mine stamp mill, DeLamar, Idaho, a few miles from Silver City

More than a billion dollars in silver and gold came out of this area. But the last active mine, the DeLamar Mine, operated by Kinross, closed in 2003.

WC was impressed with the restoration efforts of the folks who own the houses in Silver City. It’s a labor of love, and the cost in money and time is astonishing. The environmental degradation in the area is troubling, even if there are many mines in Idaho that are far worse.

The pies at the Idaho Hotel are pretty good, too.

 

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