Community July 31, 2008

The Specter of Silver City

It is quiet now on the porch of the Idaho Hotel, once the premier place to stay in one of the state’s wealthiest and most tumultuous communities. A chill wind, an early premonition of fall and winter isolation, lifts the brittle cottonwood leaves from Jordan Street into a thin scrim of dust and yellow. This is the center of Silver City, the indestructible dowager queen of American ghost towns, just four hours from the Wood River Valley. Silver City, with its 70 surviving buildings, is an astonishing relic of a brief but fascinating period in American history—a town where early Americans . . . entrepreneurs, desperadoes, plucky immigrants, naïve farm boys . . . struggled to get rich quick. Most failed miserably, and then, short on grub or a promising mine shaft, eventually descended to the flatlands and inadvertently, perhaps reluctantly, joined in the creation of the American West.

Jordan Street, like Silver City itself, is virtually deserted. But good history is never quiet. You can literally feel it. The stormy sounds and flashes tumble down through the decades like thunder and lightning, illuminating the past, giving voice to those grand characters who preceded us. We marvel at their courage and accomplishments. And cringe at their sometimes monstrous behavior.

On April 1, 1868, for instance, Silver City was unusually fractious and foul-tempered. The earth here clung possessively to its rich cache of gold and silver. The imperative of the town was the prompt liberation of that gold and silver. The get-rich-quick fever inflamed many of Silver City’s 2,000 residents and the resulting tremors could be parlous.


The Golden Chariot’s Sam Lockhart sat just outside the Idaho Hotel front entrance, right here, on this porch, facing Jordan Street. The people in the lobby were busy at the front desk or the ticket office for the Wells Fargo stage. They couldn’t see a couple of men from the Ida Elmore Mine, perhaps a little uneasy on their feet after spending some time in the bars, strolling along Jordan Street. If the men had gathered in a Dead Man’s Alley saloon, they would have turned onto Jordan near the brothels and the Chinese establishments, and then moved past the newspaper office and the undertaker’s and the bank toward the hotel.

If the people inside the hotel had seen them coming, they would have fallen back into the bar, taking cover behind the formidable back bar carted out from American Saloon Fixtures Co. in Cincinnati.

For Silver City was seething, coming off days of wild gun battles, many in the dark and dank mine tunnels deep below ground. The muzzle flashes of gunfire and the screams of confusion and pain punctuated the chaotic conflict between the employees of the Ida Elmore Mine and the Golden Chariot Mine. Their drifts (tunnels) collided 300 feet down, throwing into question who owned the vein of valuable metal that once separated them. These were not men given to protracted judicial process; avarice trumped rationality and compromise. A gun battle was joined. Several thousand shots were exchanged as the days wore on. Miraculously, only two or three men were killed. An unknown number were wounded. The governor ordered the shooting stopped. And it did. The furies, however, went unabated. >>>

When the men from the Ida Elmore appeared before Lockhart, intemperate words were exchanged. Marion More, one of the Ida Elmore owners, raised his walking stick at Lockhart. He in turn unholstered a gun, as did More’s buddies. The town suddenly heard the dull blasts of gunfire. Puffy clouds of smoke hung just above the street. There was the stench of cordite. Marion More dropped to the street, lung-shot. His buddy, Jack Fisher, fell, too, his left thigh punctured by a crippling wound. Sam Lockhart stood on the porch in agony, holding his left arm as it spouted blood. The battle was over as quickly as it had started. More was carried to the nearby Oriental Restaurant where he uttered his last words: “They have stolen the mine and now their man Lockhart has killed me.” Lockhart reportedly paid a Boise doctor $2,500 to amputate his arm. But gangrene killed him anyway. Fisher vanished from history.

Standing on that porch today, surrounded by the buildings of 1868, one almost looks to the wooden sidewalk for splatters of Lockhart’s blood. The hotel is still emblematic of that time, with the original front desk, back bar, dining room tables, potbellied stove, Wells Fargo office and parlor piano. At the bar, even without a double double of the sauce, you can hear the cacophony of accents from the men . . . and perhaps more than a few women . . . who once stood here. Prissy investors mingled with slithery flimflam men. Merchants who slipped in the back door exchanged gossip with miners on the verge of dropping a week’s wages on rotgut and the wiles of the fallen doves down the street in the carnal houses.

There are hundreds of “ghost towns” in Idaho, most with only thin traces of the people who once lived and worked in them. Atlanta and Rocky Bar, above Route 20, just a few hours from Sun Valley, give tangible evidence of those early mining days. Boulder City, north of Ketchum, still has old buildings but is best reached by mountain goats. Kellogg and Wallace in northern Idaho are hardly ghost towns, but they have many reminders of the early days of mining.

But nothing—not Bodie in California or Virginia City in Montana—comes close to the reality and drama of Silver City. A trip up to Silver City is not a casual jaunt. Sections are unnervingly steep, blind curves prevail and the drop-offs are serious good-byes. But it is a memorable trip. And Silver City itself is stunning, with charming cottages (some built by master carpenters), recognizable stores, rough-hewn cabins, an undertaker’s emporium (he made caskets and home furniture), a Chinese laundry, a miner’s hospital and the back door of a saloon-brewery where an early millionaire gunned down a bartender in a legendary Western gun battle. All surrounded by beautiful hills and mountains.

Rising above most of the town is Our Lady of the Tears Catholic Church, with two altars that date back to the glory days of Silver City. As the sun pours through the stained glass, one can reflect on the prayers offered over the years. Prayers of desperation by those whose dreams collapsed and worlds narrowed. Prayers of thanksgiving by those who found rewards in their journey up the mountain . . . and the promise of peace beyond it.

Either way, prayers were hardly inappropriate to these towns.

The gold rush into the American West was almost unprecedented. First of all, no one owned the gold. No king or duchy or corporation had title. If you got to it first, it was yours. Also, there was an imbedded transience. Everyone knew the gold would eventually run out and it would be time to move on. Hardcore miners never planned to stay anyway. They weren’t settlers . . . they would make their money and head home . . . to appreciative parents or families or fiancés. Most didn’t. Either they were too broke or the humiliation of failure would have been insufferable. Or they thoroughly enjoyed the chaotic freedom of the West and couldn’t abide the prospects of returning to the hectoring of the local scolds. Thus, a lot of the men shifted toward feral, which resulted in fights and greed and the proliferation of scarlet women.

Most ghost towns bear some historical evidence of the ubiquitous brothels. But the records seem, if not sanitized, surprisingly fastidious. For better or worse, a good number of the women who shoved their way into the history books came from these houses. Annie Morrow arrived in Atlanta at the age of four on her miner father’s shoulders. Not that many years later she was, to put it discreetly, a true working girl. Annie achieved her renown in May, 1898, when she, her Newfoundland dog and a colleague, Emma van Losch (Dutch Em) set out from Atlanta on foot for a weekend of frivolity . . . or business . . . in the nearby mining town of Rocky Bar. >>>



These two hardly fell into the category of frail sisters. Unfortunately, they walked into a freak winter storm and four feet of snow. A mail carrier found them (those were days when a smirk did not accompany the phrase “neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor ice will keep him from his appointed destination”). Em died. But Annie survived by huddling in a snowbank with her hardy dog. She paid a price. Her feet were frozen. A doctor was summoned. Lore has it that Annie guzzled whiskey as the doctor, with a jack knife and a meat saw, removed her feet. No matter how the detachments were achieved, she entered history as Peg Leg Annie. Hardly deterred by her diminished ambulatory skills or occupation, Annie moved to Rocky Bar, married, had five children and ran a boarding house. She lived into the ’30s.

She and Dutch Em are today commemorated, appropriately, by a memorial on the road between Rocky Bar and Atlanta. And, as of a few years ago, Peg Leg’s rooming house was reportedly still standing in Rocky Bar.

It is important, however, to realize there was a parallel universe to the bars and brothels and boisterousness of a gold rush town. Silver City had many couples and single people living what flatlanders would consider a normal life . . . with such stabilizing elements as book clubs, declamation contests, theater presentations, the Masons, the Odd Fellows and the Knights of Pythias—all the standard symbols of middle American bedrock toward the end of the 19th century.

Silver City survived while similar towns vanished because the mining and community life was active—though steadily declining—well into the 1900s. And then, as the people moved out with the Depression and World War II, Silver City was increasingly difficult to reach or to sustain. The city entered its death throes. But a few decades ago, descendents of early Silver City residents and admirers of the site began to take over many of the buildings.

They reached agreements with the Bureau of Land Management to “freeze” the buildings in place. The exteriors would not change—would not get better or worse. The town appears to be preserved, though the big challenge now is better equipment for the fire department.

At the base of the mountain, just a short distance from Silver City Road, is the Owyhee County seat, Murphy. About 68 people live in Murphy, which is home to a fine county historical museum that highlights Silver City and that formidable land that fills the southwest corner of an Idaho map. The museum is a great place to start a trek into Silver City and the county, which is itself the personification of open space. There are only 11,000 people living within the county’s 7,700 square miles. Owyhee County is rich with history and nature . . . soaring mountains, deserts, rivers, remarkable wildlife, ranches, plucky little towns and people with a true appreciation of the land. Many of the county pioneers were originally on the mountain . . . but eventually saw more opportunity ranching and farming than serving the mines.

Owyhee got its name in 1819 when a party of fur trappers explored the area. Three of the members, from the Sandwich Islands (now known as the Hawaiian Islands), vanished, presumably killed by Native Americans. In tribute, the party named the area after the three colleagues, designating it Owyhee (an original Anglo spelling for what we now know as Hawaii).

Leaving Silver City and Owyhee County, one cannot help but imagine the faces of those people who drilled into the earth, hauled up its wealth, worked the soil, conducted commerce and brought forth children. It is easy to imagine the kids . . . impish lads, cheerful girls, all curious and sassy, seemingly full of fun and anxious to get along with life. Now the great-grandchildren of the mining era are spread out across Idaho and the West, the true descendents of Silver City, Atlanta, Vienna, Pear, Chilly, Yellow Jacket, Hump Town, Moose City, Bay Horse . . . towns where aspiration flowered, complex social structures organized and then, like the ore itself, played out. Do these descendents ever go back to the roots? Ever drive the hills and pause to walk across the debris of their ancestors’ dreams, to experience the sagging homes, the bumpy graveyards littered with shattered stone, the foreboding shafts that drop deep into the sometimes malevolent earth?

For the descendents of these children, or just for the curious, this is a place to view and celebrate the past. We are indebted to these gimpy, stumpy, scarred and astoundingly optimistic, if not infrequently flawed, people . . . the heroic and the foul, alike. They left us mystery and myth and magnificent opportunity . . . they gave us a vivid piece of our history, of our very core.

This article appears in the Summer 2007 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.