SILVER CITY, Idaho — Filled to its banks with early summer snowmelt, Jordan Creek burbled briskly past cottonwoods toward the old Masonic Lodge … and then under it. A few blocks away stood Our Lady of Tears Catholic Church, built steadfastly atop a steep rock outcropping — with no driveway and no stairs or elevator. These two local landmarks capture the feel of historic Silver City, Idaho, a mining town carved with pluck into the landscape and determined to stay.
Silver City was founded in 1864, after placer gold was discovered downstream, and then a rich vein of silver on nearby War Eagle Mountain. Numerous mines drew numerous miners, and by the early 1880s Silver City was among the most prosperous towns in the state and the seat of Owyhee County. Mining declined in the new century, in 1934 the county seat relocated to more accessible Murphy, and by World War II Silver City had emptied out. But the buildings remained and in the 1970s the town was slowly rediscovered and a gradual restoration began. Today, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.
Most books or websites devoted to Northwest ghost towns list Silver City as a prime location. It was on my must-see list for several years and finally, as a reward for months of dutiful sheltering at home, my wife and I hit the road for a visit in early June. Silver City is about a five-hour drive from Pendleton, with a southern approach through Jordan Valley, Oregon, or from the north through Murphy.
A word of caution – if you’re considering taking a motorhome like we did, I would suggest not taking a motorhome like we did. A small one will probably survive intact, but you won’t be happy campers. From either direction you will encounter rugged stagecoach roads, with much the same bone-jarring ride. A pickup or SUV will make the last dozen miles less alarming.
Despite the thorough shakedown of our 24-foot Jamboree, it was worth the trip.
Rolling into Silver City you might think Ulysses Grant was still president. Rough-hewn siding, some painted, some not, and corrugated tin roofs are standard on most buildings. Don’t expect mobile phone reception and there is no electricity in town (though a sharp eye will spy discreetly placed solar panels and propane tanks).
At the center of town is Silver City’s largest building, the Idaho Hotel, built in 1866 and expanded several times since. Rooms are still available — at least on weekends — and the hotel offers the only bar and restaurant in town. But we had opted for a weekday visit while the owner was out of town on a supply run and could only peek through the windows at the enticingly quirky lobby.
Pat’s What-Not Shop, across the street, is the only gift shop in town, with cold drinks, snacks, souvenirs, and lots of good information. The owner, Pat Nettleton, has been in business since 1974. She estimates the town has about 30 summer residents. The town watchman is Silver City’s only full-timer, keeping an eye on occasional winter visitors who come on snowmobiles when access is easier.
Pat directed us several blocks down Jordan Street to the edge of town where a free campground is available with about 10 sites. On weekends things fill up, but during the week we had it almost to ourselves.
Everything in town is within walking distance and can easily be explored in a day or a leisurely overnight visit. Some homes, like the Queen Anne-style Stoddard House, have been beautifully refurbished, but keep in mind that the private residences probably won’t appreciate uninvited guests on their porches.
There are still plenty of old buildings to ogle, such as the 1865 Miner’s Union Hospital, 1890s Getchell Drug Store, and 1870s Odd Fellows Hall. The Masonic Lodge, built in 1868, started out as a waterwheel-driven log-planing mill, which explains why the creek runs beneath it. Up the hill behind the church is the closed-off entrance to the Morning Star Mine, with grating covering the old mine shaft. If you’re up for a short hike, the cemetery just outside town holds the remains of many families whose homes and shops are still standing.
In its heyday, with 2,500 residents, Silver City had perhaps four times the number of structures but many were razed and the lumber salvaged for local repairs or rebuilding.
One of the town’s most prominent icons is the bright white 1892 Idaho Standard School, lovingly restored over the past two decades. The school saw its last student in 1947. The upstairs used to house a museum with historic memorabilia, but this has since been moved to the Owyhee County Museum in Murphy.
The museum is actually a nice starting point on the way in. It has reopened to the public and provides lots of background on Silver City before you drive the last 25 miles. Be sure to ask for a tune on the player piano, which used to entertain Silver City lodge members in the 1920s.
Not far from Murphy on the Snake River is Givens Hot Springs with a public pool offering a relaxing soak in 100-degree water. Or take the alternate route along the river’s east side and check out the petroglyphs at Map Rock.
Who knew all this was just across Oregon’s southeast border?