23 June 2009

Places You've Never Heard Of: Silver City

By Jacquie Rogers

It was 1863 in the Owyhee Mountains located in the southwest corner of Idaho Territory. The War Between the States raged in the east, but out west, men had dollar signs in their eyes, looking for that next bonanza. They could get rich raising cattle, or logging, but fastest of all, gold. And silver.

The mining boom town of Ruby City was formed--a hotel, several business and residents, and the county seat. A few years later, Silver City sprang up as well. Ruby City hung on for a while but after a series of floods and a few other things that went haywire, the Idaho Hotel and the county seat were moved to Silver City.

Silver City was born on mining. Silver mine tunnels numbered in the hundreds, and dotted the countryside as well as the city. Here's a pan view of Silver City I found on YouTube. There's even a mine under the church! 60 million dollars worth of silver was taken in the 1900s, and if converted to today's currency, that would be a whole lot more for this little area. The silver lodes were the richest in Idaho Territory.

Historic Silver City writes:
During its "heydays", Silver City had about a dozen streets, seventy-five businesses, three hundred homes, a population of around 2,500, twelve ore-processing mills, and was the Owyhee County seat from 1866 to 1934. Some of the largest stage lines in the West operated in the area, and Silver City had the first telegraph and the first daily newspaper in the territory in 1874. Telephones were in use here at least by 1880, and the town was "electrified" in the 1890's.

Picture to the left: the bar at the Idaho Hotel

Never heard of it? Most people haven't, but it was truly the wild west in all manner of ways. It's located in Owhyee County, which is a large county in southwest Idaho. The newspaper they refer to is The Owyhee Avalanche, the longest operating newspaper in Idaho and one of the oldest in the West. I subscribe to it--it's a very high quality publication. There was never a shortage of news from the tough men who risked their lives in the mines every day for the promise of a life of luxury.

From The Owyhee Avalanche, October 17, 1868:
SHOOTING SCRAPE
Between seven and eight o'clock last Monday evening a shameful shooting affar occurred at Sommercamp's saloon, between two of our citizens. On account of the hitherto respectability of the parties and for the sake of their friends we suppress names. On the evening in question, we, together with the twenty-five or thirty others were in the saloon, when the two valiant shootists commenced banging away at each other with revolvers...
Silver City and the surrounding ore-rich area drew men from all over the world to mine the silver lodes. Many Chinese came to make their fortunes, and several did. Of course, as with the Anglo immigrants, most didn't. Still, the Chinese established a strong presence and the economy couldn't have survived without them. Not that there weren't a few problems along the way:

From The Owyhee Avalanche, October 17, 1868:
MORE SHOOTING
Last Tuesday night a Chinaman was shot and severely wounded in a Chinese gambling house on Jordan Street. It appears a Chinaman who was bucking at a game wanted to bet five dollars on jaw-bone, the dealer objected, the other fell back on his dignity and shot the almond-eyed gamboiler through the right shoulder. The next day we noticed Deputy Sheriff John Springer and a posse of mounted Chinamen hunting for the shootist. We learn from Dr. White, who is attending the wounded Chinaman, that he will get well.
And yes, there were Cyprians--the ladies of the evening. Men out-numbered women at one point by 200 to 1 so every woman, no matter what her status, was highly regarded. The women, however were not so impressed with one another.

From The Owyhee Avalanche, February 26, 1870:
FEMALE PUGLISTS
One evening this week be observed two frail females in the vicinity of Catalow's stable, engaged in commintting assault and battery upon each other. For some time the fur flew in all directions. They finally sank down in the snow through sheer exhaustion. Jealousy was the cause of the muss.
And, yes, confrontations with the Indians were frequent. Be warned, this next quote is even worse than the one about the Chinese and the women. "Politically Correct" was not yet invented. But we must also avoid revisionist history--Anglos were, for the most part, of the opinion that Native Americans were sub-human. This is why I avoid the entire issue in my westerns. I write humor and there isn't anything the least bit humorous about the treatment of the Indians.

From The Owyhee Avalanche, September 12, 1868:
LO THEY COME!
Tho's H. Smith Esq. just in from Camp Three Forks, informs us that last week the military of that place gobbled up and brought into Camp six-teen Indians as prisoners. Under promise of bringing in four-teen more, three bucks, whose squaws were retained as hostages, were allowed to go out into the mountains. The miserable wretches profess a desire to give themselves up and stop robbing and scalping the whites--at least till they recruit and obtain a fresh supply of arms and ammunition.
Silver City was difficult to get to and from (travel can get a bit dicey even today), so the subject of roads was always prominent in the news. Keep in mind "highways" is a subjective term here. The road into Silver City from the east isn't two-lane all the way even now. It's a dirt road and depending on the season, you drive on the high side of the ruts in order not to high center your vehicle. In those days, horses, stagecoaches, and wagons traveled the very same road.

From The Owyhee Avalanche, May 16, 1868:
THE ROADS
We are pleased to know that Mr. Abbott, Supervisor for the Road District No. 2, has commenced repairing the roads. As a consequence of the ground's thawing out and the melting of the snow, our highways in many places were in bad condition, but now the ground is becoming dry and the money now on hand in the road fund, with the taxes yet to be collected for that purpose will serve to put the roads in good order.
But most of all, people need entertainment, and the residents of Silver City weren't any different. There was a theater, several saloons, and lots of parties and receptions at the I.O.O.F Hall. In the dark of winter, entertainment was even more sought after.

From The Owyhee Avalanche, January 4, 1868:
ON WITH THE DANCE!
seems to be the motto just now--just what we expected, as soon as it became known on the outside that times were lively and money plenty in Owyhee, in comes a batch of hurdies to gobble up their share. It is an easy matter to find out where they hold forth --watch the crowds of suffering manhood as they emerge from cabins along the creek in the dusky twilight, or silently wend their way, in Indian file, down the mountainside; their steps are directed to Gabriel's large building, corner of Jordan and Second Sts., where, seated on a bench at one side of the spacious hall, are four coy and blushing damsels...
Sources
The Owyhee Avalanche
Historic Silver City Idaho
GhostTowns.com: Silver City
Wikipedia
Edna Purviance
Associated Content
IdahoHistory.net: Chinese Pioneers

Silver City is one of my favorite places to go, although it wouldn't be half so fun if Ed Jagels hadn't worked so hard for the last 30 years of his life to keep the Idaho Hotel from crumbling into ruin. He passed on several years ago, but his friends continue his good work, restoring and operating the hotel, and I'm grateful.

Jacquie

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