The Specter of Silver City
Photography: Glen Oakley
Looking at Silver City from above, it looks like the ghost town could still be inhabited.
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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. >>>