The Specter of Silver City
Photography: Glen Oakley
(page 2 of 3)
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. >>>