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The Specter of Silver City

(page 3 of 3)

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.

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