I lived in Coeur d'Alene, in the north Idaho Panhandle, in the mid-1970s, when I was just out of college.
Coeur d'Alene, on the shores of an azure lake, was a pretty place. But when I explored the tiny towns east on Interstate 90 that had grown up around the silver and lead mines, I found them a depressing lot: Kellogg, next to the Bunker Hill mine, where 91 people had died in a mine fire a few years earlier; Wallace, home to the brothels that had served the miners since the late 1800s and -- rumor had it -- still did; and Smelterville, with its enormous mountain of mine tailings next to the Interstate. Tests found record-high blood-lead levels in the Silver Valley's children.
The sadness of those small towns stuck with me years after Coeur d'Alene became just a fuzzy memory.
A quarter-century later, I revisited Silver Valley. Kellogg had spruced up its downtown and with the nearby ski area was marketing itself as a tourist destination. In Wallace, the Oasis Bordello, which claimed to have operated from 1895 to 1988, was now the Oasis Bordello Museum.
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Most striking of all, the EPA had cleaned up Smelterville's mine tailings, which had been leaching heavy metals into northern Idaho's waterways for years. I hadn't seen many Smelterville datelines in all those years, and didn't know that the area around Bunker Hill had been declared a Superfund site, one of the largest in the country. I drove on to Coeur d'Alene, hoping that the hundreds of millions of dollars the EPA was spending on its extensive clean-up would bring hope and new life to the Silver Valley.
This is one in a series of postcards by Marjie Lambert, assistant Travel editor, who has been to all 50 states. Read her other postcards at www.MiamiHerald.com/travel.