Travel

Postcard from Idaho

The once depressing Silver Valley has cleaned up its act.
The once depressing Silver Valley has cleaned up its act. MCT

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.

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.

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