Exploring Silver City
A Historical Mining Town in Idaho
The door to history opens just wide enough to let you in as it catches on the uneven, wooden floor when you walk into the Idaho Hotel in Silver City, Idaho. Once inside, visitors get a glimpse of one of the buildings that housed and fed those who made their way to this booming silver town in 1865.
As I made my way to a table in the dining room, I began to sense the building’s severe slant toward the back of the room. After placing my order, I decided to have a look out the old, wavy-paned window and felt myself drop nearly a foot as the floor veered toward the edge of the building. As I looked out the window, I almost jumped back to the safety of my seat, fearful that my weight might cause a shift in the buildings precarious position and knock it off its foundation, sending me and everyone else in the room headlong into the draw below.
I had the opportunity to peek into the history of this once booming mining town, turned ghost town, turned summer residence by attending the yearly town open house held the second weekend after Labor Day. For a minimal cost of $10, you’re allowed to ramble the dusty, rutted, dirt roads and look into several homes and buildings and learn about the unique stories passed down and retold by their current owners who host the event. The money raised is used to employ a town watchman during the winter months from October to May.
Silver, as it’s called by the locals, isn’t technically quite a ghost town since about 60 families maintain part-time residences. A big part of Silver City’s charm is its lack of amenities; no gas stations, grocery stores or phone service.
Back at the dining room of the Idaho Hotel which serves as the focal point of town and where I ate lunch, the old, water-stained wallpaper is peeling away from the walls, but the ambiance of yesteryear remains. A sandwich board spells out a few interesting facts about the town as if providing answers to the questions bouncing around in my head.
In 1865 there were 400 houses; now about 75 structures remain which date from the 1860’s to the early 1900’s. There were 125 businesses; now only four. The summer population is 12 and winter population is 1. The elevation is 6,200 feet and the town receives 4-6 feet of snow each winter.
Silver City was among Idaho’s first electrified towns in the 1890’s, but transmission lines were torn out in the 1940s and diverted and used to help build the WWII era Mountain Home Air Force Base nearby. Many of the buildings were also torn down and recycled and used at the base. Solar power, generators and propane are used now.
Silver City also boasts having the first telegraph and daily newspaper in the territory with phone service arriving in 1880. It served as the Owyhee County seat from 1866 to 1934 and at one time had 12 ore processing mills with an estimated $40 million in silver and gold mined from its hills.
Roger and Jerri Nelson are the current proprietors of the Idaho Hotel and are slowly restoring her to her former grandeur. You can forget bringing your hair dryer as the town hasn’t had electricity since 1940; they use a solar system with 12-volt lights and limited power. The hotel, which features 13 rooms, doesn’t have outlets, elevators, televisions or in room bathrooms.
The Nelson’s purchased the Idaho Hotel in 2000 from then proprietor Edward Jagel, who purchased and reopened it in 1972. The hotel was closed from 1942 to 1972.
According to local historical accounts, the Idaho Hotel was originally established in Ruby City in 1863 but in 1866 Ruby City lost the county seat to its two-year-old rival, Silver City, a mile up Jordan Creek. Soon, many homes and buildings were moved from Ruby City to Silver City in order to capitalize on the business generated in the new county seat. Later that year, the hotel’s new wing was dismantled, loaded piece-by-piece onto sleds and skids, and pulled up the snow and ice covered road by oxen to its new site in Silver City.
It was reassembled, and a three-story addition was added. Spring water was piped to the hotel by 1868. A bar room and “piazza” were added in 1871. A commodious new kitchen was built in the basement “containing all the modern improvements and conveniences”, and a “new set of bathrooms were built so that hot or cold baths could be had at all hours every day”. The bar room was “ornamented with the costliest and handsomest mirror ever brought to Silver City” in 1874; all of the interior woodwork was hand grained in 1882; and a billiards parlor-gambling room was added in 1889. In front of the icehouse, “A fine stone cellar” for storage of food and drink was completed in 1890. A five-story addition containing a new dining room with two stories of bedrooms above was finished in 1898, and a storage tunnel connecting the cellar with a mine tunnel beneath the street in front of the hotel was excavated in 1901.
The town is experiencing a bit of a revival as current residents seem to be clinging to the town’s history in their rough, ram shackled buildings. Silver City is now on the National Register of Historic Places, and residents can’t build anything new nor are they allowed to alter exteriors except to make repairs. Revitalization around the town can be seen in the Silver City School which boasts pressed metal pediments above its windows and Greek revival motifs; and the Our Lady of Tears Church, built in 1898, now boasts new stained glass windows above the main entrance and new front doors, which were designed and custom built to match the originals. Services are still held several times a year.
Also worth exploring, are the town’s three cemeteries; on the east side of the valley is the old pioneer and Chinese cemetery. The Chinese graves are depressions as the bodies were removed and returned to China. On the west side of Jordan Creek downstream from town is the Protestant and Masonic cemeteries.
Whether you’re a history buff, a nature lover, a mining enthusiast, or all around outdoor fan, there’s something in Silver City, Idaho for you to see, do and explore!
Special Dates of Interest
Saturday of Memorial weekend.
July 4th: Town celebration, horseshoe tournament, old-fashioned games.
The last weekend in July: Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association meeting and dance.
Labor Day Weekend: A local tradition to be stopped by the traffic light by the local self appointed law. A judge is on hand for any disputes, fines or donations – all proceeds help fund the water system.
Second weekend after Labor Day: Silver City Open House: Ten or more private buildings open to the public for tours
Also check out this website for updated information:
Silver City Area Phone Numbers
Idaho Hotel – 208-863-4768
Sinker Creek Outfitters 208.863-7960
Pats’ What Not Shop 208.583-2510 Cell 208.850-5679 or 208.375-0162
Silver City Fire & Rescue 208.890-6718
Our Lady Of Tears c/o Father Gerald Funke - 208.466-7031
How to get there:
Silver City is east of the Oregon/Idaho border in the Jordan Valley. To reach Silver City from the east (the Idaho Side), exit I84, take the Murphy exit, go through Nampa – 12th Avenue southbound which turns into Highway 45; follow until it forks with State Highway 78, then make a left at the fork to Murphy. Approximately 4.3 miles past (south) Murphy, turn to the west (right). Upon turning off the highway, you will encounter 7.5 miles of paved road, and then 12.5 miles of graveled road (rough in places) that winds through desert, foothills, spectacular canyon lands and forest-covered mountains, before reaching Silver City.
If you are coming from the west, exit U.S. 95 to the east through Jordan Valley, Oregon. Twenty-five miles of travel include a few miles of paved narrow county road, a few miles of improved oiled gravel road, and then a narrow, rougher dirt road that for about the last half of the trip follows Jordan Creek through canyons and mountains to Silver City.
Along the way
Murphy, a town of about 50 people is also home to the Owyhee county museum housed in a building that also includes the library. The museum features cowboy gear, to Indian artifacts, life in the early mining towns as well as the Chinese miners who lived and worked there. Open 10 - 4 Tuesday – Saturday year-round. Admission is by donation. Call 208-495-2319 for information hours.
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