They took out the stoplight on I-90 in 1991 and the townsfolk in Wallace, Idaho, their feelings hurt by the freeway bypass, proclaimed a manhole cover the Center of the Universe.
I remember the stoplight. We stopped there in the 1970s on a trip to Montana. We ate lunch in a diner then hit the road again. I remember looking at the stream that ran alongside the freeway. It ran white in those days, white with poison.
Last week I walked past the Center of the Universe. We gathered in Wallace, Idaho, last week for a conference of the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association.
Chub Eastman, who lives in Bend, Oregon, now, remembered Wallace back in the 1950s.
“When I was a kid, growing up in Coeur d’Alene, the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River had outhouses hanging over the water. The runoff from the mines was so toxic that when ducks and geese landed in that end of the lake, if they stayed for more than two or three days, they never left.”
The Prime Minister of Wallace, Rick Shaffer, didn’t remember it that way, but outdoor writer Scott Richmond recalled the South Fork as that proverbial creek up which you didn’t want to be without a paddle.
Outdoor writers Dave Vedder and Chub Eastman had been to Wallace as young men on various errands. When they looked at the river that now runs clear along the freeway, they remembered it the way it used to be.
We had two 14-year-old boys with our group, Austin Sixta and Caleb Rizio; cousins, one from Kansas and one from California. When they looked at the water, they saw an opportunity to catch a fish, something that would have been impossible here three decades ago.
So too, Craig Schuhmann, the author of Get Started Fly-Fishing. At his first opportunity, he started out from our hotel and tempted a couple of Coeur d’Alene cutthroats.
With the teenagers in tow, I assembled a couple of fly rods. Neither had fly-cast before and although there were fish to be caught, it was more important to pass on a new discipline. Those early teenage years offer the best opportunity to pick up all the new skills that come with fly-fishing.
Austin took to the 6-weight Fikkes Fly Hiker, while Caleb started with the 5-weight Albright. First thing to remember, I told them, is that the fly has little or no weight, that the line provides the heft for the cast. Next, it takes finesse, not strength, to push the fly.
Fourteen-year-old boys are not about finesse, but soon they could cast far enough to catch a fish if the fish were willing. Trout splashed for mayflies and midges, just out of range.
We progressed from the simple pick-up and lay-down to overhand casting to roll casting and then dusk was upon us.
Two days later, Greg Gulbrandsen, Craig Schuhmann and I drove up Canyon Creek through Woodland Park, Gem, Frisco, Black Bear and Yellow Dog to a ghost town called Burke at the end of the road.
Back when the silver mines roared, real estate was so scarce they built the four-story Tiger Hotel over the top of Canyon Creek and two sets of railroad track.
Headed back downstream, we paused at the Frisco mine where, on a Sunday night in July of 1892, a shooting battle erupted between striking mine workers and mine guards. During the fight, union men circled around behind the guards and sent a box of black powder down into one of the mine buildings. The violence continued at the nearby Gem mine.
Martial law was declared and Idaho sent the National Guard to restore order. Soon after, Federal troops arrived to try to keep the peace.
A lot of the old buildings are still in place and silver still comes out of the ground. Even better, the streams run clear and greater treasures – spotted trout – have returned to their old haunts in towns with more ghosts than living residents.
Today that old traffic signal lies in a coffin in the Wallace Mining Museum and the red lights have been extinguished, but, for fly-fishermen of all ages, it is still a great place to stop.