SILVER CITY, Idaho – Tucked below the summits of the 8,000-foot-high Owyhee Mountains, sits a once-booming mining town.
Today, about 150 years since it was founded, sits Silver City – fatigued and worn, yet boasting of character and history – one of the Gem State’s most iconic ghost towns.
As defined by its name, turn-of-the-century miners tapped the town’s hills for precious metals, but Pat Nettleton, Silver City home and business owner, said silver didn’t draw the crowds.
“They called it Silver City, but they pulled millions and millions of dollars of gold out of here,” Nettleton said.
At 6,200 feet, 90 minutes south of Nampa, it is marked by dirt roads, a babbling creek and a crooked cemetery. Many of the structures, built without foundations and still devoid of electricity, are warped and crumbled.
And upkeep is difficult. Frigid winters, followed by scorching summers wreak havoc on the dwellings. In addition, the town is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and because of the distinction, new construction cannot take place. Nettleton said building maintenance is key, like a fresh coat of paint.
In its heyday, from about 1860 to the late 1880s, as many as 5,000 people called the settlement and surrounding towns home. Silver City itself had 300 homes, 75 businesses and 12 ore-processing mills before an exodus near the turn of the century when the Bank of California crashed and large-scale mining ground to a halt.
During the boom, it was straight out of a western, she said.
“They even had battles where one (claim owner) felt like the other one had crossed over their claim, and they had a shootout,” Nettleton said. “Things were pretty wild and wooly back then.”
Still though, Nettleton said mining continued in at least some capacity into the 1940s; the city held the Owyhee County seat until the 40s when it moved to Murphy.
“It was an interesting town. They had theater, different businesses . you name it, they had it here,” she said.
Hobbyists still pan and mine to this day.
Now, Nettleton said, there are about 70 structures left, all of which are privately owned. Still standing is a school, a Catholic church and a cemetery, among others. Because there isn’t electricity, many homeowners use generators or solar power to afford a few modern comforts. There are a few businesses open during the summer, including Nettleton’s, Pat’s What-not Shop, and the Idaho Hotel – both are open for business and guests during the summer, starting Memorial Day weekend.
The city hosts a Fourth of July horseshoe tournament for homeowners and other events throughout the summer. Guests are welcome to take day trips and camp at the city’s campground in the summer months.
Because the city is closed from October to May, winter watchmen are hired to ensure it’s safe.
Jake and Laurel DeLong are almost finished with their second winter as the watchmen in Silver City. The pair work summers at a lodge in Montana as caretakers for summer cabins.
During the winter months at Silver City they fix storm damage to houses and keep an eye on tourists venturing in on snow machines.
“We are professional caretakers, or professional vacation people,” Jake DeLong said. “I haven’t heard my alarm clock in three years. But I haven’t seen my 50-inch TV in three years, or my hot tub. So it does come with a price.”
The pair uses solar power and a generator to keep warm, cook and even watch TV from time to time. They said creature comforts are sometimes missed, but the solitude and beauty keep them content.
“There are times when you’re watching Jeopardy and a Burger King commercial comes on, and you’re like ‘Oh my god,’ or Pizza Hut. ‘I would kill or die for a pizza right now,'” Jake DeLong said.
The couple stocks up on supplies for the last time to winter over in November, but said people who visit, call and ask if they need supplies.
At one point, the husband and wife were craving fried mozzarella sticks. They requested the frozen variety, and instead got string cheese. Laurel DeLong breaded the cheese sticks and fried them on the stove top, satisfying the craving.
It is not uncommon for them to find cougar, bobcat, wolf and coyote tracks on their daily walks, they said.
The pair is unsure of future plans, but said they love the job, people and landscape.
“In spring time, the creek sings,” Jake DeLong said. “It’s the creek going through the ice. It sounds like classical music. The sound is beautiful. It’s absolutely gorgeous.”