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Shoshone County and Its Courthouses

Shoshone Co. courthouse in Wallace, Oct. 1985

If you take the Friday tour to the Silver Valley (The Big Burn and Idaho's Silver Valley, led by Nancy Richardson and Keith Petersen, a 2012 National Preservation Conference Field Session), you'll probably see the Shoshone County Courthouse on Bank Street. It's a handsome Neo-Classical Revival building designed in 1905 by two Spokane architects, Lewis R. Stritesky and Robert C. Sweatt. The walls use concrete blocks made from recycled mine tailings. This the third official courthouse for Shoshone County and Wallace is the third county seat. Yes, there have been a few changes in Shoshone County in more than 150 years.

It all started back before Idaho was even Idaho. Following the 1860 gold rush to the Pierce area, the Washington territorial legislature created Shoshone County on January 9, 1861, designating Pierce as the county seat. It was a huge county, taking in much of what is now North Idaho. After Sheriff R. L. Gillespie drew plans, the county commissioners contracted with K. C. Reed and W. Keith to build a combination log and frame building for $3,700. The new courthouse was ready for use by August 1862.

The mining population was mobile, however, and the crowds didn't hang around Pierce long after the easy gold was gone. Despite the exodus, Pierce continued as the county seat until a new boom shifted the population and political center farther north to Coeur d'Alene mining region. This district is located on both the North and South forks of the Coeur d'Alene River, east of present-day Coeur d'Alene.

The first boom occurred along Prichard Creek, a tributary to the North Fork. Although there is some dispute, Andrew J. Prichard gave himself credit for finding the first gold in the fall of 1881. He returned the next spring with several other men to locate the extensive placer ground along Prichard Creek. Their secret spread rapidly and crowds of fortune seekers came during the spring and summer of 1883.

This initial excitement paled in comparison with the rush during the winter of 1883-1884. The Northern Pacific Railroad saw the discoveries as an opportunity to generate passenger travel on its newly completed rail line. The company circulated a pamphlet that painted an unrealistic yet seductive picture of the Coeur d'Alene mining region, where the mineral wealth was "practically inexhaustible" and men were making anywhere from $25 to $100 a day.

The railroad advertised four principal routes into the Coeur d'Alene district, leaving from different stations on the line. From Rathdrum, travelers could take a combination of stage, steamboat, and trail, crossing the mountains from Jackass, just east of Kingston, to Eagle. Three other routes originated at NP stations in Montana, with trails over the mountains from Thompson Falls, Belknap, and Trout Creek. All of these were, of course, covered with deep snow during the winter, making travel difficult.

Most of the fortune hunters headed straight for Eagle City where thousands of new arrivals camped. The town boomed briefly and twenty new businesses opened during just one week in March 1884. Then it died almost as fast when the newcomers spread out along the creeks, leaving Eagle almost deserted by June.

Murray courthouse, prior to collapse, 1986

The ultimate beneficiary of this population shift was the town of Murray which claimed about 2,500 residents by the end of the summer in 1884. The rapid growth of the new mining district caused major adjustments in county government. The Shoshone County commissioners, meeting in far-away Pierce in October 1883, appointed Frank Points as Justice of the Peace for the Coeur d'Alene mining region. Unfortunately, Mr. Points did not live up to their expectations and the next spring the commissioners found him "incompetant [sic] to discharge the duties of said office by reason of excessive intemperance."

With the shift in population away from Pierce to Murray, the Idaho Territorial legislature passed a bill in December 1884 to temporarily move the county seat to Murray. In a special election held the following June, voters overwhelmingly approved Murray as the new county seat. County offices and the jail initially were housed in rented buildings, including Steward Fuller's two story hall where the district court held sessions in 1886. The charge of $3 per day included seats, tables, railing, jury rooms, fuel, lights, and all appliances. The rental agreement continued until the county purchased this building for its courthouse in 1888.

Main street in Murray, with Sprag Pole Inn (yellowish building), 1986

Just as Murray was settling into its role as the county seat, the fickle mining population shifted once again, this time moving over to the South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River where a silver-lead boom was on. Voters tried to move the county seat in 1890 and then again two years later when Murray received 653 votes and Wallace 1,232 votes, just short of the required two-thirds majority.

While Murray was able to fend off competition initially, it just postponed the inevitable. Witnesses and jurors traveling to Murray for court sessions encountered mud, high waters, and storms that gave the journey "a decided resemblance to a Klondike trip," as one disgruntled resident claimed. Citizens of Wallace mounted a campaign to move the county seat, touting their town's accessibility, hotel accommodations, and permanence. In November 1898, voters overwhelmingly approved removal of the county seat to Wallace. The move took place two months later, with county offices, courts, and the jail once again spread among rented buildings. These probably were not consolidated until construction of the new courthouse in 1905.

Murray Masonic Lodge (left) and Bedroom Goldmine Bar (right), 1986

Both the 1862 and 1905 Shoshone County courthouses are still standing. The Murray building, however, was not as lucky. Heavy snow fell across North Idaho during the winter of 1996-1997. While such snows were not uncommon for Murray, this particular winter was one too many for the old courthouse. It collapsed in the evening of February 21, 1997, just as a the local historical society was struggling to raise money for its restoration. But it takes more than a snowstorm to keep Murray down, and a county insurance policy helped pay for a complete reconstruction of the building.

Reconstructed Murray courthouse, courtesy of Idaho Heritage Trust and Katherine Kirk

Murray's population has dwindled to a handful today, but its old buildings still line the main street. And access to the town has improved with the paving of the road over Thompson Pass into Montana, bringing many more summer tourists; this road is not maintained during the winter. Wallace, the Shoshone county seat for well over a century now, is a busy town with a fondness for its history and historic buildings. The entire town, in fact, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

If you'd like to get a politically incorrect sneak preview of the historic buildings in Wallace, watch Dante's Peak, a movie partly filmed in Wallace in 1997. While it was justifiably panned by critics, if you sit through till the ending, you can see major parts of the National Register district get totally blown away by a pyroclastic cloud.

Note: Major parts of this blog post were taken from a report I wrote on the Murray courthouse for the Idaho Heritage Trust. (I was just finishing my writing when I learned that the subject of my research had just collapsed.) Thanks to Katherine Kirk and IHT for permission to use this material. Katherine also provided the photo of the reconstructed Murray courthouse.

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