The Center of the Universe
By Mike Blackbird
Three hundred and sixty miles east of Seattle and 2,630 miles west of Boston, Interstate 90 brushes past the little mining town of Wallace, where the Center of the Universe is located. It’s at Bank and 6th Streets, emblazoned on a manhole cover in the middle of the intersection. Ron Garitone, the mayor of Wallace, officially proclaimed it so in 2004, noting, “If something can’t be disproven, it must be true.”
It wasn’t always thus. As the magnetic north pole migrates, the Center of the Universe migrates as well. One hundred and thirty-four years ago, during the Gilded Age and heyday of laissez faire, the Center of the Universe was located seven miles northeast of Wallace, in Burke. Here the first of many silver deposits in the Coeur d’Alene Mountains were discovered. They would produce more than 1.5 billion ounces of silver, far more than Nevada’s famous Comstock Lode or even than Bolivia, where silver had been mined since the 1500s.
Silver produced in Burke and the seven-mile-long Burke Canyon played a pivotal role in the political landscape of the United States in the latter part of the 19th Century, including the rise of populism that challenged the heavy hand of eastern financial institutions armed with the gold standard. Farmers of the Midwest were held in thrall by eastern financiers, who considered them little more than sharecroppers weighed down by gold. But spurred by the rise of populism, western silver mine owners sought to loosen the shackles of gold by making silver coinage available at a weight ratio of sixteen-to-one against gold coins. In this way, the Free Silver Movement allowed farmers to refinance their crushing burdens of debt.