Last Stoplight

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The I-90 viaduct left intact the historic railroad building and other period architecture in the lovely town of Wallace, Idaho.

I usually avoid interstates, but my meandering along secondary roads is limited this trip. I have to be in Golconda, IL, by June 2 for a birthday party. I’m clocking many miles on the longest interstate of them all, I-90.

The interstates are a legacy of President Dwight “I Like Ike” Eisenhower, the first president I remember as a child. He thought it would be dandy if Americans could “See the USA in their Chevrolet” (to quote the Dinah Shore theme song of the day) and drive coast to coast with nary a stoplight. He and his battalions of engineers hadn’t reckoned on the people of the small mining town of Wallace, Idaho. The last stoplight between Seattle and Boston shone defiantly in Wallace.

The plan had been to tear down Wallace’s buildings — they were old, after all — and ram the freeway through the narrow Silver Valley. Wallace citizens staged a two-front war: they sued the government demanding an Environmental Impact Statement under legislation that’d been passed only recently. At the same time, they quietly had every building in town listed on the National Historic Register. They held off construction for 17 years, finally getting a viaduct that cost $42 million. Wallace’s elegant 19th and early 20th century structures remain intact.

The last stoplight was retired in 1991 with great ceremony. It now lies more or less in state at the town’s mining museum. Harry Magnuson, one of the leaders in the fight to save the town, gave a eulogy as the stoplight was laid to rest, concluding:

“And today, we can be thankful that we live in a society in which we can make things happen, a society in which we all have the ability and opportunity to make a difference in our world.”

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