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Arco and Atomic City

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In 1955, tiny Arco won fame as the world’s first nuclear-powered city. Today, it mainly serves as a jumping-off point for excursions into the nearby Craters of the Moon National Monument. Arco is one of Idaho’s strangest little towns, although nearby Atomic City manages to be even stranger. And littler.


Besides the lava-scorched earth to the south and a range of mountains to the north which include both Idaho’s highest peak (Mt. Borah) and its most awesomely-named (Appendicitis Hill) the most striking feature of Arco is its “Hill of Numbers”. For decades, the senior classes of the local high school have been decorating the nearest mountain with the last two digits of their graduation year. Graffiti on a grand scale.

Arco’s story has been tied to nuclear power ever since our country started experimenting with it. The reason that the government chose this corner of eastern Idaho as one of its nuclear sandboxes is fairly self-evident. Remote and sparsely-populated, Arco is the kind of place that a nuclear accident might go unnoticed. Or at least under-reported. Case in point: did you know that the USA’s only fatal nuclear accident occurred in Arco, Idaho? In 1961, there was a core meltdown in the National Reactor Testing Station which killed three servicemen. [Uncle Sam clutches his chest in mock concern… “Oh, you didn’t know about that?”]

Thirty miles to the southeast, Atomic City is even more closely associated to nuclear power than Arco. A ghost-town for all intents and purposes, Atomic City still clings to life with a bustling population of 29. We cruised slowly down the town’s only street and were vaguely creeped out. Although we didn’t see a soul, I was certain that radiation-scarred monsters were watching us hungrily from behind curtained windows, and refused to get out of the car. Jürgen chanced it, for a picture of a trailer that had been designed to look like a boombox.

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Jürgen, boom-box trailers are how the mutants lure you in!

Close by Atomic City is the Experimental Breeder Reactor I (EBR-I), a nuclear plant decommissioned in 1964 and today designated as a National Historic Landmark. The world’s first atomic-powered electricity was generated here and, during the summer, you can tour the interior of the plant. It’s supposed to be pretty cool, but we were visiting too late in the year to get inside. Frustrating. There was no one around, and I briefly considered opening a window, but I’m pretty sure that breaking into a nuclear reactor, even a decommissioned one, is the kind of thing that lands you in Guantanamo.

We contented ourselves with examining the prototype reactors from the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion project. This attempt to build nuclear-powered was a failure, abandoned in 1953, but it left behind some marvelous pieces of engineering to admire.

Location on our Idaho Map: Arco | Atomic City

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December 6, 2012 at 11:53 am Comments (16)

Kellogg – Our Base in the Silver Valley

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Everything Remote Controlled

Although it’s not as well-known as nearby Wallace, Kellogg is the Silver Valley’s largest town, and was our base during our four-day stay in the region. It’s a nice village stretched out along the Coeur d’Alene Mountains, with a population around 2000; less historic and picturesque than Wallace, perhaps, but with a burgeoning tourism industry of its own, thanks largely to the Silver Mountain Ski Resort.


We stayed at the The Summit, a small house rented out by Kellogg Vacation Homes. Comfortable, with plenty of room to stretch out, a fully-equipped kitchen, washer and dryer, and an enormous hot tub. Our days in the Silver Valley were packed with activity, and an extended soak in the hot tub was the perfect way to end every night.

In 1885, prospector Noah Kellogg was searching for his lost donkey, and found it grazing near a large deposit of valuable galena lead. The town was established shortly thereafter, and people from the Silver Valley are fond of pointing out that Kellogg was “founded by a jackass, and still inhabited by its descendants”. Like every town in the region, mining was the only industry that mattered for a very long time. It was in Kellogg that the Sunshine Mine Disaster of 1972 happened. Almost a hundred men were trapped in the mine when a fire broke out, and 91 of them died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

We took a self-guided walking tour of Kellogg’s historic downtown; it’s just a single street and took all of five minutes. Not overly impressive, but we did stumble upon one unique shop. From the window, Sideways looked like a model train shop, but inside we found an RC funpark where model car aficionados can come to play and race. The bulk of the shop is an enormous track, complete with mountains, ponds, shops and even a zeppelin landing-pad. Spectators can sit in dining booths, and a motorized train putters around the shop delivering hot dogs and snacks.

We really enjoyed our short stay in Kellogg; an unpretentious and surprising little town. For those looking to spend some time in the Silver Valley, it’s a good alternative to Wallace.

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October 22, 2012 at 12:26 am Comment (1)

The White Pine Scenic Byway

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Across 82 miles of old pine trees, historic towns and sparkling lakes, the White Pines Scenic Byway brought us northeast from Potlatch to the old mission at Cataldo. It was a peaceful stretch of driving, with few other cars and increasingly beautiful nature.


The Byway begins in Potlatch, founded in 1905 with the establishment of one of the country’s biggest lumber mills. The business closed down in 1981 and Potlatch emptied out; today, it’s little more than a commuter town for people studying and working in nearby Moscow. It’s got a rugged charm, but wasn’t enticing enough to convince us to pull over.

Highway 6 follows old railway tracks through towns and stations curiously named after famous universities. We passed through Harvard and Princeton; other former train stations included Purdue, Stanford and Yale. Soon, we were cutting north through a thick forest of Western White Pine. As few trees as possible had been cleared to build this road, and it felt as though we were driving through the legs of giants. The White Pine is Idaho’s state tree.

After emerging from the forest, we reached St. Maries (pronounced Mary’s): another old timber town situated at the junction of the St. Maries and St. Joe rivers. It’s a neat town, larger and more lively than Potlatch. We visited the Hughes House Museum and got some grub at a gas station/pizzeria. Nearby, we found an old-time Steam Donkey; a logging winch. Like I’ve always said, any town with a Steam Donkey is a winner in my book.

The byway continued north past St. Maries to a set of small lakes fed by the Coeur d’Alene River. With evocative names like Black Lake, Cave Lake, Medicine Lake and Swan Lake, these pools set in the midst of the forest were unforgettable. We stopped every 100 feet for more pictures, and it’s a real shame we didn’t have time to hike around — Cave Lake, in particular, demanded a proper exploration.

Our drive ended at Cataldo, where the oldest building in the state is found. The Old Cataldo Mission was constructed by the Jesuits to convince the Coeur d’Alene tribe of the wonders of Christianity.

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October 7, 2012 at 1:41 am Comment (1)

Hoot’s Cafe in Whitebird, Idaho

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We Love Owls Too

On the way from Riggins to Lewiston, we stopped in at Hoot’s Cafe for lunch. Hoot’s is owned and operated by a woman whose name happens to be Hootie, who happens loves owls, and who just so happens to resemble one. Sometimes I get the feeling that Idaho is messing with us.


We wrangled Hootie into a chat before sitting down to lunch, and of course our first question concerned her name. Turns out, it’s not a nickname. Hootie is her full legal first name, which she’s had since birth. She told us that, upon considering her big, protruding eyes, her parents agreed that she looked like a “Hootie”. She’s lived in Whitebird all her life, and run Hoot’s Cafe for over fifty years. When we expressed our astonishment, she seemed surprised; as though working in the same tiny restaurant for half a century was just the most obvious thing in the world.

Hootie then introduced us to her collection of owls. Wooden owls, decorative owls, stuffed owls, plastic owls, ceramic owls and more. Over 1200 line the shelves, walls and tables of Hoot’s. Remarkably, Hootie didn’t buy a single one; they were all gifts. Friends or returning customers have made it a tradition to bring her another owl for the collection. I was upset that we didn’t have any owl paraphernalia in the car to give her, and briefly considered crafting something together out of a couple Coke bottles.

Lunch was great; the burgers were big, and the french fries are cut every morning from real potatoes. The best part, though, was the entertainment going on at the next table. Hootie’s husband is a miner, and had just hit a gold patch. He came in with a bag full of rocks, and everyone in the restaurant had gathered around his table to admire the strike.

Hoot’s is the kind of restaurant that can only exist in a town like Whitebird, Idaho. If you’re passing through, do yourself a favor and stop by. And don’t forget to bring Hootie another treasure for her collection.

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October 1, 2012 at 1:08 am Comments (2)
Arco and Atomic City In 1955, tiny Arco won fame as the world's first nuclear-powered city. Today, it mainly serves as a jumping-off point for excursions into the nearby Craters of the Moon National Monument. Arco is one of Idaho's strangest little towns, although nearby Atomic City manages to be even stranger. And littler.
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