Isolation for sale

Mining towns like Metaline Falls are struggling as auto sales slump, but across the border in British Columbia there is evidence that other places have found a future with another valuable resource.
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Beautiful Downtown Metaline Falls, WA

Mining towns like Metaline Falls are struggling as auto sales slump, but across the border in British Columbia there is evidence that other places have found a future with another valuable resource.

I recently spent some vacation time in the Kootenay region of southeastern British Columbia. On the way up, I passed through Metaline Falls, in northeastern Washington. It's an hour or so north from Spokane, but this corner feels about as remote as anywhere in Washington. I remember in the 1980s when Republican Gov. John Spellman went to these parts for a vacation and no one recognized him. That may have said something about his political style, but it also says something about why this area feels like the ultimate getaway.

That's partly an illusion. We stopped at a local cafe for pie and coffee and chatted with the waitress. Metaline Falls looks like a hard-luck resource town in a scenic wilderness setting. There are a couple of structures that stand out, including an Art Deco apartment building that looks incongruous and a lovely old Kirtland Cutter-designed brick school (restored as Cutter Theatre, a performing arts center). Cutter was the well-regarded Northwest architect who designed, among other things, Seattle's tony Rainier Club. A nearby dam provides Seattle with 40 percent of its power. It's a place that has had aspirations and gone through boom and bust cycles before, much like other mining towns in the region. Silver, lead, and zinc brought people here, after the fur trade.

The media have been filled with news of the collapse of the U.S. auto industry, the declines in car sales, and the shuttering of dealerships. Metaline Falls, it turns out, is not immune. Our waitress told us that the closure of the local zinc mine had put many people out of work in the area. Zinc is used in rust-proofing steel, and with demand for cars plummeting and the price of zinc slumping, the mine is shutting down.

According to the Spokane's Spokesman-Review, the mine closure means the loss of about 200 jobs in the area. The population of Metaline Fall is around 223, which gives you an idea of the impact. Pend Oreille County's population is 12,600 (one of Washington's smallest) and its unemployment rate is one of the highest, at 14 percent.

This place seems as far removed from Detroit as can be, but they are tied together. The disappearance of the Pontiac has impact here, like vanishing salmon. "The mine will re-open when people start buying cars again," the waitress told us.

Much of the Northwest is still part of the resource and extraction economy, and some areas, like Alberta, still ride the boom and bust cycles with oil and gas. Canadians view Alberta as their Texas. There's a kind of culture divide at the provincial border, as some British Columbians view it, a divide between class and crass.

There are noticeable differences between the U.S. and southern B.C. too, and it's not just the money and exchange rate (currently favorable to Americans). One sees a culture shift as you drive from "Red State" U.S. counties on the border into the blueish regions of B.C. where all-American diners are replaced by organic co-op bakeries. The influence of Vancouver and immigration is felt much more in southern British Columbia than the cultural influence of Seattle on northeastern Washington — though espresso can be found just about everywhere. Urban tastes and tourism have infiltrated the Methow Valley, but have yet to penetrate places like Omak, Colville, or Metaline Falls.

The beautiful region around Nelson, B.C. has been transformed from a once heavily populated silver mine country of the 1890s into a place where the forests have re-grown and towns segued into summer or winter resorts. Remains of the old mines can be seen in areas reclaimed by forest, and many of the towns now survive on a tourist or retirement economy, complete with hot springs, micro-brews and great local eateries. Some were blessed with incredible scenery and lakes that finger fjord-like through the mountainous landscape.

The area de-populated after the mineral boom, and some of the places that weren't reborn as vacation meccas are ghost towns like Sandon, BC, where tour buses visit. In Sandon, once called the "Monte Carlo of Canada," a grand 1900 city hall still sits in a dead-end valley of ramshackle structures. It is also, weirdly, a place where old trolley buses go to die. A century ago, it boasted scores of theaters, saloons, hotels, an opera house, a large red light district, three breweries and a population of 5,000.

Down the road is the pretty historic lakeside town of New Denver, whose name boldly states its boosters' original intentions. It sits on the edge of a Lord of the Rings-scale wilderness — the well-named Valhallas. But it's also noted for its onetime remoteness, a place where B.C. sent Japanese internees during World War II. It was so isolated, they didn't build fences for the camp.

That sense of isolation is the new "natural resource" these old towns have to sell. That and their colorful history. As cities like Seattle and Vancouver grow and sprawl, urbanites (and suburbanites) seek get-away-from-it-all corners and will, or must, travel farther to find them.

I certainly won't suggest Metaline Falls should turn to tourism to help itself out of the bust. The last time I hinted at such a thing for an eastern Washington town, angry locals invited me back for a "Deliverance"-style weekend. Not everyone wants to be the next Coeur D'Alene, or even Winthrop, and changing sheets at a B&B doesn't pay as well as a job in the mines.

But already there's talk that the old Art Deco apartment building could be converted to condos for out-of-towners. And to get there, you'd need a car. That could be a double win for a zinc mining town like Metaline Falls.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.