The Nation's Pulse

The Building

The joys of urban living in picturesque small-town Idaho.

By 6.28.10

The summer sun rises over the mountains and floods my room with light. I lie in bed and listen to the cooing of conspiring pigeons on the roof. I reflect that I seem to be cultivating a city life in a century-old red brick building in downtown Salmon, Idaho, pop. 3,122.

The Brown Building, as it's named, has an outside entrance on Main St. that opens up to a wide carpeted staircase that reminds me of the one that Clark Gable swept Vivien Leigh up in Gone with the Wind. I'm on the second floor in the back of the building.

The kitchen window looks northwest over Salmon's rooftops to the timber-fringed Salmon River Mountains. The bedroom window faces northeast and takes in the snowy Beaverhead Mountains, a line of 10,000 feet peaks that are the southern spur of the Bitterroot Range. I enjoy these valley-wide vistas from an apartment that reminds me of my late grandmother's in suburban New York in the 1960s. The only things missing are an elevator and a good deli in the first storefront out the front door. Instead I have the Odd Fellows Bakery there; a warm, pastry-scented place for coffee and the newspaper.

My building is two stories and was built in 1897 by its eponymous local entrepreneur William "Billy" Brown. I like its venerable aspects (more later) such as the staircase and stamped tin ceiling in the lobby. However, I don't think I'll stay much longer, as the unreinforced outside brickwork is spidered with hairline cracks from the occasional minor earthquakes of a century in the Rockies, a mountain range -- according to geologists -- still feeling its growing pains. In 1983 the Borah Peak quake, a jolt that measured 6.9 on the Richter Scale, struck Challis, Idaho (60 miles distant), and caused two fatalities. Eleven business district buildings and 39 homes were severely damaged. The pioneer era brick masonry the same as mine simply peeled away and collapsed. So I'll move when I am able, I'm just not in a hurry. It seems to me that the odds of being buried in the rubble of a major quake are akin to winning the lottery, and I've never won the lottery.

Living downtown, especially in summer with the windows open, can be noisy, and not only due to traffic. Three bars line two blocks across Main St., and a public parking lot is next to the Brown Building. Weekend closing times can feature drunken brawls or loud lovers' spats in that parking lot under my bedroom window. Either the cops show up, or these disturbances pass as quickly as a summer storm. It took me awhile to get used to them. At first, I'd awaken with a start, thinking these obnoxious revelers were actually in my room, but nowadays I mostly sleep through it all. Determined not to throw myself into an already volatile mix, I refrain from shouting "Shut Up!" from my window. Thankfully, no one has been shot -- yet. And when the weather cools in the fall, I'll shut the windows once more, and not hear a thing.

Over the decades the space now covering four upstairs apartments (two vacant and being "renovated" by my landlord in faraway San Diego, if you get my drift) housed hundreds of tenants, and offices for lawyers and dentists and Salmon city bureaucrats. Early in the twentieth century the public library was in residence. I never hear anything going bump in the night, but you'd think a building that's seen a century of life lived in it would have a resident ghost or two. I sometimes think of that on cold winter nights when the wind is whistling against those old sash windows.

A Salmon old-timer told me about a secret room sealed into the attic. I'd need an extension ladder to get up there, and it's dark and dangerous (I have peered up through a trap door). Beams, rafters, rusty nails, and -- it seems -- decades of fossilized pigeon poop. Not much else. The pigeons somehow get in off the roof. Since the roof doesn't leak, I rarely go up there either (there's a fire escape). Though the views are even better than from my windows. Think West Side Story. Rather than the hazy Manhattan skyline, substitute the white-mantled Continental Divide in evening pink alpenglow. The pigeons scatter when a Red-tailed Hawk flies overhead. They head for the river to roost under the highway bridge or to the rooftops of four other ancient ocher edifices (Odd Fellows, Shoup, McNutt, Shenon) like mine along Main St. As for the sealed room (if I can find it), maybe I'll get a flashlight sometime and see if some gold miner left his treasure up there. Or maybe I'll find the miner himself: skeleton, overalls and all.

But the possible rewards of treasure intrigue me. I'll be sure to check it out before the next earthquake.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.