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What It's Like To Spend Winter Alone In An Idaho Ghost Town

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Dave Wilper
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To those who have traveled to Silver City, you know how sketchy the road leading into the ghost town is. A few people still own homes up there, but nearly everyone leaves for the winter months. One person, however, remains.

Dave Wilper spends the entire winter in Silver City as a caretaker and watchman.  This weekend marked typical weather for Silver City, with heavy wind gusts and blowing snow. Dan Greenwood spoke with Wilper about the challenges and rewards of being the only person in this secluded ghost town when roads are nearly impassable.

Dan Greenwood: How did you come to be the watchman in Silver City?

Dave Wilper: I've owned a home in Silver since 1979. Back in the '80s I spent three winters up here, but not as watchman . . . Since 1984 I've spent almost every summer in Silver doing restoration work on a lot of the buildings to make a living, but I'd spend my winters in the valley. For 16 years, one of my jobs was to keep the generators running at the War Eagle Mountain Communications site. This entailed a great many snowmobile trips up here in the wintertime, usually at night, during the worst blizzards. It was really handy to have a house in Silver to stay in during these trips. After I retired, I decided to apply for the watchman job, as I wanted to spend another winter or two in Silver and figured I might as well get paid for it. 

How many seasons have you been the watchman in Silver City and what have you learned about adapting to the isolation of being there in the winter?

This is my second year as watchman. I don't know yet if I'll take the job for a third season. We'll see how I feel next spring. The isolation does not bother me at all; in fact I love the solitude. Even though I lived in Boise most of my life, since I bought my place up here in '79, I've always considered this to be my real home.

Do you see a lot of wildlife? 

There are all kinds of critters running around up here winter and summer. The place is crawling with mule deer, but this time of year, they are down below. I have coyotes that come right into town and make a lot of noise at night, but only occasionally. (I also see) cottontail rabbits, ferrets, occasional raccoons, skunks, porcupines, beaver and once in a while a cougar! I leave them alone and they do likewise. I do enjoy watching them though.

What’s a typical day like in Silver City during the winter months?

A typical day up here is usually busy. I have no trouble staying occupied because there are always things to do. My duties as watchman include providing security from vandalism and break-ins, as well as greeting visitors. I don't have much trouble with the folks who are familiar with Silver City and the surrounding area because they come prepared for whatever they might encounter. The biggest problem are the tourists who come up - never having been here before - and become stuck or stranded because they aren't prepared for road or weather conditions.

 You mentioned that people occasionally travel to Silver City in winter. How does that work? I would think the snowfall would make the road leading into Silver City dangerous and impassible.

In the fall, people drive in and out until the road snows shut. During an average winter up here, we should get four to six feet of snow. When the snow is deep enough, snowmobiles, cross country skiers, hikers and tracked ATVs can usually make it. I wouldn't recommend novices coming in because it can be really treacherous. The county officially closes the road when conditions become dangerous, and don't open it back up until spring. They put up a warning sign that states you are responsible for the cost of search and rescue, along with a fine for failure to heed a traffic warning. There were two or three incidents last year. Not only can it be life threatening for the traveler, but for the rescuers as well.

When you have downtime, what do you do to pass the time?

I read a lot. I have a huge library of movies on DVD. I spend a lot of time on Facebook communicating with family, friends and homeowners. I get marginal local TV reception, and thank goodness my best reception is Idaho Public Television.

What if there is an emergency?

I have several options. I am a member of Silver City Fire and Rescue so I do have some emergency medical experience, although I'm no longer a certified responder. I have direct two-way radio communication with the Owyhee County Sheriff and other agencies. In addition, I have radio communication with Life Flight and Air St. Lukes and can speak to the helicopter pilot directly. Also, one of my job benefits is a free Life Flight membership. However, my first priority, and what I'm hired for, is to watch the town. So if an emergency outside of town occurs, the best I can do is provide communication. My only winter transportation is a snowmobile.

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