On the corner of Bank Street and Sixth Street in the quaint mining town of Wallace, Idaho, you will find a manhole. Initially, it may seem like an unremarkable sewer cover, but step a bit closer and you’ll realize it is much, much more: It is the Center of the Universe.
The town of Wallace is four by nine blocks and has a current population of 784 citizens. But in 2004, the mayor made a proclamation: “I, Ron Garitone, Mayor of Wallace, Idaho, and all of its subjects, and being of sound body and mind, do hereby solemnly declare and proclaim Wallace to be the Center of the Universe.”
The idea behind the Center of the Universe originated with four friends at a local bar called the Smokehouse, on the same corner as the manhole cover. One member of the party was Shauna Hillman, the director of the Northern Pacific Depot Railroad Museum, who describes herself as “the official janitor of the Center of the Universe.”
I ask Hillman why Wallace is the Center of the Universe.
“Why not?” she responds. “That’s the answer to why is it the Center of the Universe.” The second answer: “Prove it isn’t.”
The real answer, Hillman continues, relies on the theory of probabilism: If you cannot prove that Wallace is not the Center of the Universe, then it must be the Center of the Universe.
Hillman says the initial spark of inspiration emerged when one of the four bar pals visited Moscow’s Red Square and saw a “Kilometer Zero” medallion placed into the ground from which distances in Russia were traditionally measured. The man came back to Wallace and thought: We can do that.
If you look closely at the Center of the Universe manhole cover, you’ll see four sets of initials bordering the figure of a miner. These initials–HL, CDE, SRLM, and BHM–represent four prominent mining companies: Hecla Mining, Coeur d’Alene Precious Metals, Sunshine Silver Mine, and Bunker Hill Mining Company.
This is because up until it became the Center of the Universe, Wallace called itself the Silver Capital of the World. Since the first mining efforts in 1884, over 1.2 billion ounces of silver have been found in this small town, according to the town’s prime minister, Rick Shaffer (more on that title soon). As the director of operations at the Wallace Inn, one of the town’s three hotels, Shaffer also runs bus tours for visitors.
Prime Minister Shaffer has now lived in Wallace for 24 years and two months. He appointed himself the town’s Prime Minister in 1992, and 16 years later, the position was finally recognized—the Prime Minister of Hospitality and Goodwill—in a charter. Shaffer remains the only such official in America today, and he is now known across the region. Nobody else wants the title, he says, and he doesn’t have to campaign.
But the town did not come up with probabilism on its own. They discovered the theory during an unwelcome visit by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which announced that due to mining, the local water and soil were polluted. They declared Wallace a Superfund site; however they also admitted that they couldn’t prove whether the lead in the water was due to continued mining operations, or whether it was naturally occurring.
Tammy Copelan, who moved to Wallace just two years ago and is now the executive director at the Wallace Mining Museum, says that since none of the causes could be disproved, the EPA expanded the Superfund site from 21 square miles to 1,500, devaluing local homes and businesses.
“The mayor was furious,” says Copelan. He summoned all the television stations he could in the surrounding three states, got in the middle of the street, and declared that he must be standing at the Center of the Universe—“that if it can’t be disproven, it must be true.”
Every building in Wallace’s historic downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places. (This was part of a very deliberate effort to prevent the district from being completely bulldozed for the construction of the interstate highway.) The town is nestled within 600 miles of national forest, and there are ample opportunities for hiking, biking, snowshoeing, skiing, fishing, zip-lining, and spotting wildlife.
“What the Center of the Universe does,” says Hillman, “is it makes us intriguing.” If Wallace is the same as every other town, she says, what hook will get someone driving along Route 90 to stop? “Certainly no one else has this cool manhole cover.” Since its establishment as the Center of the Universe, Wallace has definitely attracted more visitors—or at least, curiosity.
But what about other contenders for Center of the Universe? Fremont, Washington, for example, proclaimed itself the Center of the Universe back in 1994.
“I do know that there are a couple other ones—just heard about one the other day,” says Hillman. “We had a passing conversation that maybe we should write to them, and issue a formal challenge of why they think they should be the Center of the Universe.”
“And how would Wallace defend its title?” I ask.
“Because we instituted the theory of probabilism. We would base it on that,” replies Hillman. “I am positive that we are the Center of the Universe. I mean, I happened to be at work today, and you happened to call—isn’t that itself a sign?”
I ask Prime Minister Shaffer the same question. “They’re faking it,” he says. “We’re the real deal.”