Road trip: Lewiston, Idaho- Brothels and Ghosts

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Snow on Bitterroot Mountains in April

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Badlands in the distance

Our cross country trip to deliver my dad’s old car to my brother was marked more by what we did not see then what we did: the RV Museum, the Corn Palace, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house, the famous biker city of Sturgis. Sure we flew by these locations at over seventy miles per hour, but in my father’s determination to make the journey from Philadelphia to Lewiston, Idaho in record time, most days I even ate lunch in the car (leftovers from the night before). In all fairness he probably would have stopped for a meal if I’d truly wanted to, but I, too, found that after several hours on the road possible interruptions like eating were squashed by the sincere desire to just get there.
The first few farms in Ohio were quaint, until I realized that the near future held only virtually identical white farmhouses and red barns. I must have slept through Indiana or it was more farms; I don’t remember. Same with Illinois. Iowa is one big farm. I think every spare inch of land in that state has been converted into some kind of field. Why there are so many “I” states next to each other, I don’t know, but I find it a confusing hinderance to my geographical sensibilities.

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the plains

Somewhere in there the prairie crept in, and I think it was South Dakota, which did stand out in that it was no longer an “I” but also, with its views of the forbidding badlands in the distance.

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Montana

Montana, with its big sky and mountains, is beautiful. We enjoyed a stay at my future sister in law’s parent’s home, snuggled in the valley of snow peaked mountains. Then, on into Idaho we went, driving for hours through National Forest. Our winding road followed the river through the beautiful Bitterroot Mountains. And it wasn’t until we reached Lewiston that our cellphone service returned.

Drive through Idaho National Forest

Drive through Idaho National Forest

Lewiston on Left, Clarkston on Right

Lewiston on Left, Clarkston on Right

Lewiston is an adorable little town, located in Idaho’s “banana belt”, where temperatures are supposed to be reasonably milder. They say you can golf all year here, if you’re in to that sort of thing. The Snake and Clearwater River converge by Lewiston and around its sister town across the river, Clarkston. The towns are named after the famous explorers, and one can learn about their arduous journey through the Bittersweet Mountains at the Lewis and Clark Discovery Center and at several signs around the river area. There are also boat trips down the river into Hells Canyon, the deepest river gorge in North America.

One of Lewiston’s Cute Houses

Lewiston House

Another Lewiston House

Lewiston is known for its historic houses. Normal Hill(named after the former teaching school) was named a best historic house neighborhood by this Old House Magazine shortly before we arrived.  I found the variety of these cottage-like homes to be intriguing and quaint. Several of these homes are perched at the top of the hill and have a nice view overlooking the river.

With the river views, the mountains all around, and incredible amounts of preserved forest, Lewiston is a nature lover’s paradise.

Lewiston Park on the River

Lewiston Park on the River

Lewiston Paper Mill

Lewiston Paper Mill

It is also hard to ignore the massive paper mill on the river, and the thick sulfurous smell that gave me a headache on rainier days. Since that paper mill contributes about 3,000 jobs to this small town (the next biggest employer is a bullet manufacturer), there seems to be resistance to even acknowledging that. Hmmm. Well, we as a society are mastering technology, maybe we can one day soon conquer that smelly beast, eliminate the pollution.

Canoe Sculpture

Canoe Sculpture

the River

the Snake River

Morgan's Alley, Downtown Lewiston

Morgan’s Alley, Downtown Lewiston (the top floor used to be a women’s boarding house)

Our Guide

Besides seeing family, the most fun part of Lewiston Idaho, for me, was the ghost tour.  We met at Morgan’s Alley on Third and Main, easy to do because we had been enjoying wine and dinner at a French Restaurant in the same building.  If we had only known while we ate what once laid upstairs of this fine dining establishment… A women’s boarding house. For those of you who might think this is innocent, it is not. Prostitution was legal in Lewiston until 1944-1945. Much of the second and third floors of present day downtown were brothels of old.

Someone visits these stairs…

Since our tour guide had the keys to many of the buildings downtown, we explored under city sidewalks and above office buildings.  This seemed all the more mysterious because it was nighttime.  All the buildings were empty (of living inhabitants that is) and we walked through guided only by the light of our flashlights.  On the way, we heard about the history of Lewiston, a mining town that was once 95% men, and the ghosts who still reside there today.   We almost got thrown in an old drunk tank, some of us more willing then others.  We even got to explore the rooms of a brothel that has hardly changed in 100 years.  Our companions on the tour were fascinated by the murder that had taken place in one of the rooms.  For me, it was the perfect opportunity for my imagination to run wild, but not about the ghosts.  I was fascinated by the untold history of the place.

Underground Drunk Tank

Underground Drunk Tank

Window where girls would flaunt their assets

What it must have been like to be one of the girls living in such an establishment… a brothel, a legal brothel.  They were called “soiled doves”, young and poor, and maybe even a bit brave to strike out on their own, coming down to this town on the river where so many miners had been enticed by the bewitching call of gold.  The women (or shall we call them girls, of 16 to 19ish) stood scantily dressed in second story bay windows, advertising their goods. If a girl’s curtains were open she was available; if they were drawn she was ahem… busy.

Could their Madame really have been nice?  Did the girls get along with each other, hang out together in their little rooms connected by several doors like sorority sisters? Or was there jealousy and fights?  When walking the grand staircase and halls or trying to sleep could they hear everything going on behind closed doors?  They had the protection of the cops, but how much far did that extend in that time? Were the men violent, emotionally and physically abusive? Did the girls dream of finding a nice man, getting married and leaving the industry behind? Apparently many of them did, moving in with lonely men and moving to the high prairie where their past was never to be spoken of, a real family secret.
If prostitution was legal until 1945, some of those women must surely still be alive. What stories they must have to tell, although society’s judgments would probably hold them back.  The real shame is the stories may never be told.  What a fascinating piece of history.   There’s always hope; maybe I shall see these girls’ previously untold story someday in a Lifetime movie.  Until then, I’ll have my memories of Lewiston, Idaho.

Hmmm… So a road trip to Lewiston turned into an essay of the wonders of legal prostitution.  Well, isn’t that what makes life so very interesting?

1900's Brothel Window

1900’s Brothel Window

P.S. I must also mention we stopped in Spokane on our way back and while it seemed like a cool city, the amazing force of the Spokane River running through the center of the city is a powerful scene I will never forget.

Spokane River

Spokane River & Waterworks

The Beautiful Spokane River

Ballroom in Davenport Hotel In Spokane

Somewhere in Spokane

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