Center of the Universe

When Colonel William R. Wallace built his pioneering homestead within a narrow valley in the northern Idaho panhandle, he probably didn’t realize he’d settled at the Center of the Universe. All can be forgiven. In 1884 he couldn’t possibly have know he was sitting atop a billion ounces of silver either, or next to what would become the last link in a great transcontinental road for that matter. Also he wasn’t really a colonel. This was an auspicious start for a quirky little mining town.

Twelve Mile Circle dedicates itself to exploring offbeat geography, and this one may be the oddest yet. Wallace, Idaho declared itself the Center of the Universe and challenged anyone to prove otherwise.

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This is the Center of the Universe. Who knew?

Wallace chose to mark its spot of universal significance with a specially-designed commemorative manhole cover in 2004. Mayor Ron Garitone offered an explanation in an official proclamation (and I quote verbatim):

Thanks to the newly discovered science of “Probalism” – specifically probalistic modeling, pioneered by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Welfare, and peer-reviewed by La Cosa Nostra and the Flat Earth Society – we were further able to pinpoint the exact center within the Center of the Universe; to wit: a sewer access cover slightly off-center from the intersection of Bank and Sixth Streets.

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Mayor Garitone doesn’t need a tinfoil hat. He merely conveyed his town’s frustrations with the Federal government over EPA Superfund cleanup efforts in the Silver Valley, in the wake of several decades of mining. The manhole cover served as a visible, permanent expression of free speech and a benevolent act of dissent. His actual reasoning came later in the proclamation,

The science of Probalism has its roots in the 2002 EPA Coeur d’Alene Basin Record of decision, and as a syllogism expresses itself thusly: if a thing cannot be disproven, it is thereby proven. Thus if the communities of the Silver Valley cannot absolutely prove themselves to the EPA’s satisfaction to be good and healthy places to live, then this is proof that they require the EPA’s continued meddling in their affairs.

The mayor believed Wallace had been saddled with an impossible burden of proof. He felt justified claiming the town’s position as the center of the universe since it could not be disproved otherwise, extending his interpretation of what the Federal government was doing to Wallace to its logical extreme.

Certainly there was a tourism benefit, at least with the oddball sorts of travelers who go out of their way to see goofy roadside attractions (e.g., someone such as myself if I ever found myself in the area), which has the dual benefit of letting the town press its case whenever curious visitors ask about it. It’s not a whole lot different than the District of Columbia appending "Taxation without Representation" to its license plates to highlight its ongoing disenfranchisement from the legislative branch of government. Stealthy protest has a long history in this country. Thus, what on its surface may appear purely as an offbeat attempt to attract tourist dollars to a remote mining town also serves a permanent act of lighthearted political defiance.

Tourism is still important though, and perhaps now eclipsing the original purpose. The manhole cover serves at the location of various civic events, wedding ceremonies, photo opportunities and even a Princess of the Center of the Universe Pageant. Funny thing however, the local Chamber of Commerce chooses to ignore the exalted claim, focusing instead on Wallace’s distinction as the Silver Capital of the World.

The stunt garnered it fair share of attention. A British comedian and writer named Danny Wallace, noting the name of the town coincided with his own, came to Wallace to investigate this one-of-a-kind manhole cover. His effort resulted in the 2006 publication of "Danny Wallace and the Centre of the Universe." I’ve not had an opportunity to read the book so I don’t know how he decided to interpreted events, but you can get a flavor from its page on Amazon. One of the comments includes an alternate yet entertaining set of reasons why Wallace should indeed be considered the Center of the Universe.

Not the Center of the Universe? Prove them wrong.