I have noticed that in all things, drama attracts drama - which as often confuses as it sheds light. Forty miles east of Coeur de'Alene, Idaho, there is proof of this. Through fissures opened by dramatic continental collisions over a billion years ago, water percolated up through sedimentary rocks. And where it pooled and cooled it left behind veins of silver, lead, and zinc. Then 190 million years ago this shattered wreckage was struck again, theatrically folding forested ridges upward until they broke, then shoving the amputated segments atop their own abandoned limbs, stacking the veins haphazardly through the new mountains. Fifty million years ago erosion found the weak points in the fault lines, opening the land to ambition and greed and human drama.
Burke Canyon Creek, like a hundred other streams in the panhandle of Idaho, divides two of these ridges. To the southeast the 6,000 foot high twin Grouse Peaks are separate by a mile from the 6,000 foot high Tiger Peak to the northwest. Between them, at just 2,500 feet above sea level, snakes the 300 foot wide “Silver Valley”. Burke Canyon is so narrow, in the winter it receives only two hours of sunlight. Shopkeepers had to close their awnings when the narrow gauge trains carried out the ore. The dead had to be carried out as well, as there was no space to bury them in the canyon.
But by 1891, the 11 mile long, constricted, twisting valley was dotted with one-street towns and the 100 mines they served; The Bunker Hill, The Burke, The Star-Morning, The Standard-Mammoth, the Hercules, The Gem, The Poorman Tigar, The Union, The Sunshine, the Frisco, The Tamarack.and The Hecla were the biggest.
In less than a hundred years humans would extract from this dramatic landscape $5.5 billion worth of metal, including 37,00 metric tons of silver – half of all silver mined in the United States - 8 million tons of lead, and 3 million tons of zinc These were no paper profits, this was production, rare metals pried from the earth. But the handful of owners who risked their capital to exploit this bonanza, and the 3,500 hard-rock miners who risked their lives a mile and more beneath this canyon for $3.50 a day, were all digging their own graves.
In the fall of 1891 the railroads who transported the ore once it was out of Burke Canyon, announced they were raising their rates $2 a ton. The Mine Owners Association, which effectively owned the canyon, responded by shutting down production. Three thousand miners were laid off, and untold store clerks, cooks, maids and laundresses lost their incomes as well. The standoff continued until April of 1892, when a compromise was reached and the mines announced they would reopen. But because of increased overhead the mines would rehire only 2,000 men, would add six hours a week to their six day workweek, and for the 500 hundred unskilled miners, there would be a pay cut of fifty cents a day.
The workers at each mine formed unions, and were unified in their demand - $3.50 a day for all workers, skilled and unskilled. The Owners Association refused, and in June began advertising for replacement workers. Soon, every train that arrived in Wallace, Idaho, at the foot of the canyon, carried miners (“scabs”) from Michigan and Wisconsin. Union miners took to greeting the new arrivals with fists and clubs. The Owners hired Pinkerton “guards” to protect the replacement workers. Tensions increased, threats increased, violence increased. Two of the mines reopened with union miners, and two, the Gem and the Frisco, reopened with non-union miners.
When the sun rose over the narrow canyon on Monday, July 11, 1892, the hills overlooking the Gem were covered with armed union men. At first light, the shooting started. After several hours of unproductive gunfire, the miners switched to more familiar weapons. A black powder bomb exploded a building (above) housing one of the stamps which broke up the ore before shipment. After a little more shooting the company men surrendered. The human cost was three dead.
The union men marched their prisoners across the narrow street to saloons in the town of Gem, while company men still on mine property began sniping. Women and children ran for their lives, fleeing either up or down the canyon. Fifty more company men arrived and surrounded the saloons where their men were held. Three more men were killed, this time union men, and eventually, the union men surrendered in their turn.
Meanwhile, shooting had also begun at the Frisco mine, and three more company men had been killed. Yet another surrender prevented further loss of life. The sheriff and Federal Marshals escorted these company men down the canyon to Wallace. Pro-union forces now occupied both mines and had captured 2,000 rounds of ammunition, to boot. All of this had isolated the largest mine further up the canyon, the Bunker Hill, in tiny Burke, Idaho.
On day two of the “Burke Canyon War”, Federal troops arrived in Cataldo, twenty miles to the west, but the union men threatened to blow up the mines if they moved any closer. That left the company men in the closed Bunker Hill Mine cut off from any support, heavily outnumbered and out gunned. The company men walked out without putting up any further fight. All non-union mines in the Silver Valley were now shut down. It was only a matter of time before all would be forced to sign union contracts. It looked like the Union had won. And then somebody did something really dramatic, and really stupid.
It happened in Cataldo, where the narrow gauge railroad met the head of navigation for the Cour d'Alene River. There had once been a Mission nearby, and as daylight began to fade that Tuesday evening, 130 survivors from the Gem and Frisco mines, were gathered on the dock, waiting for a boat to allow them to escape from this insanity. They had already been shot at and some had even been blasted. Then, out of the shadows, union men now appeared on horseback and started shooting into the unarmed crowd. Panicked men began running in every direction, some even jumping into the lake. It does not appear that anyone was actually killed in this shadowed fusillade, but it was claimed that 17 were wounded. It was labeled “The Mission Massacre”, and most public sympathy for the union cause died right there.
On Wednesday, July 13, Idaho Governor Wiley placed the entire county under martial law. A thousand state milita appeared, followed by a small but more vocal army of reporters. Before the week was out 400 union men were under arrest. So backed up would the courts become, that it would be a year before some of prisoners would have their chance to defend themselves. Very few would be found innocent. Many served years in prison. All union men were forced out of the mines, and the Owners Association reigned triumphant. The Wallace Free Press summed up what was lost, when it noted, “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword, is an old proverb, and labor is not trained in that school.”
Eight years later they all did it again. This time the Bunker Hill mine was blown up. But again the owners won. Six years later the two sides went at it again, and the then Governor - Frank Steunenburg - called out National Guard troops. This time, he boasted, “We have taken the monster by the throat, and we are going to choke the life out of it.” Union men responded by blowing up the governor. It took the skills of lawyer Clarence Darrow to keep the union man convicted of the Governor's murder, out of the electric chair . But the tit for tat never really ended, which helped ensure that by 1920 the 5,000 non-union miners in Silver Valley were the highest paid workers in the state.
But almost unnoticed at first, the real cost of all this drama began to surface. Around 1900 farmers downstream began complaining that the spring floods on the Coeur d'Alene had poisoned their fields and killed their livestock. By the 1930's the south fork of the Coeur d'Alene river had become a dead zone. People drinking from the river became sick, even losing their hair. The farmers sued the mine owners, but the courts, already used to crush the union, now crushed the farmers. Still, there was so much lead in the Burke Canyon Creek, the miners began calling it “Lead Creek”. After the World Wars the price of silver began to fall. The mines began to close. And as they did, their political power began to wane.
In May of 1972, 91 miners died in a fire at the Sunshine Mine. And this time the disaster brought in the new Environmental Protection Agency. And what they found, scared them. In Burke Canyon Creek between Burke and Wallace they could find no fish. By measurement, the water carried 550 pounds of zinc every day into the Coeur d'Alene River – so much that when the stream pooled, the water was yellow . Twenty miles of streams in surrounding areas could support no fish, and 10 miles of tributaries of the Coeur d”Alene River had “virtually no life” in them. In those waters outside of Silver Canyon, lead and zinc levels were fifty times the federal safe water quality standard. How had it spread so far outside the canyon?
Every day each mine had been dumping between 40 and 60 tons of lead into the air. Rain settled this poison into the Coeur d'Alene river, and had contaminated Lake Coeur d'Alene, which had contaminated 160 miles of the Spokane River, which flowed out of the lake. Water fowl were dying each year in thousands, 21 bird species were at risk of local extinction. And human children living in the valley had the highest levels of lead in their blood ever seen - in the world.
The result was the 21 square mile Bunker Hill Superfund Site. When this cleanup is finally finished (if ever), it could cost taxpayers $1.4 billion – or just about 20% of the value of the ore removed from the “silver canyon” over the last century, to enrich a few mine owners. In 1996, after twenty years of cleanup effort, EPA scientists put healthy trout in water from the Burke Canyon Creek. All were dead in four hours. Today, if you take a drive up Silver Canyon, you will pass the abandoned mine buildings, surrounded by chain link fences. Those fences were erected by the EPA, to protect curious tourists from being poisoned.
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