Life At the Center of the Universe:  

The Story of the Silver Valley Miners in the Coeur d’Alene

Sculpture depicting a mining family in Wallace, Idaho


The Miners

It wasn’t long after prospectors began arriving in Wallace, Idaho that a handful of individuals found huge deposits of silver.  As a matter of course, they hired prospectors who had been less fortunate to work for them, and in short order large mining companies were formed.  

As was the case with many labor-intensive jobs at that time in history, workers were over-worked and underpaid.  Unions were formed, and companies fought back in order to keep wages low and profits high.

At the beginning of 1892, a steep increase in the cost of transporting mining products by rail caused the companies to shut the mines in an attempt to force the railroads to lower their prices.  As a result, the miners spent most of that winter without work or pay.  When the mines were reopened, the companies offered significantly less money per day and expected workers to work an additional hour a day (10 hours total) for that reduced daily rate.

As with most mines in the US, the mines of the Silver Valley were fraught with danger at every turn for the men who worked them.  Dangers ranging from spontaneous combustion of timbers dried out by the heat of the deep mines, to falling rock, to catching “the con” – an irreversible lung disease caused by exposure to airborne silica – were part and parcel of the daily lives of these men.

Knowing that their lives would be short due to these inherent hazards, the reduced wages in order to keep mining profits high caused great ire among the miners.  In the natural course of events, a strike ensued.  Mining companies tried to bring in carloads of new miners (“scabs”).  Their efforts were severely hampered by pro-miner workers on the railroad who diverted trains full of scabs (up to 200 miles from Wallace) and by miners who rode the rail cars and physically threatened scabs who tried to exit the train near the mines.

The mining companies were fighting an uphill battle as the entire Silver Valley was full of settled, unionized miners who were in charge of local government.  Furthermore, the geography of steep mountains and narrow valleys made it easy for the unionized miners to block the non-union miners from getting to the mines.


The Mining War of 1892

When a company spy was discovered amidst the unionized ranks, the tensions that had been building suddenly erupted into acts of violence and destruction.  What began on July 10 as a fist fight between a strikebreaker and a union miner in the nearby town of Gem, turned into a gunfight at the Helena-Frisco mine – each side claiming the other had fired first.  

Handy with explosives and a point to make, miners blew up the four-story mill in retaliation.  Now on the hunt for the company spy who had already slipped town, armed miners began wandering the hills and shooting non-union mine workers.  Non-union workers were gathered up, stripped of their arms, and loaded onto trains out of town.

Meanwhile, mine owners, believing that the bombing was an act of war, prevailed upon the state’s governor, Norman Wiley for assistance.  The governor declared Martial Law and sent in the Idaho National Guard.  Realizing that he needed more help, he telegraphed Washington, D.C. for backup. 

Federal troops from Ft. Sherman arrived within a few days and quite literally corralled 600 union men in bullpens without any type of hearings, as there were no facilities large enough to accommodate that many people, nor time in which to sort out who had done what.  Some of these men were “sent up” for informal charges ranging from violating previous injunctions that had been issued regarding the strike, to holding up US mail by hijacking trains.

By now, several mining towns in the area, including Wallace, were armed encampments – and so they would stay for about 5 months.  Tensions eventually eased as the formal indictments were mostly dropped and life began to return to normal.  Only about 12 individuals were taken to trial in Boise where the company spy served as the key witness against them.

The great irony about the attempt of the mining companies to destroy the unions was that it strengthened them, resulting in the formation of the Western Federation of Miners.  In the seven years that followed, radical union members returned to the area to extract revenge on people who had sided against them.  Flames again were fueled by falling silver prices in 1893 -94 which caused some mines to refuse to pay the demanded rate of $3.50/day.  By the late spring of 1899 tensions had built once again to explosive levels – literally.


The Dynamite Express

On May 29, 1899, men in nearby mining communities were rounded up for a “show of strength” at the Bunker Hill and Sullivan Mines.  A passenger train on the Northern Pacific Railroad was commandeered and the engineer was forced at gunpoint to stop the train to pick up a hundred extra men and black powder from a nearby mine.  Realizing after leaving with the explosives, that they did not have enough to do the job they had planned, the engineer was forced to back up the train to get more.

As they passed through Wallace, the train picked up several hundred more heavily armed men who had hiked seven miles from nearby canyons.  In total, nearly a thousand men, many of whom were explosives experts, armed with rifles and 3,000 lbs of dynamite arrived at the Bunker Hill Mine.  As they laid the charges, they warned the sympathetic miners and their families to get out of the way.  Non-union miners were run off for the most part with warning shots, although a few were targeted and killed.  A series of three massive explosions took down in seconds a mill worth a quarter of a million dollars by 1899 standards.


Martial Law Re-enacted

History repeated itself as the new governor once again declared Martial Law and requested the aid of the federal government to contain the situation.  Federal troops soon arrived from places such as Spokane, Walla Walla, Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, and most notably, Brownville, Texas – the infamous African-American “Buffalo Soldiers” who were recent veterans of the Spanish-American War.

Much like what had happened in 1892, arrests were made without probable cause.  Doors were kicked in and men from all walks of life who had no direct involvement with the mines were rounded up.  Miners who attempted to flee to Montana were pursued, arrested, and brought back to Idaho without regard to jurisdiction or extradition law.  Again, the men were put into bullpens without the filing of formal charges.  Barns and boxcars were used for makeshift shelters.  This form of imprisonment is believed to be the forerunner of the concentration camps that sprang up decades later.

Of the 700 or so men who were bull-penned, only 13 were convicted – of interfering with the mail service aboard the train that had been commandeered.  Only one man was convicted for the murder of a company employee killed in the Bunker Hill Mine raid, but was pardoned after 2 years when evidence showed that the State had not so much tried to convict the actual person responsible for the killing as it was trying to make a point that they would go after higher-up people in the union with influence.  Among the actual rioters at the Bunker Hill Mine only the leader of the Burke Union was tried and convicted.

In 1905, a successful retaliatory hit was put out on Governor George Steunenberg who was believed to have taken $35,000 in bribes from mine owners.  Indeed, money had been given to him to supposedly aid the state in the prosecution of the mine workers.  Harry Orchard, the man who assassinated Governor Steunenberg was sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted. He spent the rest of his days in a prison in Idaho.


Temporary Abolition of Unions

In an attempt to prevent further uprisings, the State of Idaho (backed heavily by mine owners and out-of-state mining interests) required miners to obtain a permit in order to obtain work.  Key to obtaining such a permit was a formal renunciation of any affiliation with a labor organization.  Between the permits and active blacklisting of miners who had been involved in the 1899 strike, labor unions in the Silver Valley were kept at bay.

Outside of the Silver Valley, though, an active effort to better organize and join with other unions was taking place.  The affiliation with other unions ultimately proved to be the undoing of the identity of the Western Federation of Miners which ended up changing its name to the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (commonly called the Mine Mill Workers) in 1916.  


International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union Flag Silver Valley Coeur d'Alene Miners


Return of the Unions

Although the unions were to return to the Silver Valley in 1942, they were soon faced with internal strife.  An faction with a strong right-wing political agenda split off from the main union and negotiated its own contracts.  This undermined the efforts of the rest of the union workers who were fighting for better wages and conditions.

The 1950’s communism scare was the death knell for the Mine Mill Workers.  Local labor union members found that their own families had been turned against them by powerful forces of, ironically, a competing national union (namely the Northwest Metal Workers) and the press.  Many of their leaders, like other union leaders around the country, were indicted for “subversive activities,” and although they were later cleared of the charges, the effects were long-lasting.

These tactics effectively squashed a strike in 1960, and the Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers formally disbanded in 1967.  They were replaced by the United Steel Workers Union which has endured to present day.


Lead Poisoning at the Center of the Universe

There is no disputing the importance of mining to our everyday lives.  Just about everything that we use on a daily basis has origin in mining – cell phones, cars, refrigerators, watches, glasses, faucets, and so on.  But, mining is dirty work, no matter which way you look at it.  It damages the miners who go below ground, the miners who process the ore, the environment for miles around, and the people who live in the immediate vicinity of mining operations.

Back in 1973 in the Silver Valley an explosion damaged the baghouse where smeltering was done.  It released untold amounts of lead emissions into the air.  Instead of repairing the baghouse, it was bypassed and lead continued to be released into the surrounding communities.  The emissions were reportedly so thick that people were driving around with their headlights on in the middle of the day because it was so dark.

Children are highly susceptible to lead poisoning and they paid the heaviest price.  Several suits were brought against the Gulf Resources and Chemical Corp who, it was later shown (when the records were unsealed in 1990) knew full well about the poisoning of up to 500 children.  Internal documents showed that they deemed the cost of repairing the baghouse, which was estimated to be $6-7 million dollars, to be too expensive to save the suffering of 500 children.

Adults exposed showed four times the normal rate of kidney disease, and the number of deaths from cancer of the kidneys was double the national average.  Blood samples taken from children in 1974 showed that every last child in Smelterville (ground zero for the baghouse explosion and continued intentional release of lead) had lead levels that were considered unsafe, as did 99 percent of the children in neighboring Kellogg, and 93 percent in nearby Pinehurst.  

By 1980, 75 percent of children who were in preschool (meaning that they were born after the highest levels of exposure) had unsafe levels of lead in their blood.  A full twenty-one years later in 1994, one-fifth of the children in the area still had levels of lead that were unsafe.

In 2004 the EPA pointed the finger at the mining companies for the extremely high lead levels, but could not prove conclusively that mining was the origin of the exceptionally high lead levels.  Their rationale was that there was no evidence proving that mining was not the cause of the lead contamination, so it must be true.  The mayor of Wallace, Idaho at the time, mocking the EPA’s claims, used their logic that you can’t disprove a negative, and declared a manhole cover in the center of town to be “The Center of the Universe.”  Since it couldn’t be disproven, he stated, it had to be true.


The Reality of the Situation

It was true that the EPA had made a grievous error in its use of logic for its official report on how the lead levels in the area came to be so high.  However, simple common sense and a quick look back at history and health studies in the area as they correlated to the timeline of the explosion of the baghouse in 1973 leave little to the imagination.

In 1985, a 21 square mile area around the Bunker Hill Mine became the second largest super-fund cleanup site in the United States.  The figures of toxic waste are nothing short of staggering.  In addition to the lead, the study done on the area showed that the now-defunct smelter contained 36,500 tons of arsenic, cobalt, copper, antimony, cadmium, zinc, mercury, beryllium, selenium, asbestos, and PCB’s – a load large enough to fill 22,500 dump trucks.

A nearby dike created from mine waste was found to be blowing toxic dust into neighboring towns, and without knowing this, the local town had been using the pile of waste to spread onto roads during the winter.

The EPA needed someone to pay for the cleanup, but through calculated business maneuverings, the owners of Gulf Resources and Chemical Corp sold the company and filed for bankruptcy.  Unable to keep up, the EPA was not able to act before the purchasing company based out of New Zealand had sold off the contaminated assets of the company and diversified its holdings so widely that there was no longer a company to pursue.

In the end, the people of the Silver Valley, descendants of mining settlers and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe whose nearby lands were contaminated by dust from uncovered railway cars passing through are left holding the bag.  Shallowly buried toxic sediments that still exist in local waterways are repeatedly stirred up by routine periodic flooding of the region.  

It is doubtful that a successful cleanup will ever happen as the cost and scope is simply beyond feasibility.  To further complicate matters, the mining continues to produce waste.  Although mining technology has improved significantly and a more careful watch has been put on the mining companies and their practices, mining is still a dirty and polluting business.  Continued demand for the metals that come out of the Silver Valley by each and every one of us ensures that the battle between profits and worker and environmental safety will continue to be waged.

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