Silver, snow and tears in Burke ghost town

History Corner

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There are still a few hardy souls in northern Idaho who call Burke Canyon's string of ghost towns "home." Thousands once lived there during the late 1800s and early 20th century. Then disasters, death and dying mines began to take their toll.

Burke-Canyon Road heads northeast from Wallace into the Coeur d'Alene Mountains following Canyon Creek, which flows southwest into the south fork of the Coeur d'Alene River. The canyon is more like a gulch, the heavily wooded mountain slopes rising abruptly on both sides - in parts only about a football field wide.

It wasn't much of a road more than a century ago, but it linked a string of tiny mining communities, many of them just a few tents or cabins near a small mine. They had nondescript names like Woodland Park, Webb, Gem, Frisco, Tamarack-Custer, Black Bear, Yellow Dog, Cornwall, Mace and Burke. Many more were scattered in the rugged mountains around them.

In 1882, gold was found in Eagle City and Murray just to the north. Two years later, silver, lead and zinc were discovered in Burke Canyon. As gold became harder to find, many miners left for Burke to find silver or work for wages.

Named after miner John M. Burke, the town was the largest of the communities in the canyon, located some eight miles up from Wallace. Today, the remains of the large Hecla mine loom over the dormant town.

Jammed in by the Coeur d'Alene Mountains, Burke is just three-quarters of a mile long and 300 feet wide.

Burke was so narrow that to accommodate the wagon road, railroad track and creek winding along the valley floor - and still have a town - S.S. Glidden built the 150-room Tiger Hotel right over the top of all three.

Passengers got on and off the train right in the hotel lobby.

"Ripley's Believe It or Not" said that the town was so narrow, merchants cranked their storefront awnings up so the trains wouldn't knock them off passing by.

All the canyon's towns were a pollution disaster, with outhouses and other buildings built on stilts above the creek, with all of the area's raw sewage flowing into it.

A Wallace Press description of the town in 1888 said, "The town of Burke has two mines in operation, one concentrator (Tiger), seventeen saloons, four general stores, one beer hall, two boarding houses, two hardware stores, one fruit and confectionery store, one butcher shop, one livery stable, one lawyer, one physician, one furniture store, one baker's shop, about 800 inhabitants (and) a large visiting element."

Locals there knew it was a dangerous place to live, but the lure of mining for riches breeds taking risks. It didn't take long for disaster to happen.

After the terrible winter of 1888, another heavy snowfall in the winter of 1889-90 blanketed the Coeur d'Alenes. Then Chinook winds and warm rains came, loosening up the packed snow.

On the afternoon of Feb. 4, 1890, the mountain unleashed on Burke. An avalanche of snow, rocks and timber thundered down the steep slopes, burying much of the town. "Half of the business houses are in ruins," reported the Spokane Falls Dispatch. "Three men were killed, and the terror-stricken inhabitants have fled to the towns of Gem and Wallace, fearing a repetition of the disaster."

When the avalanche broke loose, "A blinding mist and roar warned the score families of the miners of the approach. Surface trains were crushed and twisted and cabins ground as egg shells.

"The canyon was filled 1,000 feet across by a grinding mass of trees, stumps, earth and boulders 50 to 75 feet deep, packed almost as solid as ice.

"Its track down the mountain side was swept as clean as a floor, and the deafening roar was heard for miles up and down the gulch."

The following morning, "With scarcely a moment's warning, a tremendous mass of snow and rocks swept down upon the town from the west side of the narrow gulch in which it is situated. Five men were buried beneath the snow. Two were rescued, but the others are dead and their bodies have not yet been recovered."

It wasn't just nature that brought tragedy to the Coeur d'Alenes. Violence was rampant in mining camps throughout the West in those days, and Burke Canyon was part of it. Just two years after the 1890 avalanche, the Silver Valley mining wars broke out in Gem, pitting miners and their unions against the mine owners.

It lasted for years, erupting again in 1898, causing Idaho Gov. Frank Steunenberg to call in troops to stop the violence.

Then, in February 1910 - almost 10 years to the day later - nature struck Burke Canyon again. The Coeur d'Alene Evening Press reported 20 killed by a huge snow slide. "More than 300 people have been hard at work all day looking for the dead.

"It is known that there are at least twenty-five more under the snow and it is believed that all of these must be dead also." The newspaper said all the wires were down and that the reports were from people coming from the scene.

Nearby Mace also was hard hit. "Three box cars containing section men in the employ of Northern Pacific were standing on the sidetracks, when the slide occurred. More are supposed to have lost their lives," the paper said, noting that people in the canyon were warned the day before the tragedy, "but none seemed to take heed."

The havoc continued for days as the snow continued to melt. "The water is eating its way through the snow and winding rapidly to the valley below," the paper continued. "The streets of Mace and Burke are raging torrents of water."

Another avalanche swooped down on the boarding house at the Custer Mine a few miles away. Of Custer's 40 miners, one shift was at work below when the disaster hit, while the rest were eating in the house. Six were killed and more injured.

People from Wallace rushed to help: "Hardware merchants opened their establishments and shovels were had for the asking.

"Every able-bodied man in Wallace that was possible to secure has hurried to the scene. Fire bells clanged to get out the populace and there will be no rest until the victims are brought out, dead or alive."

Then on Aug. 20, the Great Fire of 1910 swept across a huge swath of North Idaho - including Burke Canyon - and parts of Washington and Montana. It was the biggest fire in American history - burning three million acres, and killing 87 people.

Burke and its neighboring mining camps rebuilt after the fire and mining continued. But in the years that followed, smaller mines closed or were gobbled up by larger ones. Eventually, all began to peter out, and by 1991 the last mine closed and the people moved away.

An interesting footnote to this sad story is that some of the early owners of the Hercules Mine in Burke were among Idaho's most colorful historic personalities:

May Arkwright Hutton was a leader in the suffragette movement bringing the vote to women in Idaho and eventually the rest of the nation. She started in the Silver Valley as a cook and boarding house owner for miners. Then she became a wealthy mine owner herself when the Hercules struck it rich.

Harry Orchard was convicted of assassinating ex-Gov. Steunenberg as union revenge for calling in the Army to quell the mining wars.

Radical labor organizer and socialist Ed Boyce invested early in the Hercules Mine, later becoming president of the Western Federation of Miners. He left the unions, spending the rest of his life as a prominent hotelman in Portland, Ore.

In the old days, the narrow Burke valley reverberated with the cacophony of bustling mining life on the frontier. Today, only the wind and sounds of distant wildlife break the tranquility of nature, now taking back what it once owned.

The people are gone, the train tracks hauled away and cabins abandoned. By 1954, the Tiger Hotel was torn down and - like the rest of Burke Canyon - is just a memory.

Syd Albright is a writer/journalist/biographer living in Post Falls. He is chairman of the Kootenai County Historic Preservation Commission. Contact him at

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