map of the mines of silver valley

A Century of Mining

Idaho was not yet a state when Noah Kellogg and his jackass discovered the rich outcroppings of silver ore in the mountains east of Lake Coeur d'Alene. In time, thousands of miners were hauling silver from deep below the surface.

In its heyday, there were nearly 100 mines operating throughout the length and breadth of Silver Valley, from Burke and Mullan and Wallace to Kellogg, Wardner and Pinehurst.

This was mining on a gigantic scale: more than one billion ounces of silver, 8 million tons of lead, and 3 million tons of zinc. The wealth generated here in the Coeur d'Alene mining district sustained Idaho and the nation through two World Wars. Workers in Shoshone County had the highest per capita income in the State.

One of the most important mines operating in the valley was Bunker Hill. The miners called it "Uncle Bunker." What made Bunker Hill so important was that it was more than a mine; it was also a zinc plant and a lead smelter. This allowed other mines in the area to save shipping costs and remain economically viable.

truck loading mining wasteBut there was a darker side to all this prosperity. One could see it in the rivers and on the landscape. Nearly 100 million tons of mining waste stretched to the old Cataldo mission and beyond. Lead, zinc, cadmium, mercury and arsenic -- a lot of this mining waste eventually landed at the bottom of Lake Coeur d'Alene, the state's second largest lake.

As early as 1900, farmers downstream from the mines realized that this new industry was no friend of theirs. Frequent spring floods pushed the noxious brew of mine tailings onto their fields, poisoning crops and livestock. The farmers sued, but the mining companies had the law on their side, at least in Shoshone county.

The south fork of the Coeur d'Alene river became a dead zone for fish. The lead tailings near the Cataldo Mission routinely poisoned some migrating waterfowl. Parents told their children to stay away from the river.

The Bag house fire

stacksIn 1973, a fire at the Bunker Hill smelter marked a pivotal turning point in the environmental history of Idaho. To get the metals out of the ore, you have to melt them. That's what the smelter does. A filtration system called the bag house filtered out the emissions, like lead oxide, before they could be released into the air. Lead oxide is the culprit in lead poisoning.

A fire in the bag house in 1973 damaged the ability to filter out the lead oxide. The management of Gulf Resources -- a Texas company which owned Bunker Hill at that time-- decided to continue running the smelter because the price of silver was up, knowing full well that there would be a tremendous increase in emissions of lead oxide out of the stacks.

"It was illegal what they did in 1973," says Earl Bennett, former State Geologist. "It's illegal now. And I don't think there's anybody mining related or not that would try to justify what they did." It's estimated that 40 to 60 tons of lead oxide per month were dumped out into the air, before the bag house was completely repaired, almost a year later.

"By the time of the bag house fire, Gulf Resources had taken over the Bunker Hill mine," noted historian Katherine Aiken, "and so it no longer had the kind of local connections it always had. People in Texas were making decisions, and I think that makes a huge difference."

In 1974 Panhandle Health district began testing the Silver Valley children for lead poisoning. What they found was pretty scary: some of the highest blood lead levels in the world. In children, even mild lead poisoning can have a permanent effect on attention and IQ levels.

The Sunshine mine disaster

closeup of statueIt's hard for most of us to imagine what it was like to be a silver miner back then. Sometimes you would travel for an hour just to get to your work station, located a mile or more below the surface. And then, one false move, one moment of inattention, and it could be your last.

To a miner, a rock burst miles underground seemed a more deadly and imminent health risk than the lead tailings above ground.

In May of 1972 the unthinkable happened. Fire broke out deep in the Sunshine mine, near Kellogg, trapping 93 miners far below the surface.

For one week the eyes of the world were transfixed on this remote region of idaho. When the smoke cleared, ninety one miners were dead, overcome by toxic fumes.

It was the worst workplace disaster in Idaho history, one of the worst in the nation, and it led to the creation of important safety reforms.

The mines close their doors

closed mineBy 1981 sinking silver prices had slipped below the break even point for most of the region's mines. Threatening to close its doors was a ploy mining companies had used before to get concessions. But this time it was for real. Bunker Hill closed up shop. The impossible had happened. Uncle Bunker was no more.

Two years later the Environmental Protection Agency declared Bunker Hill and the 21 square mile area around it a superfund site. Silver Valley, once the most prosperous region of Idaho, slipped into a deep, deep depression.

In 2005, several mines are again operating. Mining will probably never again be the main attraction in the Silver Valley, but as geologist Earl Bennett explains, "I'm like all the other geologists that have worked in this area. We all think there's much more there than has been mined so far. We think the Silver Elephant still sits in these hills out here."