Shoot-out In Burke Canyon

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The road running up Burke Canyon from the little town of Wallace in northern Idaho is not too heavily travelled these days. The town of Burke, where the pavement ends six miles from Wallace, still has a couple of saloons and a small general store, and the Union Pacific branch line that freights out ore from the big Hecla silver mine still shares with Burke’s one and only street a common right of way in the narrow cleft of the canyon. But still, the little mining town is only a weather-beaten relic of its days of glory.

 

However, if Burke no longer is booming, the town of Gem, a third of the way back down the canyon toward Wallace, is truly a ghost. Gone are the stores, the rooming houses, the dozen or so saloons that strove vainly to slake the thirst of roistering miners. All that’s left of Gem now are a few modest little houses tucked away between the highway and the railroad track, still occupied by miners. And up on the hillsides on both slopes of the canyon are the decaying remains of two abandoned mines.

These were the Frisco and the Gem. And here, on a July day in 1892, the canyon walls echoed to gunfire as union miners and company guards fought pitched battles. Here the explosion that flattened the Frisco Mill was to reverberate in the courts for years afterward. Here on that bloody day, six men were killed and dozens more wounded.

The shoot-out in Burke Canyon had vast implications for the embryonic struggles of organized labor. It was in fact the first violent confrontation between the men who worked in the western mines and the men who owned them. In the legal wrangling that ensued, a young attorney newly arrived in the state, one William Edgar Borah, first came to widespread public notice. One of the defendants that he prosecuted, George A. Pettibone, little more than a decade later was to be defended by Clarence Darrow in a famous case that was only a continuation of the war that erupted in Burke Canyon.

Yet for all its significance and its tragic toll of life, Burke Canyon seems to have been largely overlooked in the chronicles of nineteenth-century labor strife. Perhaps one reason is that these events in a remote mountain valley in the Idaho wilderness were eclipsed by a remarkably similar clash in the populous eastern part of the nation. That was the Homestead riot of July 5 and 6, just the week before, when a battle broke out between a bargeload of Pinkerton guards on the Monongahela River and striking union men who had seized the Homestead mill. Moreover, Homestead involved such famous titans as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, and it was relatively easy for eastern newspapers to cover. So perhaps the public was too preoccupied with this bloody fray to take much notice of its duplicate out in the wilds of Idaho. [See “Battle at Homestead” in the April, 1965, A MERICAN H ERITAGE .]

Communications being what they were in 1892, it’s not likely that the bloodshed on the Monongahela had any influence on the similar clash in Burke Canyon. It was simply a coincidence that both disputes boiled into tragic warfare the same week. But Homestead earned its historic niche in the annals of labor history along with Pullman and Haymarket Square, while Burke Canyon quickly faded from the headlines. Yet this gunfight in that embattled valley was to shape labor-management relations in the western mining camps right to the present day and alter the future careers of governors, senators, and labor leaders.

The Coeur d’Alene mining district, of which Burke Canyon is a part, was still raw frontier in 1892. The first gold had been discovered near Wallace little more than a decade earlier, and it led to a frenzied search for gold and silver that set prospectors burrowing into mountains all over the West. News of the Coeur d’Alêne discovery brought gold seekers on the run to stake out claims and establish such colorful names on the map as Deadman’s Gulch, Jackass Flat, Terror Gulch, Fourth of July Pass, and Silver Mountain. It also brought the inevitable camp followers to cater to the miners’ desires—such as Wyatt Earp, who set up a saloon in a tent at Eagle City, over the mountain from Burke.

Within a decade the claims had been proved, and by the early 90’s the mountains were yielding their treasure, while the Northern Pacific and Union Pacific had hastily thrown rails over the passes to ship out ore and bring in supplies. Prospectors still roamed the slopes seeking their fortunes, but the Coeur d’Alene was in business—and by this time it was big business. (Years after such fabled veins as the Comstock Lode had been worked out and abandoned, the Coeur d’Alene was going strong and today is still the nation’s foremost silver-producing area.)

In 1891 nine million dollars’ worth of ore and concentrates were shipped out of the district, and a quarter million dollars’ worth of gold bullion. Fortunes were being made—but not by the men who worked down in the mines. There were about three thousand of them by then, plus another five hundred common laborers. And they earned $3.50 a day for a nine-hour shift.