- Historic Sites
Shoot-out In Burke Canyon
The Idaho mine war broke into flame in 1892 and cast a glare with very long shadows
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
Regardless of who started it, the battle was quickly joined. Gunfire crackled back and forth across the canyon, but the miners soon found themselves at a disadvantage. The logged-off hillside left them exposed to the guards’ fire, while their foes could take shelter behind the protection of the ore mill.
The miners began circling around to a more sheltered position above the mill, from which a tramway ran down the hill into the building. Once there, they loaded a car with black powder, lit the fuse, and sent it careening down the track toward the mill. Luckily, the fuse was too short, and the load exploded before reaching the building, where it would have taken a heavy toll of life.
But this was war, and the miners weren’t concerned with humanitarian niceties. There was another way to get at the mill—a flume that connected with a penstock that supplied water. The miners shot the pipe full of holes to drain out the water, then sent another box of powder down the flume and into the penstock. This time they were successful. The building erupted into the sky in a shower of timber and debris.
One company man was killed in that explosion and seven others injured. The loss of life might have been far worse, except that the company forces by then had huddled into a newer mill structure away from the scene of the explosion. Here their situation rapidly became untenable as the miners concentrated their fire on this remaining stronghold. Soon a white flag fluttered up over the mine, and the volley of gunfire wound down to a sullen silence. Some sixty men filed out of the mine, carrying one of their dead (the body of the worker killed in the explosion was not found until the following day). Only about half of them were armed, but even if they all had been, they were considerably outnumbered.
Grim union guards marched their “prisoners” single file to the Gem union hall, which began to take on the look of a wartime hospital with its dead, wounded, and captive men.
Meanwhile, what was to be an even more deadly battle had broken out at the nearby Gem mine, on the opposite side of the canyon from the Frisco. Company men had thrown up barricades in front of the mine, leaving portholes through which riflemen could fire into the backs of the buildings across the creek that fronted on Gem’s single street. One of these buildings was Daxon’s saloon, a union hangout.
The battle of the Gem mine began as the shifts were changing at the break of day. Two men walked out of the mine toward their boarding house in Gem. As they were crossing a footbridge, shots rang out and one of them fell dead. The other ran back to the protection of the barricades. These shots signalled the outbreak of another fusillade.
Guards and nonunion workers crouched behind the shelter they had improvised and poured volleys of gunfire into the saloon, and wherever else a union man showed himself.
One of these “unionists” was a Pinkerton detective, Charles A. Siringo, who had infiltrated the union so successfully that he had been elected recording secretary of the Gem Miners’ Union. This had provided him excellent sources for the information that he relayed to company officials as the unions developed their strategy, but on this bloody Monday morning his situation had become distinctly uncomfortable. A union man had passed on to him a rumor that a spy had got into the union, and he ought to be burned at the stake. The miner didn’t know that he was in fact talking to the spy, but Siringo did, and he didn’t aspire to be another Joan of Arc.
During the night he had crawled under a platform to listen in on the conversation of union leaders and then had returned to his rooming house. When he was awakened by the shooting at the Frisco Mill, he decided it was time to abandon his disguise and join his true allies in the Gem mill. He had not proceeded very far before he was halted by a company guard, who told him that he would never get past Daxon’s saloon, where some fifty union men were firing on the mill and at anyone trying to leave or enter it.
Returning to his room at Mrs. Shipley’s lodgings, the resourceful detective sawed a hole in the floor, pulled a trunk across to cover it, and wriggled under the house. Like most western frontier towns, Gem made it possible for ladies to keep their hemlines unsoiled by providing an elevated wooden walkway along the dusty road. Using the walk as cover, Siringo wriggled his way toward the mill. Overhead, he heard union men cursing the poor shooting quality of their rifles—and speculating about the spy in their midst. A bunch of them broke off and headed for the Shipley home after this discussion, and Siringo put more speed into his movement in the opposite direction. He finally reached another saloon bordering the walk, with room enough to crawl beneath it to a point where he had only to make a short dash to reach the safety of the mill.
Most of Gem’s women and children had fled town as this second battle of the day raged. This time it was the union men who were finally forced to run up the white flag, after three of their number had been killed. By then the sheriff, district attorney, and several state militia officers and United States marshals were on the scene to promote a truce.