- 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
Although the strikers had sought the cease-fire, time was running out for the company forces. They had only two dozen guns, and no hope of getting reinforcement. The union spokesmen gave a company official twenty minutes to surrender arms and withdraw all men from the mine—with a guarantee of their safe conduct out of town—or face the same fate that befell the Frisco Mill. (Siringo, meanwhile, had headed out of the back of the mill and into the hills; safe conduct or no, he had no appetite for the kind of welcome his former union colleagues would have given him.)
The arms captured from the Frisco and Gem mills, including two thousand rounds of ammunition, were loaded onto a handcar and started down the track to be placed in a bank vault in Wallace, guarded by one miner, one company man, and a federal marshal. But the deadly load hadn’t gone far before a mob of union men swarmed around it and hijacked the cargo at gunpoint. The arms might come in handy—there was still more to be done.
The miners now had forced the closure of the two biggest nonunion workings on Canyon Creek, at the cost of three of their own men. There remained the Bunker Hill mine at Wardner, eleven miles from Wallace.
After the uneasy truce had settled down over Gem, about a hundred miners boarded the train for Wallace, where they were met by hundreds more sympathizers. By nightfall squads of men were heading out of Wallace toward Wardner, accompanied by a wagonload of guns. Some of the hikers boarded two Northern Pacific freight cars, released the hand brakes, and made it to Wardner Junction the easy way by coasting downgrade.
By dawn on Tuesday, July 12, the hills around the Bunker Hill works seemed ready for a reprise of the Burke Canyon bloodshed. Armed men had already seized some of the mine’s outbuildings, and their guns were poised to fire at anyone entering or leaving the mine. Federal troops by then were camped at Cataldo, nine miles west. But the union forces warned that if the troops moved, the mill would be blown up. It would be blown up anyway if the scabs weren’t promptly marched out of there, they added.
With soldiers too far away to be of any help, the company didn’t have much choice. The crew was evacuated; so the union had now forced the closure of all the big nonunion mines.
By this time county sheriff Richard Cunningham, who earlier had stated airily that there was no trouble in his bailiwick that he couldn’t handle, and the county commissioners wired Governor Norman B. Willcy requesting troops to restore order. The Governor responded that the sheriff should first make full use of his civil power; so the beleaguered official dutifully called up a posse—only to find that the handful of men who answered his call were clearly inadequate against the inflamed mobs of miners.
Trouble was not yet over in the Coeur d’Alene. About 130 of the nonunion miners from the Frisco and Gem mines, along with a few local citizens who had incurred the union’s wrath, by this time had been loaded onto a train and taken to Cataldo Mission, where they got off to await a boat that would take them down Coeur d’Alene Lake and back to the more tranquil outside world. They were, of course, unarmed, having been relieved of their weapons in the surrender of the mines.
While they were huddled on the dock early Tuesday evening, a group of mounted men rode up to the crest of a hill that overlooked the site and, without warning, began firing into the group.
The shooting went down in local history as “the Mission Massacre,” but it was never proved that anyone was killed. However, at least seventeen were wounded, while the more fleet-footed escaped death or injury by heading for cover. When the boat finally docked at 1 A.M. , only fifteen men of the original 130 were left to board it. Most of the rest had decided by then that it was safer to walk thirty miles over the mountains to the town of Coeur d’Alene; and one man kept going all the way to Spokane.
Early Wednesday afternoon, July 13, funeral services for the three union men killed in the Gem battle took place in Wallace. The town band led the procession, and five hundred mourners shuffled behind the draped wagons. Shortly afterward, the procession for two of the nonunion casualties wended its grim way to the cemetery. There were no mourners, no band. Old-timers recall that the town of Wallace was so tense that day, that people were afraid to speak above a whisper.
But before the day was over, Governor Willey moved. He proclaimed that all of Shoshone County was in a state of rebellion and insurrection, and he placed it under martial law. Federal troops that had been poised in nearby army camps poured into Wallace and fanned out from there, until over one thousand soldiers were stationed in the county by the end of the week. Also arriving were newsmen from as far away as New York and San Francisco, deluging Wallace’s two harried telegraph operators with twenty thousand words a day.