By Doris J. Woodward
Above, settlements along Burke Canyon with outhouses over the creek, circa 1880s. Photo courtesy of Butch Jacobson, provided by Tony and Suzanne Bamonte.
Heading northeast from Wallace, Idaho, a road winds into the mountains and follows Canyon Creek past what remains of Gem and Mace and Burke, places almost forgotten in time. Today there are only scatterings of buildings along the narrow floor of the canyon, but some of the once handsome and well-built buildings of the Hecla mine still exist. They stand as a silent sentinel and reminder of the spectacular mining activity that took place in this area beginning over a hundred years ago.
The still beautiful canyon was, for many years, an Indian trail over which the Spokane, Coeur d’Alene and Flathead tribes traveled between Montana and the Coeur d’Alene River. It had several streams that abounded in trout. By the 1880s, white men began to appear in the area, mostly as prospectors in search of gold, but it was not long before they realized that the future was going to be in silver and lead. The pristine nature of the canyon was about to end.
By 1884, a year before the Bunker Hill & Sullivan find, the first silver/lead lode was discovered in Canyon Creek by Frank Seymour and John Carton, who bonded it to John M. Burke. It was soon acquired by S. S. Glidden, who retained a four-fifths interest in it with Burke. It became known as the Tiger mine. Initially Glidden had to overcome many difficulties, as the mine could only be reached from Murray over a trail that was nearly impassable in winter, and it was located 30 miles from Thompson Falls, Montana, the nearest railroad point. In order to pay for the necessary operating and shipping costs, Glidden realized the necessity of concentrating the ore on site and, by building new roads and repairing old ones, was able to bring in the machinery necessary to build the first concentrating camp in the country. Glidden’s road to Thompson Falls was initially a toll road to compensate for the cost of building it.
Prior to this time a narrow gauge railroad had been built from the Cataldo Mission to Wardner, and plans were underway to continue the road to Wallace. Glidden had the foresight to build a narrow gauge railroad from Wallace to Burke. It was opened in December 1887 with a celebration in Mr. Glidden’s honor. This resulted in an important new route for getting the ore from the Canyon Creek mines, the first ever to be shipped from the Coeur d’Alene district.
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Early Description of Burke
It was not long before Burke became an important town. It was organized on June 13, 1885, when the name “Burke” was decided upon, in recognition of John M. Burke. By 1885 Burke had a population of about 800 and was larger than Wallace. Three years later Burke could boast of 300 buildings. The Burke Fire Company was organized that year, and the South Fork Lead and Silver Company constructed a concentrator, as did the Granite Mine Company. The year 1888 also saw the organization of the Burke Water Power Company, and a branch county jail was built. The town was well on its way to becoming an important factor in the Coeur d’Alene mining district. Further impetus was given to the growth of Burke by the consolidation of the Tiger and Poorman mines in 1895. Prior to that time, from 1897 to 1894, the Poorman had been owned and operated by Patsy Clark.
Two other major events, unheralded at the time, were to have an enormous impact on the town of Burke. Captain Norton had located the Hecla mine on May 5, 1885 and struck ore in 1888. During the same years, Harry, Jerome and Gene Day, along with August Paulsen, Frank Rothrock, Al Hutton and Dan Carten, had begun operation of the Hercules mine. These were events of extreme significance to the Canyon Creek area and the future of Burke was assured. Other mines began production as well during these years, such as the Galena, the Standard, the Custer and the Mammoth, as well as countless others, some successful and some long since forgotten.
Down the road toward Wallace, the towns of Mace and Gem were formed, primarily around mine sites. Neither became of as much importance as Burke, but the mines were. The Gem, the Helena-Frisco and the Big Bear mines were to feature prominently in future mining and labor problems.
The town of Burke was keeping pace. Within a few years it consisted of four general stores, a beer hall, two boarding houses, two hardware stores, a fruit and confectionery store, a butcher store, a livery stable, a doctor and a physician, a furniture store, and 17 saloons. The first school was built in 1888; the first church in 1895. It was a Catholic church, and the first priest was Father Dwyer, an uncle of the wife of Hercules mine owner Harry Day.
Not to be forgotten is the Canyon Creek Railroad. In fact, Burke had the distinction of being the only mining town that had a railroad before it had a wagon road. At one time the Northern Pacific and the Union Pacific had two sets of tracks going through town, but the two railroads finally agreed to share the same tracks, and Burke was able to spread out a little.
There was actually never room in the canyon for both railroad tracks and a road, so wagons (and later, automobiles) were obligated to drive on the railroad right-of-way and to get out of the way when a train was coming. U-turns in Burke were never illegal, for the simple reason that they were impossible. The only way a car could go in the opposite direction was to go to the end of the only street to turn around. Trains were frequent, as they carried ore out of Burke daily, and during times of heavy snow, were also used to plow and to transport excess snow out of town. Passenger trains ran between Burke and Wallace several times daily, and on Saturday nights, the last train left Wallace about 11:00 to bring the revelers back to Burke. It was known as the “drunk train.”
On September 2, 1891, in the Review, columnist James H. Sullivan wrote in glowing terms about the town of Burke and its residents. He remarked about the “blessing of peace and prosperity, which I … attribute to the gentlemanly bearing and wise counsel of one of her most worthy citizens, Mr. Simon Haley, superintendent of its chief mine, the Poorman.” He mentioned other prominent men who took an active part in promoting the welfare of Burke and also dramatically described the life of the miner: “600 feet under ground, moving with light in hand and in obedience to orders and discipline through the different tunnels … extracting the rich silver and lead ore.” He added: “The dazzling glare of city life, profound and infusive, attracts us not.”
Mr. Sullivan’s account of the expenses of the Poorman Mine is an excellent overview of the financial problems that beset these early mine owners:
- a thousand cords of wood were consumed per month, a cost of about $4,500;
- a 4500-pound pump with a capacity of 500 gallons of water cost $7,000 in Chicago;
- offsetting these expenses, an expected yield of 200 tons of crude ore per day and yielding from 40 to 42 tons of concentrate, produced a value of $40 per ton at 1891 prices.
There was certainly money to be made, more than compensating them for the cost of production.