Mining has a long and storied history in Idaho. Today, major companies such as Thompson Creek Metals (molybdenum) and Hecla Mining (silver) are active in Idaho, following on a history that dates back to the 1860s. In the Fall of 1860, a party of ten prospectors led by Captain E.D. Pierce entered the Nez Perce Reservation in search of mineral wealth. After a month of frustration, one of the men, Wilbur Bassett, found what he’d been looking for - gold! Bassett’s discovery along Canal Gulch was far more significant than the Pierce party could have ever imagined. It was destined to set off one of the largest migrations in American history, and it would change forever this part of the country that would become known as Idaho.
As a result of this find, mining became Idaho’s first industry. Even today, more than 140 years after the discovery of gold, mining remains a keystone of the Idaho economy. Mining in Idaho has shaped the state’s political boundaries, built cities, and supplied the nation with minerals necessary for today’s modern lifestyle which many of us take for granted. The history of mining in Idaho is as colorful as the metal that first drew thousands of fortune seekers to the Gem State. It’s a history of golden dreams and silver linings.
Six months after Wilbur Bassett’s discovery of gold, 1600 claims had been staked along Canal Gulch, and Pierce City was growing by hundreds of fortune seekers a day. They came from Sacramento, San Francisco, and Vancouver. Their migration up the Columbia and Snake Rivers caused Idaho to be one of only two states to be settled west to east. The Idaho gold rush also attracted merchants who set up a supply center at Lewiston. In 1863, the Idaho Territory was created and the tent city of Lewiston became the capital. As the gold along Canal Creek panned out, prospectors worked their way south and east to find rich gravel beds in the Salmon River country. Ten thousand miners poured into the Florence Basin in the summer of 1862, and, for a time, the district was producing over $600,000 worth of gold a day based on modern prices.
1862 also marked the discovery of the most significant gold mining district in Idaho, the Boise Basin. In the Boise Basin, it soon became obvious that a single miner, working his claim alone with a pan or sluice box, was not profitable. Partnerships were then formed, ditches were dug and water from higher elevations was brought thundering into the basin with enough force to literally move mountains. By 1863, Idaho City had a population of 6,200 and surpassed Portland as the largest city in the Northwest. The Boise Basin was soon overcrowded. Latecomers, finding all the good ground taken, fanned out in all directions. One party found gold along Jordan Creek in the Owyhee Mountains. There, Silver City became a boom town. Unlike many placer mining districts, the millions of dollars invested in Owyhee underground mines and mills would assure Silver City a long, if sometimes turbulent, future. In 1863, Boise City was founded along the old Oregon Trail as a supply center for the Boise and Owyhee mining districts. Two years later Boise became the territorial capital.
New mining and processing technology was rapidly turning migrant prospecting camps into stable mining towns. Old water-powered crushing machines were replaced with steam-driven stamp mills. The air-powered drill replaced chisel and hammer. Mules began doing men’s work underground. Large smelters were built near lead-silver lode discoveries at Bayhorse and Clayton along the Salmon River. In 1882, 180,000 bushels of charcoal were produced in primitive kilns to operate the smelters.
A reverse migration northward began in 1881 when Andrew Prichard struck gold along the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River. The rush was further fueled by the Northern Pacific Railroad which plastered the country with handbills promising free gold in North Idaho for the price of a ticket on the railroad. But there was very little gold, free or otherwise, to be found. Like the Owyhee district, the true wealth of the Coeur d’Alene was silver, hidden deep in the ground. The most notable discovery of this mineral was made in 1885 when Noah Kellogg, or his donkey as he would often tell people, located the Bunker Hill Mine.
Ore had to be shipped out of the district for processing. In 1887 a narrow gauge railroad was completed from the mines to the old mission at Cataldo. Paddle wheel riverboats took the ore from Mission Landing downstream, across Lake Coeur d’Alene to the railhead at Rathdrum, making the Coeur d’Alene River the highest navigable river in the world.
By 1890, the Northern Pacific tracks stretched through the Silver Valley and snaked up Canyon Creek to the boom town of Burke. Burke gained world-wide attention in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” as the town so narrow, merchants cranked their storefront awnings up for trains to pass. The Tiger Hotel straddled the tracks, and lodgers were regularly smoked out of their rooms when wood-burning locomotives passed underneath.
The fabulous Coeur d’Alene mining district has survived labor disputes, train wrecks, snow slides and politicians to become the richest proven silver mining district in the world. In 1985, the district mines produced their one billionth ounce of silver. The district has also produced vast amounts of lead, zinc, and copper. There are other impressive records in the Silver Valley. The Morning Star is one of the deepest mines in America. Bunker Hill ranks as America’s largest underground mine. And the Sunshine Mine was America’s richest silver mine, producing over 300 million ounces of silver, more than the entire output of Nevada’s famous Comstock Lode.