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The Dynamite Express & Rough Roads of Idaho

Updated: Mar 17

I was just below the remote summit of Cooper Pass on the very western border of Montana, surrounded by dark emerald pines, rolling ahead attempting to cross into Idaho atop a steep layer of snow and ice. I gave the truck more throttle and watched the tires break loose and then spin around and around... I was so close. The ghost town of Burke was on the other side of the mountain, and I had wanted to make it there before dark. The GPS was reading 5,820 feet which must've been a little generous since reception was hindered by the thick cover of the towering timber. They had begun to close in on the camper and block off the sunlight, making me feel almost like I was riding a mining cart through a tunnel. The actual summit of the pass is at 5,790 feet, and I was sure the crest was just beyond the scope of my gaze. A part of me wanted to keep trying to lug my 6-ton home up and over, but eventually better judgment prevailed. Deciding it was not worth the risk of sliding off the mountain truck and all, I began to very slowly and carefully back down the road, making sure to maintain a small amount of momentum and not stop suddenly, increasing the risk of a slide. Now I would have to find another way.


Eventually I came to a wider spot in the road where I was able to execute a careful many-point turn to get myself pointed forward down the mountain. My detour would be upon "highway" 471, which was itself still technically a forest service development road with its own set of switchbacks and quirks here and there. It eventually took me over Thompson Pass, just to the north of Cooper on the border. The further west I went, the thicker the snow was getting, and Idaho roads are the roughest and toughest I've seen across the western United States. Soon I spotted the sign for the tiny mining town of Murray, which didn't consist of much more than a few dozen houses, some older shops in need of some TLC, a fuel station/general store, and the Sprag Pole Museum. I pulled off the road and onto the small central street, rolling to a stop in front of the museum. Strolling up to the door, I quickly realized it was closed, likely for the whole winter season. There was plenty of old iron and mining equipment outside on display, half hidden by snow but holding up to the harsh year-round weather season after season with little change to show after nearly 100 years.



Leaving Murray I continued on down 471, going east into Idaho to find Burke on the other side, in an attempt to keep my dirt road journey across the west as close to on-route as possible. This had led me to connect up with Coeur d'Alene River Road below Prichard Peak and turn south, then continue south on NF Development Road 456 down through Pioneer Gulch to meet up with Ninemile Creek. From there I followed it all the way into Wallace, which was the only town of any note anywhere around in that part of the northern Idaho mountains. The road continued to wind through wild forests, themselves still adjusting to the transition of the seasons with the first snow now fallen. The temperature warmed significantly as midday approached, allowing the precipitation to melt back towards fall for a few brief hours.


Eventually the pines and glances of rock beneath the snowy edges of the road gave way to wider concrete shoulders and signs for a junction with I-90 itself, way out there in the middle of nowhere. I rolled on forward under an overpass into town, spotting a gas station and a large historical exhibit. I pulled in and parked, and I noticed something sort of towering over the town—it was the highway itself. Elevated on great concrete pillars, buildings and the streets of town sat below it undisturbed. It turns out that a few blocks of downtown itself are on the National Register of Historic Places. The residents fought construction for years before getting their town officially preserved. Built mostly in the early 1890's, there are a variety of structures, mostly made of brick or stone in late Victorian and a variety of other turn-of-the century styles. It was a nice town nestled among mountains, and I walked around for a half hour or so admiring the old buildings and winter charm of the town.




Additionally, I stopped by the big exhibit on the edge of town, talking about mining history in the area as well as the Great Fire of 1910, which burned more than 3,000,000 acres in the span of only a couple days. It is considered one of the largest fires in US history, but thankfully there were heroes like Ed C. Pulaski, who led his 45-man team into an old mine tunnel in order to attempt to spare them from the blaze. Ed ended up saving all but five of his men and would go on to create the Pulaski firefighting tool to help wildland firefighters ward off their adversaries for generations to come.


Turning onto Rt. 4 out of Wallce, I was bound for Burke to see the other side of Cooper Pass one way or another and connect up with my path where I'd been stopped near the top. Headed east now, I followed the burke road as it sliced through the rough, dark rock, making a path ahead up into Humboldt Gulch. Going through the settlement of Gem with just a few buildings, I pushed on to my first brief stop at Frisco. Frisco Mill was one of the larger mines back in the 1880s. In 1892, its unionized silver miners walked off the job in protest of poor working conditions and long hours. To solve the problem of the pesky strike, the mine owners brought in new workers as well as the infamous Pinkerton detectives as guards to look out for the new workers. This action stoked the flames of the striking miners, and eventually the pot boiled over when shots rang out at Frisco Mill on July 11th, 1892.


Miners were firing at detectives, and the detectives were shooting right back at the miners in the narrow canyon with rock all around. Shots must've been bouncing off the shale cliffs left and right, adding a level of confusion to the already chaotic scene. A few miners even went as far as to drop explosives of some sort down the exhaust flume of the four-story mine building, blowing it to kingdom come and killing one man in the process. With wood splintered all around and the number of casualties growing, the Pinkertons finally surrendered to the striking miners. They were victorious for a short time, but soon the governor of Idaho sent in troops and declared martial law, beginning a year-long occupation of the narrow gulch. Before the century ended, President McKinley would be sending in the United States Army itself to squash the pandemonium occurring in the Bitteroots of Western Idaho in 1899.


Frisco Mill before and after the explosion

Photo Courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library


These days, there is not much at the site of Frisco Mill since it came about early enough that most of its structures were made of wood. There were a few walls and pieces of ruins still standing, but nothing substantial that I could see through the thin snow. Continuing up the canyon, it began to get narrower and narrower with each settlement I passed, including Black Bear and Cornwall, before I reached Burke itself. It was only about 7 miles from Wallace, but it sure felt a lot more remote than that, being surrounded by the walls of the canyon and tucked into the rocks like it was. The town of Burke sprang up in the 1880s, supporting the zinc, lead, and silver mining in that part of the canyon. At its narrowest point, the canyon was merely 300 feet wide; therefore, everything in the gulch was crammed together. The train tracks ran right on Main Street itself, and businesses had to pull in their awnings every time the trains came through town!


The Tiger Hotel was built in that narrow canyon in 1888 by S. S. Glidden, and it was a very unique hotel; the trains as well as a creek ran right through the establishment itself! It must've been quite the scene in that lobby since the town's only road passed through as well. Horses, steam, and rushing mountain water were all elements available to the senses in that bustling lobby back in the heart of the 1890's. Perhaps passengers could even do some trout fishing right there while they waited for their train.



In 1899, another labor dispute broke out when one mine, Bunker Hill, continued to refuse to recognize the local union, the Western Federation of Miners. This struck fear in the miners, since they worried that other mines may soon follow suit. As a result, the train in Burke was taken by force under the command of the union miners. They stopped at each of the half dozen settlements down the gulch, continuing to load on more men and around 80 cases of dynamite, each containing around 50 pounds of the stuff, giving the train its nickname, the "Dynamite Express." Soon after reaching Wallace, another 200 men were loaded on, and the train steamed on through the mountains to the Bunker Hill Mine. Most workers at the mine fled when they saw the train arrive with its thousand or so armed union miners.


Many of the men were armed and masked, and it was said that some performed with a military-like level of precision and coordination. Then, they moved the dynamite quickly into the massive concentrator structure at Bunker Hill and blew it to smithereens, killing two men in the explosion. Additionally, company offices and several homes of company men were destroyed in the blast. There was mangled wood, iron, and rubble everywhere, yet a new, more efficient concentrator was built as a replacement within the span of a few months. Afterwards, the rebellious miners casually boarded the train and headed back to their camps. The governor was almost immediately calling for federal troops, and they were brought in by the hundreds by order of President McKinley to settle the unrest once and for all. Over a thousand arrests were made, many being normal men with little to no association with the mines at all, including the local sheriff and two commissioners of Shoshone County. They were thrown in makeshift prisons referred to as the bullpen while their cases were sorted out over the next year or so.


As for the remains of the town of Burke today, the Tiger Hotel unfortunately closed its doors in 1954 and burned down, leaving its layout and loud lobby lost to the sands of time. There are still some substantial stone and brick-mining structures standing along the mountainside to the south. Some are multiple stories and look like they had perhaps been built a bit more recently, which may be true given the fact that the last mine in the area closed in 1991. These days, the pines and critters are encroaching upon the edges of that narrow gash in the earth, and the signs of industry and occupation by thousands are slowly fading in the winter wind.


Going past Burke now, I wound my way past an old cemetary and piles of rusty mining equipment and back into the thick pines where I was near Cooper Pass after just a few moments. That side of the pass was a little less steep, with a wider path, but there was definitely more snow. At one point, I was spinning all four tires, working my steering wheel back and forth, searching for traction, but luckily it was soon found. I glanced at the map and saw I was just on the other side of my track for a number of hours before trying to cross the pass from the Montana side. I had made it to the other side, even if it had taken me a day. I'd also managed to learn some turbulent western mining history along the way.












Sources:


Hibbard, Don. “Wallace Historic District .” National Register of Historic Places , National Park Service.


The Great Fire of 1910, USDA - Forest Service.


“Burke Historical Marker.” Historical Marker, CeraNet Cloud Computing, 6 Oct. 2018,


"Welcome to Frisco Mine Site" Marker, Panhandle Health District, Idaho Dept. of Environmental Quality


Ugc. “Burke Ghost Town.” Atlas Obscura, 2 Nov. 2018,


Mining Industry, Violence, Frisco Mill, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, 1892. 1892.


Criscione, Wilson. “1899 | LAST STOP FOR THE DYNAMITE EXPRESS!” Inlander, 15 Feb. 2018.


McCune, Matt. “Bunker Hill and the Sullivan Mill Explosion.” Intermountain Histories, University of Idaho, www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/118.





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