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Shoot-out In Burke Canyon

July 2024
16min read

The Idaho mine war broke into flame in 1892 and cast a glare with very long shadows

The road running up Burke Canyon from the little town of Wallace in northern Idaho is not too heavily travelled these days. The town of Burke, where the pavement ends six miles from Wallace, still has a couple of saloons and a small general store, and the Union Pacific branch line that freights out ore from the big Hecla silver mine still shares with Burke’s one and only street a common right of way in the narrow cleft of the canyon. But still, the little mining town is only a weather-beaten relic of its days of glory.


However, if Burke no longer is booming, the town of Gem, a third of the way back down the canyon toward Wallace, is truly a ghost. Gone are the stores, the rooming houses, the dozen or so saloons that strove vainly to slake the thirst of roistering miners. All that’s left of Gem now are a few modest little houses tucked away between the highway and the railroad track, still occupied by miners. And up on the hillsides on both slopes of the canyon are the decaying remains of two abandoned mines.

These were the Frisco and the Gem. And here, on a July day in 1892, the canyon walls echoed to gunfire as union miners and company guards fought pitched battles. Here the explosion that flattened the Frisco Mill was to reverberate in the courts for years afterward. Here on that bloody day, six men were killed and dozens more wounded.

The shoot-out in Burke Canyon had vast implications for the embryonic struggles of organized labor. It was in fact the first violent confrontation between the men who worked in the western mines and the men who owned them. In the legal wrangling that ensued, a young attorney newly arrived in the state, one William Edgar Borah, first came to widespread public notice. One of the defendants that he prosecuted, George A. Pettibone, little more than a decade later was to be defended by Clarence Darrow in a famous case that was only a continuation of the war that erupted in Burke Canyon.

Yet for all its significance and its tragic toll of life, Burke Canyon seems to have been largely overlooked in the chronicles of nineteenth-century labor strife. Perhaps one reason is that these events in a remote mountain valley in the Idaho wilderness were eclipsed by a remarkably similar clash in the populous eastern part of the nation. That was the Homestead riot of July 5 and 6, just the week before, when a battle broke out between a bargeload of Pinkerton guards on the Monongahela River and striking union men who had seized the Homestead mill. Moreover, Homestead involved such famous titans as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, and it was relatively easy for eastern newspapers to cover. So perhaps the public was too preoccupied with this bloody fray to take much notice of its duplicate out in the wilds of Idaho. [See “Battle at Homestead” in the April, 1965, A MERICAN H ERITAGE .]

Communications being what they were in 1892, it’s not likely that the bloodshed on the Monongahela had any influence on the similar clash in Burke Canyon. It was simply a coincidence that both disputes boiled into tragic warfare the same week. But Homestead earned its historic niche in the annals of labor history along with Pullman and Haymarket Square, while Burke Canyon quickly faded from the headlines. Yet this gunfight in that embattled valley was to shape labor-management relations in the western mining camps right to the present day and alter the future careers of governors, senators, and labor leaders.

The Coeur d’Alene mining district, of which Burke Canyon is a part, was still raw frontier in 1892. The first gold had been discovered near Wallace little more than a decade earlier, and it led to a frenzied search for gold and silver that set prospectors burrowing into mountains all over the West. News of the Coeur d’Alêne discovery brought gold seekers on the run to stake out claims and establish such colorful names on the map as Deadman’s Gulch, Jackass Flat, Terror Gulch, Fourth of July Pass, and Silver Mountain. It also brought the inevitable camp followers to cater to the miners’ desires—such as Wyatt Earp, who set up a saloon in a tent at Eagle City, over the mountain from Burke.

Within a decade the claims had been proved, and by the early 90’s the mountains were yielding their treasure, while the Northern Pacific and Union Pacific had hastily thrown rails over the passes to ship out ore and bring in supplies. Prospectors still roamed the slopes seeking their fortunes, but the Coeur d’Alene was in business—and by this time it was big business. (Years after such fabled veins as the Comstock Lode had been worked out and abandoned, the Coeur d’Alene was going strong and today is still the nation’s foremost silver-producing area.)

In 1891 nine million dollars’ worth of ore and concentrates were shipped out of the district, and a quarter million dollars’ worth of gold bullion. Fortunes were being made—but not by the men who worked down in the mines. There were about three thousand of them by then, plus another five hundred common laborers. And they earned $3.50 a day for a nine-hour shift.

But as the year 1892 opened, they weren’t even getting that. For the Mine Owners’ Association by then had become embroiled in a dispute with the railroads over freight rates. The carriers had raised rates two dollars a ton the year before, boosting the shipping costs by about fifty dollars a carload. When the mine owners were unable to negotiate a lower rate with the railroads, they simply shut down their mines, declaring they would ship out no more ore until the railroads came to terms.


The impasse dragged on through the winter and into spring, with the miners the innocent victims of this dispute between warring capitalists. By early April the railroads had come around. But now a new element entered the picture. The owners announced they would need two thousand men to open the mines, and former employees would be given preference. But they also added an hour to the shift, offering $3.50 per day for ten hours’ work instead of nine—for miners. The pay for carmen and shovellers would be cut to three dollars per day. The men could have Sunday off if they insisted, except in pumping mines—where the workweek would be seventy hours.

So now the impasse in the mines took on a new dimension. During the preceding year or two the miners had decided that in union there is strength—particularly in labor unions. Each mine or town now had its own union, very loosely confederated into the Central Miners’Union a forerunner of the Western Federation of Miners, whose officers Clarence Darrow would be defending fifteen years later.

All through that uneasy spring the union miners stayed home. They had other grievances besides the pay cut. When the mines were working, about a third of their wages went for board and room in company lodging. Company-owned stores took more of their pay. Even the saloons, where checks were seldom cashed at par, usually were owned by mine officials. But first and foremost, the union demanded $3.50 per day for every man who went into the mines, whether miner or common laborer.

At first the owners retaliated by announcing they would keep the mines shut until June. When that didn’t bring the miners around, they launched a new tactic, one that was easily available to them in those days. They simply advertised in the Midwest for help. Soon every inbound train was bringing in scabs from as far away as Michigan and Wisconsin. But they didn’t come in without incident. Reception committees of armed unionists took to meeting every train, a type of welcome that induced some of the newcomers to catch the next train back home.

The owners responded by hiring armed guards to escort their new employees from the station to the mines. One trainload of seventy-three men who arrived at Burke in May from Duluth was escorted to the ironically named Union Mine by sixty armed guards. Gradually, the mines resumed work through May and June, manned by imported labor, protected by Pinkerton men and husky youths from eastern Washington wheatlands, while the unions and mine owners fired salvos of propaganda at each other in the region’s newspapers.

Neither side showed any indication of backing down. Angered by the continued resistance, the owners declared they would not rehire any former employees unless they promised to quit the union. More and more scabs were imported, including a big contingent from California. Tempers grew ever more edgy, ultimatums were issued by both sides and as regularly ignored, arrests for brawling and carrying deadly weapons were frequent. Two of the mines broke ranks to reopen with union help, and as a result their owners were ostracized by their fellow employers. But the big Gem and Frisco mines in Burke Canyon now were operating full-scale with nonunion men, and their continued defiance was a bone in the new union’s throat.

By early July an inevitable showdown loomed. As more and more nonunion men had come into the mines, they had grown bolder, and instead of ducking away from abuse by the strikers they were more inclined to fight back. Fist fights between strikers and scabs became ever more frequent, and occasionally guns were wielded as well.

Such was the situation on Sunday night, July 10, as union men began gathering at Gem. There was an ominous tension in the town, like the mugginess that portends a thunderstorm. It was no chance gathering. Every train brought in more miners from the surrounding towns of Wallace, Mullan, and Burke. And they were carrying rifles, shotguns, and revolvers.

As the sun rose over Burke Canyon on Monday morning, the hillsides overlooking the Frisco mine were speckled with union men, guns at the ready. Down at the mine a few guards uneasily paced the dump at a tunnel entrance, trying to make out the shadowy shapes on the hillside in the early morning light. An ominous silence hung over the canyon.

This silence was shattered at 5 A.M. by the crack of a rifle. The strikers later claimed the shooting started when guards fired on a union man who was walking too close to mine property. The guards said the unionists fired the first shots to scare them off the dump.

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.

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.

Military officers swept aside the sheriff and began making wholesale arrests. The Wallace schoolhouse was converted into a guardhouse, and nearly four hundred men were packed in there before the action was over. Many of these were quickly dismissed, but it would be another year before the courts could process all the cases that flooded their dockets.

And so the battle of Burke Canyon ended, with a toll of six dead, dozens wounded, and a mill destroyed.

Yet, in another sense that battle was only the opening of a long and bitter war. Rightly or wrongly, the men who worked the mines reasoned that violence was their only recourse to achieve what they construed as justice. The frontier West was, of course, geared to this philosophy. Every mining camp had its boot hill. But beyond that, the courts, the police, the troops—all were allied with the employers against the employees. The union men who fired the opening salvos in Burke Canyon were the front ranks of a movement that was to challenge this domination and eventually break it.

But that was still far in the future, and now in mid-July of 1892 the mountains around Wallace were full of union men who had fled to escape arrest by the troops. One of these was George A. Pettibone.

Pettibone had been appointed justice of the peace at Gem the year before, and promptly showed his sympathies by levying maximum sentences against any company guards so injudicious as to retain their sidearms when they dropped by a saloon for a drink. And no wonder—Pettibone also was the first president of the local miners’ union.

He was among the group that sent the powder down the flume to blow up the Frisco Mill, and in fact suffered an injured hand in the resulting explosion. Thereafter he took to the hills and ranked high on the list of indicted men sought by the troops.

When Pettibone eventually was caught and brought to trial, charged with dynamiting the mill, the prosecutor was an attorney newly arrived in Idaho from Kansas, William E. Borah. He was later to be appointed by the state legislature to the United States Senate, in part because of the statewide fame that came to him from the Pettibone trial. One of the points in the defense of a charge that union men commandeered a freight train during the shoot-out was that they could not have stayed atop a train going at the alleged speed. Borah ordered out a train, climbed on the roof, and clung to it before the fascinated eyes of the court. Pettibone and his accomplices were convicted, and Pettibone was sent to jail for eight months.

There was another aftermath of the Burke Canyon battle that was forecast by the editor of the Wallace Free Press , who had staunchly upheld the union cause from the beginning. But he commented editorially after the shoot-out: “However bitter the controversy between capital and labor may be, labor always gets a further setback by resorting to arms and bloodshed. Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword, is an old proverb, and labor is not trained in that school.”

The warning was prophetic. Public opinion recoiled against union men blowing up mills, resorting to armed warfare, seizing railroads, and committing such unprovoked assaults as the Mission Massacre. However justified their grievances, union miners were stigmatized for years afterward as wild-eyed radicals who would balk at no terrorism to win.

Seven years later, as the Gay Nineties were drawing to a close, warfare again erupted in the Coeur d’Alêne. This time the big Bunker Hill mill was blown up; and six years later Frank Steunenberg, who as governor of Idaho at the time had infuriated the miners by subsequent wholesale arrests and imprisonment, was killed by an assassin’s bomb. This was the case that brought Clarence Darrow to Boise, Idaho, as defense attorney for three Western Federation of Miners officials accused of instigating the crime. One of these officials was George A. Pettibone (the others were William “Big Bill” Haywood and Charles H. Moyer). And once again the counsel arrayed against Pettibone included Borah.

The trial dragged on for eighty days, ending in acquittal for the defendants and more national fame for Darrow. His victory at Boise set off wild rejoicing among the miners and their supporters. It by no means marked the end of labor-management warfare in the western mines; but it did give enormous impetus to the struggling young labor union, which eventually was to become the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers of today.

And, in a sense, it all began in Burke Canyon on that bloody July morning in 1892.


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