An idyllic ghost town readily accessible from I-90, Burke, Idaho—3,700 feet above sea level in the Coeur d’Alene Mountains —was once a crowded site of violence and intrigue. Rich ore strikes at nearby Wallace in the early 1880s lured prospectors northward into Burke Canyon, where they hit valuable silver and lead deposits. In 1888 railroad crews completed a narrow-gauge line to Burke, and within a few years smelters and stamp mills dotted the valley. The district soon drew hundreds of hopeful miners and entrepreneurs, including Wyatt Earp and brothers, who ran a tent saloon in nearby Eagle City.
Built in a constricted canyon a mere 300 feet wide at its narrowest, Burke had scant room for its expanding population. Shop owners reportedly had to raise their awnings to allow trains to pass. Space was at such a premium that the 150-room Tiger Hotel, built on the canyon floor in 1887, necessarily straddled the main stream, and the railroad ran through its lobby. “Only heavy sleepers were put in the rooms above the railroad tracks,” noted the Spokane (Wash.) Daily Chronicle.
The Tiger’s lobby was the heart of Burke, through which coursed the businessmen and miners that were the town’s lifeblood. In a typical day during the hotel’s 1890s heyday five trains ran through the lobby, and its attached boardinghouse served 1,200 meals.
Famous for its space-saving ingenuity, Burke is also infamous for violent clashes between striking miners and company guards in July 1892. Tensions had heated up when mine owners sought to break the strike by advertising in Midwestern newspapers for replacement workers. When groups of armed strikers met the newcomers, the owners hired Pinkerton guards to protect the replacements.
On the morning of July 11 replacement workers at Burke’s Frisco Mill noticed large numbers of armed union men gathering on the mountainside above them. Shots rang out, and a gun battle was soon raging. Unionists got the upper hand when they sent a boxful of stolen black powder careening down a flume into the four-story mine building, blowing it sky high. The replacement workers and guards raised the white flag, but the mine owners had the last word, expelling many strikers and prosecuting others. Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg declared martial law and sent hundreds of soldiers and national guardsmen into the canyon to keep the peace.
Violence erupted again in 1899 when, during another labor dispute, armed union miners seized a train in Burke and later dynamited the nearby Bunker Hill Mine. The violence in Burke Canyon was a precursor to similar episodes in Colorado, Montana, Nevada and Arizona.
While silver wealth continued to flow from the region, canyon residents suffered further trials. In February 1910 successive avalanches erased neighboring Mace and hammered Burke, killing at least 20 people in the cramped canyon. (See “Disaster at Burke Canyon,” by Robert C. Belyk, December 2010 Wild West.)
A 1923 fire destroyed the Tiger Hotel and much of Burke. When rebuilt, most buildings were set back from the tracks to allow trains more passing room.
The canyon yielded silver into the 1970s, though the volume steadily diminished. People drifted away, and in 1954 the Tiger Hotel was demolished.“Most of the single mine workers stay in Wallace and drive back and forth to work,” the Spokane Daily Chronicle explained. “But many an old-timer will breathe a nostalgic sigh at the passing of a famous old landmark.” Burke’s mines had all closed by 1991, but in 2012 the Star Mine reopened.
Burke’s population peaked at 1,400 in 1910. About 300 people live in the canyon today. In 2001 residents rejected a buyout offer from the Environmental Protection Agency, which has declared the canyon one of the most contaminated reaches of the Coeur d’Alene basin.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.