Note – I originally sketched out this post this back in 2011, fully expecting to do the research needed to finish it up in the next few weeks, then completely forgetting about it until a few days ago. D’oh! Well, I finally had time for the research and truly enjoyed “revisiting” this amazing spot virtually. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it too.
07-03-2011 We left Wallace early Sunday morning, taking an inconspicuous road underneath the freeway and further up into the hills. Our destination was Burke Idaho, a mining town that was mainly ghosts and a few current residents who were willing to put up with possible landslides and collapsing mines to revel in the rugged beauty of this place (or the cheap land costs).
We rode through little hamlets with hopeful names like Sunshine and and Gem, rolling to a stop in front of the monolithic structures of the defunct Hecla Mines. Eerie even in the bright morning sunshine, these huge brick and cement structures just begged to be explored, but newly erected fencing and multitudes of “No Trespassing” signs (along with our own need for self preservation) keep us on the right side of the fence. But I’m getting ahead of myself here, let’s go back a few years to see what this place is all about.
Back at the turn of the last century, Burke was a major industrial complex squeezed into a tiny ravine, creating the need for interesting architecture. The town’s hotel had the train running through the lobby, and the river running underneath. Since we’re talking the steam train era here, I would imagine that lower floor rooms directly above the train tracks weren’t exactly coveted.
On the plus side, there was the convenience factor of getting on and off the train right in the hotel lobby.
Today as we look up at the steep hillsides surrounding the skinny road through town, you don’t think of terms like “nestled” or “snuggled” as much as you think of “trapped” or “cornered”.
Unfortunately not much is left now of the town proper, due in equal parts to fire and ice. If it wasn’t a winter avalanche rushing down to break up buildings and crush bones…
…it was a summer fire that turned buildings to rubble and added more crosses to the cemetery. Burke was just a regular old wood shanty mining town until a dry day in July of 1923, when a fire did what fires normally do, and burned up pretty much the entire place.
Heckla Mining company wasn’t about to let their cash cow die in the embers, and rebuilt with brick and mortar. While they may not have found a great solution to the avalanche problem (other than, “don’t build there”), the owners of the Heckla Mines did figure out that bricks don’t burn as fast as wood, and their foresight is the only reason we’ve got anything left here to visit.
Other buildings in the valley didn’t fare so well when it came to time and gravity. The Tiger and Hercules were impressive structures in their day:
But have been reduced to semi-terrifying rubble today (no loud pipes, please).
Photos of the old town make me nostalgic until I realize how loud, chaotic, and smelly this place would be for us soft 21st-century mortals.
Speaking of smell, I’m sure the effluvia from the mines didn’t exactly smell of roses, but imagine the sanitary conditions here. I mean, we’re talking people living at the base of a ravine, it’s not like they’ve got room for septic drain fields. The original solution to this problem was strategic placement of outhouses…over the river. Sucks to be the guys downstream, doesn’t it?
Still, it’s pretty amazing to see how ingenious and tenacious people could be when there was money to be made. It’s obvious the only reason this town came into being is because there was silver and lead in the surrounding hills.
Although the mines were still going strong into the 1970’s, most of the town citizens had moved down the valley 8 miles to live in the quieter (and probably significantly less toxic) Wallace. Shops closed up and everything started a slow decay. Very few town structures still stand today, although there are occupied residences both above and below the mill along the river.
It’s easy to overlook these little shanties on the left side of the road though, because looming on the right is this: Pictures can’t do justice to the size of the Heckla mine buildings. You’ll get a better perspective when you realize the entrance/exit on the right isn’t for cars, but trains. That opening is more than 2 stories tall.
Up canyon from the Heckla mines the valley tightens even more, with the creek running right alongside the single-lane road, there are some inhabited homes up here, along with one final Heckla building, which was some sort of office. There’s also little nooks and crannies to explore, like this old auto shop built with railroad ties and complete with an open pit (filled with water). Some of the mine rail lines are still visible on the hillsides around town, most have been knocked askew by slides over the years but are still held together by the rails. Plenty of old bits and pieces are scattered about, which I’m happy to take photos of and leave for someone else to “discover” again. The tallest thing in this valley (besides the looming hillsides) is a lighting rod that was placed at the very top of the tallest tower at the Heckla. I wonder how long it will continue to keep the rest of this fragile spot safe? Or will an avalanche finally do it in?Heckla Mining Company is still in business, they’re running plenty of other shafts in the area and have looked at the Burke site as recently as 2012 to see if re-opening would be cost effective. Reports show there’s a potential to recover in excess of 25 million ounces of silver here, so Burke’s story might not be ending quite yet.
*All historic photos courtesy of University of Idaho digital library.