Heavy Metal

The gorgeous vistas and toxic legacy of a mining district in Northern Idaho.


On a recent bicycle ride through Idaho’s Silver Valley, I encountered a black bear crossing the trail, a river otter building a home in the wetlands, and waterfowl fishing in Lake Chacolet, all while rolling along a smooth asphalt path capping a century’s worth of toxic mining waste.

The Silver Valley, in the Coeur d’Alene Basin, is one of the world’s largest and most contaminated historic mining districts. It was opened for industrial use by the Northern Pacific 1864 Land Grants, which converted 40 million acres of public land into mining and logging operations that supported the railroads’ westward expansion from Lake Superior to the Pacific Ocean. After the Civil War, many former Confederate soldiers migrated to the Silver Valley to work in the mines and smelters, many of which continued to operate through the early 1980s.

Since then, much of the basin has been designated as the Bunker Hill Mining and Metallurgical Complex Superfund Site. In 2004, the old Union Pacific railroad line was converted to a 73-mile recreational trail, which follows the river valley through the mountainous terrain. The trail’s asphalt cap and gravel barriers help contain contaminated rocks in the railbed, heavy metal tailings and spillage from trains.

The photographs presented here trace the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes from the old mining town of Mullan, Montana, to the largest city on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, Plummer, Idaho, near the Washington border. The Coeur d’Alene, an Interior Salish tribe, manage the southern third of the watershed through a partnership with state and federal governments.

Billions of tons of contaminated sediment can be measured throughout the watershed and as far away as Lake Roosevelt in Washington. Seasonal flooding moves settled contaminants, including zinc, lead and arsenic, throughout the basin. Heavy logging of the adjacent U.S. National Forests through the early 1990s compounded erosion and the movement of waste materials.

Legal settlements with the historic mining companies — including Hecla Mines, Coeur d’Alene Mines, and Asarco (source of the Guggenheim fortune) — have collected three-quarters of a billion dollars to support the environmental cleanup and restoration of the Silver Valley under the Superfund program.

Author's Note

In the summer of 2013, I joined a research tour of the Coeur d’Alene watershed led by Mark Solomon, a water research scientist, historian, logger, activist, storyteller and artist. Dr. Solomon’s robust, interdisciplinary knowledge of the regional environmental and social history informs this essay and slideshow.

Dennis DeHart, “Heavy Metal,” Places Journal, November 2013. Accessed 05 Feb 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/131121

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Past Discussions View
  • 11.25.2013 at 16:15

    Coeur d'Alene has the highest per capita incidence of brain tumors. My father's oncologist told us that when he was diagnosed in 1998. One of the other prime industries is the production of grass seed which relies heavily on herbicides to keep the seed 98% pure. The place is so beautiful and so quietly toxic.