Firework stand on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation. [All photos by Dennis DeHart]
The bones of “Uncle Bunker’s,” a former zinc smelter in Kellogg, Idaho. The original 600-foot stack was demolished in 1998.
“Uncle Bunker’s,” former zinc smelter, Kellogg.
House in Kellogg. The topsoil throughout the entire town had to be scraped off to remediate toxic waste from smelters in the area.
Elks Lodge bench, Kellogg.
Summer and fall vistas from the Galena Ridge, near Kellogg, which is currently being transformed by housing development and a golf course. The town’s economy is based on tourism and environmental remediation.
Hecla Gem Mine, formerly a significant producer of galena ore, which is a combination of lead and silver.
Environmental scientists analyzing water quality at Canyon Creek, Burke Canyon, below the former Hecla Mine.
Contaminated shore downstream of the mines and smelters, near Medimont, an unincorporated community in Koontenai County, Idaho.
North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River, where the “Big Burn” of 1910 gave rise to 20th-century forest service fire policy.
Near the East Mission Flats Repository, where the Environmental Protection Agency is storing contaminating soil.
Wallace, Idaho, proudly known as the “Last Stoplight” town. Until the final section of Interstate 90 was completed in 1991, interstate highway traffic passed through Wallace, the only place to stop between Seattle and Chicago.
Heyburn State Park, on the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes. The bridge belongs to the Union Pacific spur line that controlled access to the Silver Valley.
Driftwood logs on Lake Chacolet, next to the rail-trail bridge.
Paul Bunyan statue at the high school in St. Marie’s, one of the few remaining timber towns. Just outside St. Marie’s, an intentional community of “Patriots” has proposed to build a fortified, gated community of several thousand families, “The Citadel,” which would include militia training and arms manufacturing facilities.
The log truck of Dr. Mark Solomon, water research scientist, storyteller, historian, activist, artist and logger.
Harrison, Idaho, mouth of the Coeur d’Alene River.
Former mill site, now a golf course with floating island on Lake Coeur d’Alene.
Controlled burn across the highway from the Coeur d’Alene Casino. The industrial grass seed industry started on Rathdrum Prairie, just north of where this picture was taken.
School on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation.
Page Water Quality Plant, Smelterville, Idaho.
Gondola for Silver Mountain ski resort (originally known as Jackass Ski Bowl) on lands formerly owned by the Bunker Hill Mining Company.
Wetlands off Interstate 90, near Mission Flats.
Waste site in Smelterville, Idaho, where some residents have ignored the entrance sign, “Contaminated waste site. No residential dumping of household material.”
Cataldo Mission, founded in the 1840s.
Fall trees at Old Mission State Park.
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.