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How Idaho Panhandle Became 'Paradise Lost'

The history of mining in northern Idaho is long, colorful, and violent.

A rich vein of silver and lead discovered near Wallace, Idaho, in 1883 brought thousands of miners to an area that eventually produced nearly half of all United States silver, plus large amounts of lead and zinc.

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Fortunes were made, and the local economy boomed. But within a few years, the US Bureau of Mines was hearing complaints about mine waste being dumped into the Coeur d'Alene River. By the early 1900s, groups of farmers were suing mining companies because of water pollution. As a result, mine operators changed some of their methods. But they also began buying air and water "pollution easements" to prevent damage claims.

The area was a hotbed of union organizing, which focused on dangerous working conditions. Martial law was declared in 1892 and again in 1899. In 1905, Gov. Frank Steunenberg was assassinated by a bomb attached to the front gate of his home. Miner Harry Orchard and several union leaders were accused of the crime, but their defense attorney - Clarence Darrow - won an acquittal. Wobblies marched in Spokane, where 600 were jailed in 1909.

In 1929, the Coeur d'Alene Press ran a series of articles on mining pollution. Wrote city editor John Knox Coe: "It is a veritable 'Valley of Death' in a 'Paradise Lost.' "

In 1972, 91 miners died in a fire at the Sunshine Mine. Meanwhile, Wallace, Idaho, became best known for its brothels - some of which operated openly well into the 20th century.

Native Americans lived in the mountains and river valleys here long before precious metals were discovered. In fact, says tribal elder Henry SiJohn, they did not come from Asia via a land bridge but have been here forever. They called themselves "Schee-chu-umsch" (which means "the discovered people") but were called Coeur d'Alene by French trappers.

In the 1840s, they welcomed the "black robes" (Jesuit missionaries) and converted to Roman Catholicism. The Cataldo Mission near Kellogg is the oldest building in Idaho.

The tribe is small (about 1,450 people) but prosperous. It maintains a 6,000-acre grain and vegetable farm, logs its woodlands sustainably (no clear-cutting), and operates a health clinic and a bingo hall. It's also fighting to reclaim territory lost to homesteading and other aspects of "Manifest Destiny." Last month, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear a case in which the tribe asserts title to Lake Coeur d'Alene and rivers flowing through the reservation.

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- B. K.

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