Environmental History 
of the Spokane River

Brief History of Mining

The discovery of gold, silver, and lead, and the ensuing influx of prospectors helped Spokane become a jumping-off point to nearby mines and helped Spokane economically prosper in the late-1800s.

Between 1883 and 1905, the Inland Northwest experienced a mining boom where prospectors flocked to mines in the Coeur d’Alene mountains and Okanogan Territory. During this era, Spokane changed from a jumping-off point to mines into a clearinghouse for mining activity. One of the earliest gold rushes was in 1855 near Fort Colville on the upper Columbia River, but it subsided by 1870.

Mine near Idaho City

In 1882, A.J. Prichard discovered gold in the Coeur d’Alene Mountains of Idaho. Prospectors flocked to the region, and towns along the Northern Pacific railroad became jumping-off points for miners, including Spokane. Spokane was the best place to prepare for mining, with supplies and outfits becoming standard items in stores. In addition, Spokane provided rail transportation to the Coeur d’Alene mines. In 1883, miners founded Eagle City in 1883, the first town in the Coeur d’Alene mountains and a local headquarter of mining activities. As prospectors established placer mines between 1884 and 1885, they found silver and lead at Milo Gulch on the south fork of the Coeur d’Alene River. This area eventually developed when settlers established the Bunker Hill and Sullivan mines.

A lack of railroads to transport ore from Coeur d’Alene to smelters impeded development. By 1887, mining and railroad magnate Daniel Chase Corbin provided necessary communications and developed railroads that connected the Northern Pacific railroad through Spokane to smelters in Helena, Great Falls, Omaha, and Denver.

As gold placer mines declined in the late-1880s, silver and lead mines became more prominent. By 1887, there were a dozen towns that established mining districts in Idaho. Spokane became the central supply point for mining districts, and it became the permanent headquarters for many mining companies. Mining activities expanded in the Inland Northwest as prospectors discovered silver, lead, gold, and copper in the Colville District in northeastern Washington Territory. Settlers established Old Dominion near Colville, and established Young America and Bonanza as they sent the first wagons of silver and lead ores to Spokane, which were shipped to a San Francisco smelter. Prospectors entered the west side of the Columbia Reservation in 1886 when officials opened it to settlement and mining operations.

In the 1880s, prospectors discovered gold, silver, cooper, and lead in various districts of Kootenay in British Columbia, Canada. Settlers like Mina S. LaMonte remembers how her family moved to an Idaho mining community called Little Horse Thief in 1889, with nearby claims in tungsten, molybdenum, and gold. In an interview at the Idaho State Archives, LaMonte recalls how she’d later pan for gold as an adult near her house to help her family make ends meet when her husband was gravely ill.

In the 1890s, several problems arose that hampered the development of the mining industry, including a general strike in the Coeur d’Alene district that led to the destruction of a Frisco mill near Gem, Idaho. After a year of negotiations, the miners’ union and mine owners reached a compromise and the mines soon resumed operation. When the Depression of 1893 struck, silver and lead prices declined, and mines closed until mine owners could reduce the cost of operation. By August 1893, every mine in the Coeur d’Alenes ceased operations.

Excerpt from a Brochure Advertising Bunker Hill Mine from the 1970s

In 1896, prosperity, credit, and investment capital returned to mining districts, despite silver and lead prices staying relatively low in wake of the Depression of 1893. In February, prospectors flooded the northern half of the Colville Reservation as mining companies opened it up, which led to the discovery of gold, copper, silver, and quartz gold deposits. By 1898, officials opened the southern half of the Colville Reservation and within a week of this event, the southern half of the reservation had an estimated 5,000 mining claims.

The renewal of mining activities helped Spokane recover from the depression and continued its economic prosperity as a hub for miners and their wealth. Historians use bank clearances from the 1890s to help identify a city’s economic activity. Bank clearances showed that Spokane’s economy started with around $15,671,060 in 1894 which climbed to $25,091,225 in 1896. This trend continued, with economic gains reaching $63,996,255 in 1899. The Spokesman-Review commented that much of the city’s economic activity was attributed to the mining industry. By the end of the 19th century, giant eastern American and Canadian corporations assumed control of mines in the Coeur d’Alene and Kootenay regions, causing Spokane financiers to lose control of their mining districts. Spokane was relegated to a smaller role, but remained a supply center and local headquarters for mining districts.

W. Hudson Kensel sums up the mines’ legacy as one where, “Prominent men in mining circles – George Turner, Jay P. Graves, Charles Sweeny, G.B. Dennis, John Finch, and others – continued to be influential in directing the business and civic affairs of the cities. Imposing rows of office buildings, banks, theaters, and hotels, which had been build or purchased with the proceeds from the Bunker Hill and Sullivan, the Le Roi, the War Eagle, and the mines of Sweeny’s Federal Company, lined the downtown streets of Spokane. The continuing impact of mining on Spokane was evident everywhere.”

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