Sunday, February 3, 2019

Avalanche Cluster Brings Tragedy to Coeur d’Alene Area, Six Killed at Custer Mine [otd 02/03]

At suppertime on Monday, February 3, 1890, a dozen miners who worked at the Custer Mine sat eating after a long day. The mine, high above Nine Mile Creek about six miles northeast of Wallace, had been located in 1885.
Custer Mill, ca 1890. University of Idaho archives.

Actually, according to the Illustrated History of North Idaho, eager prospectors had combed that area the year before, "but they were looking for placer gold, and were, perhaps, without much skill in their business, so failed to see the riches that lay before their eyes."

Soon, men more capable of recognizing the lead-silver lodes buried in these ranges arrived. They opened mines like the Custer, the Granite (further down the valley), the Tiger (on the south side of the same ridge), and many more. Operations boomed, especially after rail lines connected the area to the outside world.

However, for various reasons, some of the mines cut back production during the depth of winter. And this particular season had seen “unprecedented” snow levels. Just a few days earlier, the Custer Mine had laid off all but 15 of the company's 40 men. Without that fortuitous circumstance, the looming disaster might have been even worse.

The rattle of dishes and murmur of men's voices masked outside sounds, which were probably muffled further by a layer of snow hanging on the dining hall: None of the survivors mentioned any rumble of warning before the avalanche slammed into the structure. Plummeting sharply down the ridge, the snow crushed the roof first, driving broken beams onto the men who sat facing the hillside, "killing three almost instantly."

Miraculously, those with their backs to the slide escaped with mostly bumps and bruises. Then, the Illustrated History reported, "Building and men were carried far down into the gulch."

The least-buried survivors dug themselves out of the debris and did their best to help the others. However, the History noted, "So great was the danger of another snow slide that one of the men who came to the rescue took the names of those at work."

When all the survivors and victims had been recovered, they found that six men had been killed, including the mine foreman, two cooks and a waiter.
1910 avalanche aftermath, near Custer Mine.
University of Idaho archives.

The Illustrated History said, "This was the most disastrous of a large number of snow slides that had caused loss of life and property in the Coeur d'Alenes during the winter of 1889-90 and previous years. The contour of the country is very favorable to such slides."

The snow had become heavier and less stable because a hard rain had hit the area. So many slides were reported, it became difficult to say exactly when some happened. About a mile or so south of the Custer, a slide hit a railroad camp and killed three men. Two miles to the southwest, a tramway and two flumes were destroyed. Near Wallace, snow buried the main rail lines along a stretch of seventy-five feet.

At Wardner, twenty miles to the west, snow obliterated two tramways and wrecked several buildings, including a blacksmith shop. Fortunately no deaths were reported. And the day after the Custer tragedy, a big slide hit the town of Burke, located less that two miles southeast of the Custer Mine. There, “half the business portion” was reported to be in ruins. Fearing more slides, many inhabitants fled the area. At first, survivors thought three men had been killed. However, later reports said that four people had been “buried in the snow slide, but all were rescued with slight injury.”
References: [Illust-North]
“Burke Demolished,” Idaho Register, Idaho Falls (February 8, 1890).
"Custer Consolidated Mining Company," Manuscript Group 246, University of Idaho (February 1995).
“Slain by the Snow,” The Oregonian, Portland, Oregon (February 7, 1890).

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