Coeur d’Alene Diary, Richard G. Magnuson (Metropolitan Press, Portland, Oregon, 1968)
I have been aware of this book virtually since its publication in 1968. I have only just now read it, as someone gave me a first edition of it, knowing it was about my home turf and that I like first editions. I didn’t read it previously because of my sometimes foolishly preconceived ideas and biases. I don’t generally think much about reading diaries, and besides, it was written by a former High School classmate of mine that I knew was not really a writer, and was also about a place I thought I already knew something about. More importantly, although many of my friends and classmates worked in the mines, I had no interest in the mines. I’m pretty sure my parents would rather have died that see their only son swallowed up in the bowels of the earth living the dirty, dangerous, unhealthy life of a hardrock miner. But as usual my preconceived ideas and biases were exposed for the foolishness they represented. This may not be a great book but it is a most unusual and rewarding one in many ways, some of which were perhaps not necessarily intended. The book claims to be a month by month diary of the first ten years of hardrock mining in North Idaho, and it is that, but somewhat more.
There is nothing pretentious about Coeur d’Alene Diary. It is plainly written, descriptive, with no soaring prose or unusual style, no author interpretations or re-interpretations, and very few authorial comments. It portrays what happened during the first tumultuous years as things were presented at the time by the local newspapers and other sources. This is most unusual because as it is, it represents almost the purest form of history, or even historical ethnography you are likely to find. It is not presented through the eyes or biases of the author, just what was reported about events of the time at the time. It not only offers detailed information about hardrock mining, but also insights into how it was people actually lived at the time. And how they did live!
One of the first things that I found somewhat surprising is that it is possible the first discovery of gold in the Coeur d’Alene district was made by a Black man, whose name is unfortunately unknown. A Montana paper reported that in 1884 a Black man arrived in Missoula with a large amount of gold that he spent recklessly, reporting that he knew where there was a lot more. He and a Flathead Indian left together and were known to be living in a small cabin just inside the Idaho/Montana line. He was subsequently found shot to death, the Indian was believed to have been the culprit, but nothing was done about it. Because of this the area around what is now Mullan, Idaho, was known for a time as “Nigger Prairie.” This surprised me, I guess, because when I was a boy living in Wallace, Idaho, the townspeople took pride in the saying, “The sun will never set on a (Black man) in Wallace.” I knew this was due to the fact that early in the 20th century a battalion of Black soldiers had been brought in as strikebreakers. I also knew there had been Blacks on certain early expeditions to the Northwest and also Black Frontiersmen. What surprised me was the mention elsewhere in this book of the presence of Black people, with no obvious indication of any particular prejudice. Indeed, it would appear that early Italian miners may have been subjected to more discrimination than anyone else, aside, of course, from the Chinese who were truly regarded as the lowest of the low, and were eventually prohibited from even mining for gold. “The newspapers, when writing stories involving a Negro, usually included his name, but it was a rarity when the name of an Italian or Slav was used in an article. The Chinese received the roughest treatment of all.”
As minerals, gold, silver, lead, and zinc were discovered, small named communities were formed at those points, often merely tent communities, most of which soon disappeared either entirely or from prominence. Murray, Idaho is a good case in point, although it still exists, barely, it was a major community at one time. Burke, Gem, Osburn, and others, also prominent at the time barely survive, or lost out in the competition for recognition. Even the survivors, Wallace, Kellogg, and Mullan, are mere shadows of what they once were. As the activity during this time was similar to a gold rush, and as the mines paid relatively high wages, men were attracted from many different places, most were poorly educated or immigrants who did not speak English. “This problem was overcome by district merchants and craftsmen by placing some sign or standard in front of their place of business…Druggists advertised by placing and mortar and pestle, Shoemakers hung a sign in the shape of a boot, the jeweler set up a clock…the barber a striped pole, and the livery would show the picture of a horse.” A major problem was solved when finally a sign in the shape of a bathtub was raised indicating for the first time the availability of public baths. As there was no agriculture in the narrow valleys and gulches, food had to be brought in, mostly by ships and barges from Lake Coeur d’Alene and then overland from the landing near the present Cataldo Mission. Of course stores and restaurants quickly appeared, along with hotels. Included on the menu in one of the better restaurants: Porterhouse steak, 65 cents, Half a pheasant, 65 cents, Russian caviar, 20 cents, 3-star Hennessey cognac, $2.50 a quart, booming times for those who were making $3.50 a day in the underground mines.
Nothing boomed more than the saloon business. “In February, 1891, Wallace had thirty places licensed for the sale of liquor and two gambling licenses were issued…Wardner had 19 saloons, Murray, 5; Mullan, 15; Burke, 6; Gem, 5; Osburn, 3; McAuley, 4; Kellogg, 2; Eagle, 2; Delta, 1; and four more scheduled elsewhere.” The entire population of the district was probably little more than four thousand. Although the papers seldom mentioned it there was, of course, prostitution. “On the 32rd of October, 1891, Lulu Dumont drove a stiletto into Frankie Dunbar seven times. Frankie was a girl of eighteen years. Both women were of the ‘fallen sisterhood’ located on Pine Street and they had been fighting over money.” I knew there had been quite a lot of violence at the time but I had no idea how commonplace it actually was. It seems that on every other page of Magnuson’s account someone is getting shot, stabbed, or beaten. Not only that, miners were often killed in the mines, by falling down mine shafts or victims of other accidents. Justice was a kind of hit or miss affair, depending on who was involved, the circumstances and apparently the condition of the juries:
“At a later date Reed was convicted of the crime (of murder) and appealed the decision to the Idaho Supreme Court. One of the grounds for his appeal concerned the fact that the jury which heard his case was furnished liquor during the trial by the bailiff. The Idaho Supreme Court held that the mere fact that the jury was furnished with a quart of whiskey each morning, under the direction of the District Judge, and that beer was served them, did not in itself constitute grounds for a new trial, unless there was some reason to suppose that the liquor was drunk in such quantity as to ‘unfit the jurors for duty.’”
It was apparently a common practice for jurors to be furnished or allowed liquor during their deliberations. Many cases, even of murder, did not even reach a jury. In one case a man shot and killed another during a dispute over a poker game. He was not charged as it was reported, “The dead man had shot first.”
I found this book a fascinating account of how communities developed and people lived during such tumultuous times. But here I have gone on far too long and have not even mentioned the two main themes of the book. First, the development of the mines themselves, the amounts of ore delivered from them, the methods and techniques employed, the innovations that made the work easier, the problems that arose over the costs of shipping, the fortunes that were made, the melting pot of humanity that was created; and second, the creation and growth of unions and the monumental struggles between unions and the mine owners. Thus I have revealed my biases and interests while avoiding what I should, more objectively reported. It is possible, of course, that author Richard Magnuson might have had his own biases, and could have selected what he wanted to present so as to slant the picture he wished us to see, to emphasize the sensational, for example. I see no reason to believe he did this, had he wished to sensationalize for perhaps a wider readership I’m sure he could have found much more sensational accounts. As it is, I believe he did a wonderfully objective job of presenting accurately what transpired at the time, the growth and development of mining in the Silver Valley, the (still ongoing) problems of unions versus management, and indirectly perhaps, a picture of a genuine frontier culture. Anyone interested further in the turbulent history of life and mining in North Idaho should consider Big Trouble (J. Anthony Lucas, 1997), and The Big Burn (Timothy Egan, 2009).