Idaho miners unearthed enough gold last year to dredge up memories of 1941, when Burke Canyon teemed with miners out to make a fortune in the area’s most thriving industry.
The Gem State’s mountains and stream banks coughed up 300,023 ounces of gold - $120 million worth - in 1995, burying a production record that had stood for 54 years.
All that remains of Burke’s mining lore are a few rotting timbers and abandoned mine shafts. Environmental concerns have reduced mining’s role in the economy, and better opportunities overseas have stolen mining jobs from the region.
But Tuesday’s report on 1995 production adds to a surprising series of uplifting developments for the Idaho mining industry.
Gold prices are up - peaking at a five-year high of $413 an ounce earlier this month. Two mines will reopen soon in the Silver Valley.
Some local residents are even fishing for the sluice box in the attic after raging floodwaters jiggered loose gold nuggets from the hillsides.
Most of the gold dug up last year came from Idaho’s big mines, where tons of rock are crushed to filter out tiny gold flakes.
Last year walloped 1941’s puny 149,816 ounces of production, according to Earl Bennett, a state geologist at the University of Idaho who keeps close tabs on the mining industry.
Bennett said he hopes the recent turn of good fortune will remind people that mining remains an economic asset here.
“I get annoyed at those economists who tout tourism and electronics here,” Bennett said from Moscow. “I’m not sneezing at these industries, but just because their percentage is going up in the state doesn’t mean mining’s dying. Mining is holding its own here, and it has been for quite a while.”
The industry pays about 1,000 Idahoans some of the highest wages in the state and taxes from the mining companies pay the bills in many rural communities.
Two monster gold mines that opened last year headed this latest Idaho Gold Rush. Hecla Mining Co.’s Grouse Creek mine and FMC Gold Corp.’s Beartrack mine - both in central Idaho - should keep the state as one of the top five gold producers in America for several years, Bennett said.
OK, so Grouse Creek ended up costing Coeur d’Alene’s Hecla about $100 million because there wasn’t nearly as much metal there as they thought. Big deal. Idaho’s mining economy is here to stay, Bennett said.
Not since the 1930s has there been such a tizzy over Idaho gold, he said.