The west fork of Placer Creek is a friendly little stream, trickling through a narrow canyon lined with ferns and cedar trees.
Follow a two-mile trail up the creek, and you come to the Pulaski Tunnel – a legendary part of the 1910 Fire story. It was here that Big Ed Pulaski ordered 45 firefighters into a mine shaft on the night of Aug. 20, and told them to lie face down.
“One man tried to make a rush outside, which would have meant certain death,” Pulaski later wrote. “I drew my revolver and said, ‘The next man who tries to leave the tunnel I will shoot.’”
Today, Pulaski’s story is told in interpretative panels along the trail. The mine shaft itself has become a shrine to 1910 Fire buffs, who hike the trail in tribute to the capable, quick-thinking assistant Forest Service ranger who saved most of his firefighters during North America’s worst firestorm.
But for decades, the tunnel’s location was a mystery. It faded into obscurity after the last survivors died. In 1979, Carl Ritchie’s supervisor at the Panhandle National Forests gave him an assignment: See if you can find the Pulaski Tunnel.
“Everyone knew the drainage, but no one knew where the tunnel was,” said Ritchie, a retired Forest Service archeologist. “I interviewed different people who purportedly knew where it was, but I quickly learned that no one really knew anything about it.”
Ritchie took on the project. He bushwhacked along the creek, studied old photographs taken shortly after the fire and pored over old mining claims and surveyor’s reports.
Early on, Ritchie pieced together some important clues. The tunnel was close to the creek. It was one of five drilled by miners in the canyon. An old Forest Service sketch put the location at 1 1/2 miles up the west fork of Placer Creek.
Like the tunnel, Pulaski himself is something of a mystery. He was born in Ohio, and left school at about age 15. Letters from an adventurous uncle, who wrote vivid accounts of his life in mining camps, fueled Pulaski’s own decision to head West. Pulaski was in Murray, Idaho, in 1884 for the gold rush. He worked as a packer, labored in mines and lumber camps, and picked up blacksmithing skills. By the time the Forest Service hired him as an assistant ranger in Wallace, Pulaski was 40 years old, a seasoned outdoorsman.
“Big Ed,” as he was called, stood 6 feet 4 inches. Despite the jocular nickname, photos of Pulaski show a serious man, dark-haired, dignified and somewhat enigmatic.
“Mr. Pulaski is a man of most excellent judgment; conservative, thoroughly acquainted with the region, having prospected through the region for over 25 years,” wrote William Weigle, supervisor of the Coeur d’Alene National Forest. “He is considered by the old timers as one of the best and safest men to be placed in charge of a crew of men in the hills.”
But the lack of formal education cost Pulaksi the ability to advance in the Forest Service. He was an assistant ranger, earning $75 per month.
Ritchie never doubted that he’d find the tunnel. It was a matter of logical deduction. He was looking for a hole in the hillside, within six or seven feet of Placer Creek’s west fork. Prospectors had built a cabin on the other side of the creek, where the canyon flattened out.
Since there was no trail at the time, Ritchie drove in on an old Forest Service Road above the creek. In earlier days, mule trains packed supplies over the road from Wallace to Avery.
As he tramped through underbrush along the creek bottom, Ritchie scanned the hillsides. His trained archeologist eye was looking for waste rock piles, the debris left over from mining excavations. From his research, Ritchie knew that at least five mine shafts had been drilled in the canyon walls.
“I was pretty good at visualizing things, and I walked the whole creek bottom,” Ritchie said.
First, he found the War Eagle Mine’s waste rock pile.
Pulaski was actually trying to reach the War Eagle Mine as fire surrounded the crew. He knew the mine’s deep shaft – it was bored 1,300 feet into the canyon wall – would provide shelter. But events unfolded unpredictably on Aug. 20, 1910, as unpredictable as the winds that whipped smaller forest fires into an inferno.
Pulaski was in charge of 200 firefighters between Wallace and Avery. On the night of Aug. 19, he’d ridden into Wallace to gather up food and first aid supplies for the crews.
He had dinner with his wife, Emma, and 10-year-old daughter, Elsie. The fire would reach Wallace, he said, instructing them to take shelter on a pile of mine tailings near the family’s Burke Canyon home, where the rocks would keep the fire from approaching. On the morning of Aug. 20, he headed back up the mountain. His last words to his wife: “I may never see you again.”
Pulaski was with about 45 men on Striped Peak when the fire blew up. “A terrific hurricane broke out over the mountains,” he later recalled. “The wind was so strong that it almost lifted men out of the saddles, and the canyons seemed to act as chimneys, through which the wind and fires swept with the roar of a thousand freight trains.”
Firefighting became futile. “Boys, it’s no use,” Pulaski told the crew, according to one survivor’s account. “We’ve got to dig out of here. We’ve got to try to make Wallace. It’s our only chance.”
The men fled with the fire on their heels, a black bear racing alongside them. Trees exploded into flame, then toppled under 60 mph winds. One man fell by the trail, either hit by a tree, or unable to go on for other reasons.
Pulaksi gave his horse to an ex-Texas Ranger, who was limping from rheumatism. As they headed down the West Fork of Placer Creek, the fire surrounded them. Pulaski contemplated taking shelter in the War Eagle Mine, but discarded the plan when he realized the mine was still too far away. Instead, he led the men to a shallow opening drilled by miners called an adit, while he looked for a larger one – the Nicholson tunnel.
The men and two horses crowded into the Nicholson tunnel, but their feeling of refuge was short-lived. Mine timbers near the entrance were smoldering, sucking oxygen out of the shaft. Pulaksi wrapped wet blankets around the timbers and used his hat to scoop muddy water out of puddles on the mine floor. His hands and hair burned. The fire seared his eyes.
Over the next five hours, the fire raged. Panicked men screamed, moaned, convulsed and retched. One tried to strangle another.
“The tunnel became a mad house, a hellhole where five men would die,” Ritchie wrote in a Forest Service report.
Pulaski kept the frantic men inside the tunnel at gunpoint. Finally, the tunnel was quiet. The men had passed out, some never to awaken.
Ritchie found the Nicholson tunnel in October 1979. Frost had stripped the leaves from the brush, making the portal easier to spot.
The entrance was low, but a bit further inside, the 80-foot-long tunnel opened into a gallery-like area that rose to about 20 feet in height. Ritchie found an enamel coffee pot, along with two steel drill bits and an old dynamite box. About half of the tunnel was blocked by falling rock.
“The timbers inside the mine were burned,” Ritchie said. “But there’s nothing that said, ‘Pulaski was here.’ ”
The discovery still sent ripples of excitement through the Forest Service and the local community. Before he retired, Ritchie led about two dozen hikes up the creek to the mine shaft, and spoke at local chamber of commerce meetings.
Community members lobbied for nearly $300,000 in federal appropriations to pay for the trail and interpretative signs.
Today, visitors can look down at the gated portal from the trail above the creek. Charred timbers were recently installed around the opening for the 1910 Fire’s anniversary.
The rock opening itself it draped in ferns and other greenery. It’s hard to reconcile the lushness of the site with photos taken after the fire. They show a blackened landscape, scorched trees scattered like pickup sticks.
Around 5 o’clock the next morning, the men started to stir. Pulaski’s body lay motionless near the entrance.
“Come outside boys, the boss is dead,” one of the survivors called out. “Like hell he is,” Pulaski replied.
“I raised myself up and felt fresh air circulating through the mine. The men were all becoming conscious,” he wrote in an account of the fire.
Five men and both horses had perished in the tunnel. The survivors hobbled painfully back to Wallace, their path strewn with smoking logs and burning debris. They were parched, but the creek water was too hot and ashy to drink.
Pulaski had to be led down the mountain. He was temporarily blinded, and spent two months in the hospital with pneumonia. He and his wife exhausted their savings paying for other firefighters’ medical bills.
Today, Pulaski’s story is the iconic tale of the 1910 fires.
“His story just typified the cowboy: The strong, tall cowboy who saved the day,” said Russ Graham, a research forester from Moscow, Idaho. “A mystique developed around the rugged outdoorsman who had firsthand experience on the land, and who used it to save his crew.”
But there was no glorious ride into the sunset for Pulaski. After the fire, he was a broken, bitter man.
Pulaski returned to work with damaged lungs and blindness in one eye. A colleague, Roscoe Haines, tried to get the Forest Service to compensate Pulaski for his health problems. When that failed, Haines tricked Pulaski into submitting an account of the night in the tunnel to the Carnegie Commission, hoping its Hero Fund would reward him for saving the firefighters’ lives. The commission also turned Pulaski down.
In perhaps the most painful blow, the Forest Service refused to fund a granite memorial that Pulaski designed for the fallen firefighters. The $435 cost would require “an act of Congress,” the Forest Service said.
“He really felt that the government abandoned him,” said Jason Kirchner, an Idaho Panhandle National Forests spokesman. “He felt that the government owed these firefighters a huge debt of gratitude. Some received remuneration, but it wasn’t consistent across the board. That offended him.”
Pulaski retired from the Forest Service in 1929. He died two years later, of complications from the injuries he received in a severe automobile accident.
As part of the 1910 Fire Commemoration in the Silver Valley, local residents raised $45,000 for the granite firefighters’ memorial. It matches Pulaski’s design, and will be dedicated at noon Saturday in Wallace.
Pulaski would be pleased, Ritchie said.
“He wasn’t an attention hog. He only wrote one little piece about the fire,” Ritchie said. “But he would have liked the recognition for his men.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter