In a nod to the wealth that North Idaho’s mines brought to Spokane, Hecla Mining Co. celebrated its 125th anniversary Thursday at the Browne’s Addition mansion of one of its founders.
Amasa Campbell was one of three financial speculators who staked Hecla’s first claims in the Silver Valley. His Tudor-style mansion is now the Campbell House museum, and showcase homes built by his partners Patsy Clark and John Finch also remain as a testimony to Spokane’s rapid economic growth in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“These were promoters, get-rich-quick guys, and they made it work,” said Phil Baker, Hecla’s president and CEO. “The Hecla claim was a great deposit. Not only did they get rich, but a lot of other people did, too.”
Hecla is the last of the pioneer silver-lead mining companies that once flourished in the Silver Valley. Over the past 125 years, the business has weathered turbulent financial markets, labor disputes, periods of depressed silver prices and a multimillion-dollar Superfund cleanup bill from the federal government. At Hecla’s annual meeting, shareholders and employees gathered to celebrate the continued existence of the company founded in 1891, which now employs 1,300 people in mining operations in the U.S., Canada and Latin America.
Hecla’s early peers in the Silver Valley have left the region or filed for bankruptcy. “We ended up being the last man standing,” Baker told the crowd.
Baker touched on highlights of the company’s colorful history during the annual meeting. Electricity came to Silver Valley mines in 1903, when Washington Water Power (now Avista Corp.) built a 100-mile-long power line to the mining district. Hecla upgraded from steam-powered equipment and retired the last of the mule teams that hauled ore cars and underground supplies.
By the 1920s, technological advances reduced the physical labor required for hard-rock mining. Using compressed air to run jackleg drills meant three miners could do the work formerly done by 17 employees.
But the market for silver collapsed during the Great Depression and didn’t recover until the start of World War II, when minerals were needed for the war effort.
While North Idaho’s silver-lead mining created fabulous fortunes and employed many miners, it also created one of the nation’s largest Superfund sites. Heavy metals washed down the Coeur d’Alene River and into Lake Coeur d’Alene. Hecla reached a $263 million settlement for cleanup of historic mine waste with the federal government and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe in 2011. The company made the last settlement payment in 2014.
Over the years, Hecla developed a worldwide reputation for expertise in deep, underground mining. That work continues at the company’s flagship Lucky Friday Mine in Mullan, Idaho, where Hecla is sinking a new shaft, Baker said. The shaft will extend 10,000 feet below the earth’s surface to access new ore bodies. The $225 million project, expected to be completed later this year, will keep the Lucky Friday running for at least another 20 years, Baker said.
Last year, Hecla also acquired a large copper-silver project in Northwest Montana. Company officials anticipate it will take about a decade to get permits for the environmentally sensitive Rock Creek Mine, which is located underneath a wilderness area, and put it into production, said Luke Russell, a Hecla spokesman. If the project goes forward, it will double the silver reserves in Hecla’s portfolio.
Many Inland Northwest residents have ties to Hecla, said Mike Westerlund, the company’s vice president for investor relations. When people find out he works for Hecla, he often hears stories about how they or a relative worked for one of the company’s Silver Valley mines.
That’s a testament to Hecla’s longevity in the region, Westerlund said.
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