by Ann M. Colford

A bold hijacking leads to a devastating explosion; federal troops are dispatched to round up suspected terrorists; the troops hold more than 1,000 men in a makeshift prison camp for months without filing charges and deny the prisoners access to legal counsel.

The headlines sound familiar. But this story happened more than a century ago, deep in the canyons of North Idaho. The story captured national attention; now, it forms the bones of a new young adult novel, Fire in the Hole!, by local author Mary Cronk Farrell.

On April 29, 1899, union miners from Burke in the Coeur d'Alene mining district took control of a train engineered by Levi Hutton, who would later gain fame as an owner in the Hercules silver mine. The miners forced Hutton to drive his train down Canyon Creek, through Wallace, and on to Wardner Junction, site of the Bunker Hill and Sullivan concentrator mill. The Bunker Hill owners had fought unionization since an earlier uprising in 1892; the miners wanted better pay. The miners loaded 60 cases of dynamite on the train. Bunker Hill executives caught wind of the plan and skedaddled out of town with their nonunion workers, leaving the mill virtually empty. The miners unloaded the dynamite and blew the concentrator to bits.

When word of the explosion reached Governor Steunenberg in Boise, he declared martial law in Shoshone County. Because Idaho's militia troops were off fighting the Spanish-American War, he wired President McKinley, who sent in federal troops from the 24th Infantry, a unit of African-American soldiers based at Fort George Wright in Spokane. Some of the men arrested were held as long as six months, and conditions in the bullpen became a national scandal, prompting a congressional hearing.

Investigators never learned who led the hijacking. In the end, 13 men were brought to trial; four were convicted of interfering with the mail, because Hutton's train carried a mailbag. Only one man, Paul Corcoran, a leader in the union, was convicted of second-degree murder, but his conviction was overturned in 1901.

The explosion didn't help any; the mine owners united to enforce a work permit program that effectively blacklisted any miners with union connections. Unions did not gain a foothold in the district again until the 1930s.

As a reporter for KXLY-TV in the 1980s, Farrell had visited the area to report on mine closures, but she didn't hear the stories of the mining wars then. In 1999, near the 100th anniversary of the Wardner explosion, she saw a newspaper article about it and the drama of the story piqued her imagination.

"What would a young boy do if his father was stuck in that stockade?" she remembers wondering. "What would the family do without any means of support?"

Realizing that she needed to delve deeper in order to tell her characters' stories, Farrell visited museums in Wallace and Kellogg and pored over old newspapers in the library. Newspaper records from that far back were spotty at best and sometimes nonexistent, she says, but she managed to gather whatever information survived.

"It got to the point where I was so immersed in it that it was almost more real than the real world," she recalls. "It was constantly in my head, which was great, because then I felt ready to write."

Since the book came out last fall, Farrell has traveled to several schools and libraries to do presentations using the mining artifacts she acquired in the course of her research. Although she found these relics of the miners' material culture, Farrell didn't bump into anyone with family stories about the events of 1899.

"I felt like I wasn't really doing historical research if I didn't find those people," she says. "But anyone who was involved left [the area]. They couldn't get jobs -- they were blacklisted."

Just before Christmas, Farrell's long-sought link with the past emerged. She received a message from the granddaughter of Paul Corcoran, the only union leader convicted in the aftermath of the explosion. The woman had read Farrell's book and wanted to share some stories passed down from her father and grandfather. The two women met just last week.

"Wow, it was amazing," she says, laughing. "Of all people to get in touch with, he's the main dude."

Now Farrell is hooked on writing historical fiction. She hasn't decided what her next project will be, but she knows there are plenty of great stories out there just waiting to be mined from the mountains of the past.

Publication date: 2/17/05

  • or