For a century, the mines of the Coeur d’Alene Mountains in North Idaho produced much of the heavy metals that made the U.S. a global superpower. Starting in the 1880s, through the rise of industrialization, the introduction of the automobile, and two world wars, a few narrow canyons in the Coeur d’Alenes yielded more than 11 million tons of zinc, lead, and silver, as much as a fifth of U.S. production.
Mining has left a mark on the culture of the Silver Valley and an indelible stain on the landscape, which remains heavily contaminated. To extract a pound of metal, mining companies had to process nearly 14 pounds of ore, and they dumped the crushed waste rock into mountain streams and along river banks. Over the course of a century, the tailings and mine drainage flowed down the 40-mile-long watershed, depositing some 75 million tons of highly toxic sludge into Lake Coeur d’Alene. House cats convulsed from drinking the water. Migratory tundra swans suffered slow deaths as their digestive tracts seized up from lead poisoning, causing both suffocation and starvation as undigested food backed up into their long necks. Children in the Silver Valley in the 1970s registered some of the highest levels of lead in their bloodstreams recorded anywhere.