You can read about mining, but the best way to learn about silver mining is on a mine tour. And I know just the one to recommend: the Sierra Silver Mine Tour in Wallace, Idaho.
My husband and I recently had the opportunity to visit north Idaho. It didn’t take long at all to realize that silver mining played a huge part in the history of the Coeur D’Alene valley. In fact, it is more commonly known as “Silver Valley” and it has the largest deposit of silver in the world. It has already produced over a billion ounces of silver!
Taking a mine tour at Sierra Silver Mine is a must-do if you are visiting this area. You’ll learn so much and better understand the history and legacy of the silver mining industry, too.
What’s different about silver mining?
To be honest I really didn’t know much about silver mining at all. I’d visited a gold mine before, and of course, I’d heard a lot about the dangers of coal mining. Silver mining uses the hard-rock method of mining. It’s actually much safer than coal mining. The rock is solid and the mine less likely to collapse. Plus the material being mined is not flammable! But you’ll learn all this and more when you take the tour!
What is it like to take the tour?
One of the things I liked best is that the tour is led by an actual miner who has worked in a silver mine. He knows what he is talking about from first-hand experience, and he has his own stories to tell. Plus he can demonstrate how he would use the mining equipment instead of just talking about it!
You’ll start the tour in downtown Wallace, a few blocks away from the Sierra Silver Mine. Just hop on the green trolley after getting your tickets at the Gift Shop at 509 Cedar Street. Tours run every 30 minutes from 10 am to 4 pm in the summer months. Check the Sierra Silver Mine website for hours during other months. Each tour lasts 1 hour and 15 minutes, and the trolley ride includes a narrated history of Wallace.
When you arrive at the mine, after passing the old miners cemetery, you will be invited to select a hard hat to wear. At 5’6″, I never really was close to hitting my head on the mine ceiling, but my husband definitely had to duck, so the hard hat is a good idea. You might also want to bring a light jacket or sweater, because the mine is a cool 50° F. It’s just a few steps up to the entrance of the main shaft. You don’t have to worry about feeling claustrophobic because the main shaft is pretty wide, and it is lit with electric lights.
What did I learn about silver mining?
Well, I don’t want to ruin the fun and besides, the miner who leads your tour is much better than I could be! But I will share a few things. “Fast Freddie” was our guide, and I loved hearing his stories because he really knew his stuff! He explained why mines used to use canaries to test the air quality. Freddie talked about the early methods of hard rock drilling, when a miner would work all alone with a hammer and a hand-drill. It was so much better when they got pneumatic drills. He explained why they were called widow-makers and what they did to keep all the miners from dying of lung cancer. And then he demonstrated just how the water-powered drill worked. It’s pretty loud!
Freddie also showed us just how dark it would be if lights went out. I’m telling you, you can’t even see your hand in front of your face! Guess what Freddie had to do when his carbide light went out during the shift? Shh! Don’t tell anyone I told you his secret! He just laid down and took a four-hour nap until someone came looking for him at the end of the shift. What else could he have done?
Freddie also explained the organization of the mine shafts, and how they refilled them back in after extracting ore. We learned how the dynamite was placed to ensure that the most rock broke away and revealed the ore. We also got to see how the machinery was used to remove the blasted ore.
Freddie shared stories about mine disasters, including the Sunshine Mine Disaster, one of the worst mining disasters in U.S. history, when 91 miners died of carbon monoxide poisoning. That led to better equipment being developed to allow miners to breathe long enough to evacuate.
Why do I recommend the Sierra Silver Mine Tour?
The Sierra Silver Mine tour really was fascinating and I learned so much. Having an actual miner lead the tour made all the difference. I really got a feel for what it must have been like to work underground, and the sacrifice that miners and families made to mine the silver and other ores needed, especially during the World Wars.
Since your tour also includes information about the history of Wallace and a ride on an antique trolley, it’s great value for your money. Adults are $15.50 and children 4-16 are $8.50; a AAA discount is offered as well. This is a fun tour for all ages — families are welcome! If you want to add something fun to your day, get an ice cream cone at the Silver Mine gift shop or head over to the Red Light Garage afterwards for a huckleberry shake and fries! Explore the free Wallace Mining Museum for more information and displays about mining in Silver Valley. And be sure to check out the Center of the Universe with its mining tribute and the initials of the major area mines: Hecla Mining, Cordelaine Precious Metals, Sunshine Silver Mine, and Bunker Hill Mining Company.
If you’d like to read more detailed information about Wallace, please head on over to my guide titled, “A Town Called Wallace: Small Town, Big Heart” to find out why it’s my new favorite small town.
As is common in the travel industry, I was invited to tour the Sierra Silver Mine. I’d like to thank Visit Idaho for the experience as it was one of the highlights of my trip — and assure you that my review is an honest recap of my experience.