In 1972, ninety-one men were killed in a mining ”accident” sparked by a fire lit nearly a mile underground: the mystery was never solved. After the rest escaped, only three miners survived underground.
More than twenty years later, Matt Worthson is a sheriff’s lieutenant and the disgraced son of mining hero and Sunshine Mine survivor Stanley Worthson. Matt expects to finish out his years on the force in quiet ignominy. But when the gruesomely dismembered body of a police chaplain is found at the swanky Coeur d’Alene Resort, Matt is tapped to find the murderer.
As Matt investigates the murder of his friend, he finds himself digging deep into the labyrinth of lies that seeps beneath the Coeur d’Alene region, including the Sunshine Mine disaster, and the truth behind his own broken family.
What is it about the Pacific Northwest that leads some into dark worlds of violence and despair? Had one-time north Idaho journalist Ned Hayes made this tantalizing question the centerpiece of his debut novel, he might have only created a derivative retelling of an all-too-familiar serial killer plot. Instead, he takes the plot for this well-written literary thriller from the historical facts of the still-unsolved Sunshine Mine disaster in 1972, and winds it tight around the troubled central figure of Matt Worthson, a one time candidate for Sheriff in Coeur d’Alene.
Worthson, suffering from a broken marriage and a suspect car accident, is pulled into a tangled history of corrupt politics, separatist plots, and powerful interests who control the lucrative Idaho mining industry. The novel opens with the discovery of the mutilated body of a chaplain who works with the police department, and seems to point towards a local serial killer who is again on the loose. But this tried and true plot soon moves in a more complicated direction, as Worthson’s own motivations and past crimes are brought under the microscope.
The story of the Sunshine Mine disaster itself is told in a flashback that is both compelling and heart-rending, as Worthson struggles with his father’s impending death, and the secrets his father still refuses to reveal about the mine disaster–the truth of which has important implications for Worthson’s investigation.
Coeur d’Alene Waters is a solidly written murder mystery with a haunting finish, reminiscent of the best of Ridley Pearson or the early work of fellow Washington writer Jess Walter. —Book Note, Featured Review
REAL HISTORY: The Silver Valley Mining Legacy
The “Bitterroot County” portrayed in this story is a fictional one, although the events that transpired in the 1970s and 1980s are very real events with very real consequences.
The Silver Valley devastation described in this novel is historically accurate. The only organization actively working to clean up this wonderful wilderness is the Silver Valley Community Resource Center. You can donate to this organization here.
To this day, the mystery of the Sunshine Mine Disaster fire has never been solved. Miners Tom Wilkinson and Ron Flory were the only two survivors found in the mine.
The 91 men who died in the Sunshine Mine Disaster in May of 1972 are memorialized in a permanent shrine built beside the I-90 highway outside of Kellogg. It was built by a miner.
After the 1972 disaster, the Sunshine Mining Company could not be sued for lack of safety gear. Idaho law states that employers may be held liable for only workman’s compensation claims. The average family only received death benefits to equal two years of a good miner’s salary.
The Sunshine Mine in Kellogg, Idaho was once America’s richest silver mine, producing over 300 million ounces of silver in the course of its history through 2002.
During the winter of 1973-1974, the Bunker Hill mine smelter broke, dumping some twenty years worth of undiluted and unfiltered lead-oxide emissions on the communities of the Silver Valley.
In August of 1974, the highest lead levels ever recorded in a human being were found in Kellogg. Bunker Hill operations produced record profits of $25.9 million in the same year.
In the late 1980s, it was revealed that the Bunker Hill Board of Directors had calculated that it would be profitable to operate the mine, despite the dangerously broken bag room and smelter. The poisoning was a just business expense; their calculations included liability of “$6-7 million/$10K per child,” for planned settlements to families permanently damaged by lead.
The Bunker Hill Mine went into bankruptcy proceedings in 1989. A variety of government studies have demonstrated continued toxic effects, although no person or company has ever been brought to account for their flagrant lead, cadmium, and zinc poisoning of the entire region.
To this day, lead levels in Silver Valley children run twice the national average, and a plume of heavy metals extends 200 miles downstream from Lake Coeur d’Alene into Washington State.
The region around the Bunker Hill was designated a SuperFund site by the EPA in 1991, although federally mandated warning signs regarding environmental toxins are not consistently posted in the area, due to the desire not to alarm tourists and other visitors to the region.
The Coeur d’Alene and Silver Valley destination resort areas today constitute some of the most successful tourist destination regions in the United States, despite the many tons of lethal mining residue that still cover the basin of Lake Coeur d’Alene and the lake’s tributary waterways.