At the peak of mining activity in Idaho’s Silver Valley, countless carloads of ore came out of the ground and travelled by rail between Mullan and Plummer, a 72-mile stretch of train tracks operated by the Burlington Northern Railroad in North Idaho. Those railroad cars were open so it was inevitable that dust and ore particles blew and jostled out onto the tracks beneath those steel wheels.
The railway crossed land owned by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. Concerned that years of extraction of heavy metals had severely contaminated mining areas and the routes along which the ore travelled for processing, the Tribe sued Union Pacific Railroad and several mining companies to provide funding for a cleanup.
It became clear that cleaning up all the metal contaminants scattered along the old railway would be all but impossible.
In 1995 the federal government, Coeur d’Alene Tribe, and the State of Idaho agreed on a plan to cap the contaminated railroad bed to help contain the contamination. Under the plan the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation share ownership and management of a paved pathway on top of the old Mullan to Plummer line. Union Pacific built the pathway and continues to provide major maintenance. The company also created an endowment fund to help pay for trail needs into the future.
This is a sow’s-ear-to-silk-purse story if ever there was one. The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes now attracts tourists from all over the world bringing business to bike rental shops, ice cream sellers, restaurants, and lodging establishments along the smooth route of those rattly old trains. It winds across lakes, beside rivers and streams, and between stands of timber where bicyclists can ride without a thought about traffic.
It’s 72-miles long. Plus a tad more. After all the trail markers were in place, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe built a beautiful park in Plummer in honor of Tribal members who lost their lives fighting for the United States. A new section of pathway there leads to the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, and serves as the start of the trail on the western end. So, yes, there is a mile-marker negative point seven. Start your ride on the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes there and you’ll find it every bit as magical as a Harry Potter adventure.