The Fiery History Behind The Pulaski Tunnel Trail Wallace Idaho

Pulaski Tunnel Trail Wallace Idaho

Entrance to the Nicholson Mine

This 2017 summer has been a fantastic few months for us. As we wind down, heading into fall, I was thinking about all the sunny and warm days we have had. And as I think about these days I honestly can not remember the last time it rained. Which is both a good thing, but also a bad thing. As I write this post I am looking out a window. A window where I can normally see mountains. But these mountains are nowhere to be seen. The reason you ask? Because where I live I am socked in by smoke from regional fires in my home state of Idaho as well as Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Canada. This summer has been one of the driest in history and has been compared to the summer of 1910.

For those of you not familiar with the summer of 1910 it was also a dry season. After months of no rain, extreme winds came roaring in on August 20th, 1910, to the area resulting in The Big Blow Up. As the wind ripped through the area the already established small wildfires combined forces to create one large burning inferno. The firestorm tore through Eastern Washington, Western Montana, Northern Idaho and British Columbia.

Although there are many stories about the 1910 fire, one of the most heroic stories is of Ed Pulaski. Pulaski, a US Forest Service Ranger who lived in Wallace Idaho with his family. In 1908 Pulaski joined the Forest Service, an agency that had only been established 3 years earlier.

During the 1910 fire, Pulaski and his crew of 45 were working a ridge between the St. Joe and Coeur D’ Alene watersheds, near Wallace Idaho. As the fire grew, Wallace became in danger and Pulaski gathered his crew, to head back to Wallace to help protect the town.

Pulaski Tunnel Trail Wallace Idaho

Placer Creek

The crew followed the west fork of Placer Creek. As they made their way, they were greeted by the raging fire. The flames were moving quickly and the team of 45 fled for their lives. Pulaski led the crew to an abandoned mine, where they sought shelter from the fire. Although the mine did give them protection, it came with its own set of issues, such as a lack of good breathable oxygen. The men were frightened for their lives as the fire continued to burn outside the mine. One man even threaten to leave the mine but Pulaski wouldn’t allow it, demanding at gun point that the man stay inside the mine.

Pulaski continued to fight the fire from inside the mine shaft, smothering the fire at the entrance with wet blankets soaked with water from inside the mine. Pulaski suffered several burns to his face and hands as well as losing his vision temperately. His wounds resulted in a month long stay in the hospital after the fire.

While inside the tunnel most of the crew passed out, including Pulaski, from the lack of clean breathing air. 5 men perished in the mine due to smoke inhalation. All total 6 men of the 45 crew lost their lives, with one man dying on their way to the mine. But if it were not for Pulaski’s quick thinking and knowledge of the area, all the men could have been lost to the fire.

An early rain and snow fall came in late August bringing an end to the 1910 fire but not before destroying about 3 million acres in 36 hours. There were 87 fatalities, mostly firefighters, during the 1910 Fire.  Several men died months later due to the damage their lungs had suffered while fighting the fires.

107 years after the 1910 fire, you can still follow parts of the same trail Pulaski and his men took on their way to the Nicholson Mine on the Pulaski Tunnel Hike just outside of Wallace Idaho. The trail starts out with a mild meander through the woods, following Placer Creek. All total the trail is 4 miles round trip with the first 725 feet being handicap accessible. The trail also has handy ¼ mile markers, tracking your distance for any of you mileage keepers.

Pulaski Tunnel Trail Wallace Idaho

Interpretive signs are found on the trail with Pulaski axes framing the signs

Historical interpretive signs are found along the trail, providing you facts about the 1910 fire and Pulaski. Be sure to notice the axes that frame the interpretive signs as they are known as Pulaski Axes. There is a debate on whether or not Pulaski developed the actual ax or if he just modified it to its current style, regardless the Pulaski Ax has been used by the US Forest Service since 1920. The ax is a two headed tool combining an ax on one end and an adze on the other. The ax is for chopping while the adze is for digging.

Pulaski Tunnel Trail Wallace Idaho

Entrance to the mine

As the trail carries on as does the elevation, however, the gain is only 810 feet altogether. The last half mile is the hardest part of the trail, with a steep climb to the overlook spot of the Nicholson Mine. The mine is outlined in a charred wooden frame, reminding you of the area’s haunting past. The outlook spot is filled with several more interpretive signs as well as a small seating area to rest before your return back down the mountain. There is no access to the actual mine.

Pulaski Tunnel Trail Wallace Idaho

Boomer and Jovi learning the history of the 1910 Fire

The trail is dog-friendly with dogs needing to remain on leash. Near the top of the trail, there are a few spots that your dog can gain access to the creek for a drink or a quick splash in the water. Benches are found along the trail as well as bridges carrying you across Placer Creek when the trail traverses across the creek. The trail is a well-maintained path that is easy enough to bring the whole family.

To find the Pulaski Tunnel Trail take exit 61 from I-90 heading east. Turn left onto Front Street and right onto 2nd Street. 2nd Street dead ends into High Street where you will take a right. Turn left on King Street, which turns into Placer Creek Road. Follow for about 1 mile and parking will be found on the left with a pit toilet. The trail head is on the right, across the road. GPS is unreliable in the area.

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) did a documentary of the 1910 Fire and Pulaski if you are interested in further information.

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