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See receives award for Pulaski Tunnel/Trail work

by CHANSE WATSON
Managing Editor | August 18, 2020 11:35 AM

WALLACE — From numerous books and journals to even a recent humorous appearance on Comedy Central’s TV show, ”Drunk History,” the name of local-legend Edward C. “Big Ed” Pulaski continues to carry on.

While the deeds of Pulaski have been well-documented, arguably one of the most famous landmarks associated with the man was in danger of being lost to time — that is until Jim See and the Pulaski Project stepped up.

Thanks to a generous nomination by local historian, Dr. Ron Roizen, to the Idaho State Historical Society, See has been named one of 16 recipients of the 2020 Esto Perpetua Award for his work on rehabilitating the Pulaski Tunnel and Trail.

Explained by Roizen in his nomination letter for See to the Historical Society, the former Nicholson Mine entrance (now Pulaski Tunnel) was where wildland firefighter crew leader, ranger Ed Pulaski, saved the lives of his fellow firefighters during the 1910 Fire or “The Big Burn.”

After fleeing from their original position on Stripped Peak on Aug. 20, 1910, in an attempt to make it to Wallace, Pulaski and his crew took refuge from the flames in the Nicholson Mine. Even after wet blankets had been draped across the entrance though, the heat and smoke made living conditions nearly unbearable; prompting many of the crew to try their luck outside.

It was then that Pulaski made his stand and threatened to shoot anyone who tried to leave the mine — ironically saving most of their lives in the process.

“On the morning of Aug. 21, 1910, 39 weary and weakened forest firefighters plodded and dragged themselves the last two miles from the Nicholson Mine along the West Fork of Placer Creek down to the confluence with Placer Creek’s main stem, and thence toward Wallace. They’d left six members of their crew behind, five who’d perished inside the mine and one who was struck down before he made it there,” Roizen said.

In the years after the fire and the actions of Pulaski, the tunnel and the trail leading to it from the Placer Creek trailhead, fell into obscurity and was even believed to have been lost.

Roizen stated that it wasn’t until Forest Service archaeologist, Carl Ritchie, rediscovered the tunnel in 1979 that the historical site began to see some attention again. In 1984, the site was even added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Fast forward to the mid-1990s, See got his first look at the tunnel after hiking to it with former Kellogg Evening News reporter, Mike Green.

“At the time, the tunnel was real hard to find. It was overgrown, off the main trail, and basically getting lost again,” See said.

In 2002, See and a group of other concerned citizens took the first steps to improving the trail. By 2003, See had overseen the creation of the Pulaski Project group and efforts were being made to secure funding for repair work.

Between local donations and a significant appropriation from the U.S. Congress, work on the trail and tunnel kicked off in 2005. For the next five years, See, Pulaski Project members, and various other entities worked to improve the trail.

“The main part was establishing all new trail for the first half mile,” See said. “It used to go up over a hill and come back down at the end of King Street, so that all had to be put in.”

On top of the front-end trail work, See and company were also responsible for the adding five bridges, 15 signs, six boardwalks and an overlook area.

As for the tunnel itself, See explained that when they first got there, “it was just a hole in the ground.”

By using pictures of the tunnel taken right after the fire, an artist was able to carve “burn holes” to recreate what it looked like more than 100 years ago.

Since the trail’s renovation was completed on Aug. 20, 2010 (mostly), See and other volunteers have since looked after everything and conducted spot repairs when needed.

In July 2019, the Pulaski Trail saw 54 hikers per day and sees close to 8,000 a year from all over the world.

Of course, the trail would have far fewer visitors if it weren’t for the efforts of See.

“It is by no means an exaggeration to assert that the Pulaski Tunnel Trail would not exist today were it not for Jim See,” Roizen said in the nomination letter. “It was Jim who came up with the idea, who stuck with the idea through thick and thin, and who brought the project to its successful conclusion in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. The great complexity and difficulty of completing this project might surprise those who have never attempted such a thing.”

See and the other Esto Perpetua winners will be recognized in a virtual award ceremony on Aug. 20, 2020 — exactly 110 years after Pulaski’s actions during “The Big Burn.”

The Esto Perpetua Award honors those individuals and organizations that have made significant contributions to the preservation of Idaho history through professional accomplishment, public service, volunteerism or philanthropy.

See was happy to hear about receiving the honor, but couldn’t take all the credit himself.

“It’s nice to be recognized! But this should really go to the Pulaski Project, which is a group of citizens that were a part of getting the trail restored,” he said.

To register for the 21st annual Esto Perpetua Virtual Award Ceremony, visit history.idaho.gov/esto-perpetua-awards/. Registration is free and open to the public.