The story of the Tilly Mine is a favorite with the locals of Boundary County.
Bernt William Tilly born May 24, 1906 in Farstorp, Sweden, had three brothers and three sisters. While his siblings, all married with children, remained in Sweden, Bill Tilly – wanting to “see the world” – immigrated to the United States by way of Canada in 1928. His goal was to work for a few years in the States, save his money, and go back to Sweden to buy a farm. Tilly found logging work in the woods around the Priest Lake area. When the depression began, he found it very hard to find jobs.
In 1931, Tilly met an “old-timer” by the name of Sven Anderson and began prospecting work on one of Sven’s many mining claims, the Queen Mine. Tilly also worked the Bethlehem Mine, which he “got on a trade for some rails and a mine car.” Sometimes, instead of paying wages, Sven would sign over mining stocks, which Tilly gladly accepted.
Tilly wandered the Purcell Mountain Range looking for other veins on the surface and rocks called “floats” which would break off from a vein and slide down the mountainside. In 1932, he located the claim that became the Silver Crescent Mine (aka “Regal Mine”). Tilly said he “could have made good down there at the Silver Crescent if that partner of mine hadn’t got it all balled up.”
Although Tilly was not a U.S. Citizen, he enlisted in the U.S. Army on February 24, 1942. He served in WW II as an infantry rifleman and saw action in Normandy and the Rhine. Before his discharge in 1945, he reached the rank of Sergeant, Technician Fourth Grade.
Tilly returned to Boundary County to work his Bethlehem Mine. He also located and staked eight claims on the “Klondike Prospect” on Queen Mountain at the headwaters of Meadow Creek. He worked one 800 foot tunnel, but this claim never produced much in value. Tilly’s main mine was the Tilly Mine (also spelled Tilley) which he started developing in 1947. Located north of Bussard Mountain about a half mile from Sven’s Queen Mine, Tilly drilled holes by hand, set off blasts and “mucked” out the hard rock from the mine. He first used a wheelbarrow then later laid rails for small ore cars. He averaged about a foot and a half a day working during the winter months. After ten years of working his mine, he had a 1,600 foot tunnel with about 400 feet of cross tunnels.
Tilly worked in the woods during the summer earning money so he could work the mine during the winter when there was less water seeping into the mine. He said it was “wettest in summer-driest in winter.” The tunnel was dug at an angle which allowed the water within the tunnel to flow out. At times, water gushed out from the tunnel between the ore tracks! Tilly used the force of the flow to turn a water wheel that operated an air compressor pumping fresh air back into the mine. Each year at Christmas time, Tilly would hike down the mountain, catch a ride with the mailman to Bonners Ferry and take the bus to Spokane, spending Christmas there before returning to the mine for the remainder of the winter.
Tilly’s small and very tidy cabin overlooked the Moyie Valley; he said the “best view was from the window above the sink.” He built a 100 yard long enclosed walkway from his cabin to the mine shaft out of cedar shakes, which allowed him to enter the mine tunnel in winter without going outdoors. He called it his “underground life.” Tilly did not have many visitors at the cabin, but on occasion a hiker might wander by. A University of Idaho professor heard of the Tilly Mine and took his class to the mine to observe the work Tilly had done. Tilly did have an unwanted guest once. A bear tried to break into his cabin while he was inside. Not owning a firearm, he fired up his chainsaw and chased the bear down the road a ways, but every time he shut off the saw and headed back to the cabin, the bear would follow. He said he had to chase the bear several times before it finally moved on.
Tilly purchased a pickup and built a homemade camper on it, which had a little chimney sticking out of the top. He parked his camper at work sites in the summer and used it for mining explorations on Queen Mountain. When he parked it, he would surround it with a collapsible three foot high metal fence to keep “critters” out. He told a story of how one night a porcupine chewed through the brake hoses and he had to walk to town for parts!
After 35 years of drilling and blasting, Tilly had built one mile of tunnel into the Tilly Mine, but no substantial ore was ever produced. Over the years, he became quite deaf from the blasting and shouted in his broken English with a Swedish accent. Being a student of the “old school” of hard rock mining, Tilly knew his craft well, but considered it just a hobby. About 1982, Tilly sold his mine and moved into Bonners Ferry, living in the Gifford Apartments. He lived on his military pension and his favorite food – oatmeal.
On December 2, 1985, at age 79, William Tilley died of a heart attack in his apartment. He is buried in Grandview Cemetery.