Community September 2, 2015

A Flicker in the Stream

The Search for Idaho’s Gold and How It Ushered in a New State

At one time, across the wild land that would become the state of Idaho, small cities sprang up in places where, but for sparse and intermittent populations of Native Americans, people had never been. Bustling new towns emerged from the dust of a vast wilderness. There were few, if any, roads or, for that matter, little else useful for building communities. There was, though, gold dust in the streams and veins of quartz streaking the mountainsides. Seams of lead and silver lay married together deep underground.

These were places called Roosevelt, Orofino, Idaho City, Bullion, Coeur d’Alene, Custer, Silver City, Atlanta, Warrens, Elk City, and Loon Creek. They boasted hotels and saloons, homes and schools, watchmakers and doctors, bookstores and barbershops.

Most of the cities are gone now. But if not for the flurry of their rise and fall, the draw of people and industry they generated, a new state, the 43rd, would not have come into being when it did. A flicker in the stream changed it all.

The Long View

That there ever was a glimmer of gold in an Idaho stream or, for that matter, a mass of mountains dominating the state, is the result of almost incomprehensible geologic forces and time. Geologists estimate that 80 million years ago two tectonic plates, the oceanic Farallon Plate and the North American Plate, collided, the former diving under the latter. Tremendous heat was generated, creating magma, which rose toward the surface, ultimately forming Idaho’s mountains. Simultaneously, superheated water rich in minerals circulated throughout the lithosphere filling cracks and voids. Over time, earth and water cooled, and rich veins of gold and galena (lead-silver) were left trapped underground.

Needless to say, a lot can happen in 80 million years, including relentless glaciation—the advance and retreat of glaciers—and repeated cataclysmic floods such as the Bonneville and Missoula floods that literally shaped much of Idaho approximately 12,000 to 18,000 years ago. As mountain ranges were eroded and river valleys formed, all of those veins and shiny loose nuggets eventually found their way toward the surface. There they lay for thousands of years.

Left: Gold prospector Archie Smith on the porch of his cabin near Murray, Idaho, 1909 Right: The Philadelphia Mining & Smelting Company located at the junction of Warm Springs Creek and the Big Wood River

Gold in the Water

Certainly, the widespread settlement of Idaho, which was driven by the discovery of gold, never would have materialized without Lewis and Clark’s successful Corps of Discovery expedition commissioned in 1803. The two discoverers not only found a way to the Pacific and revealed an unknown territory, they, importantly, managed to establish good relations with the estimated 6,000 to 10,000 Native Americans—Nez Perce, Shoshoni, Bannock, Coeur d’Alene and others—living in those lands at the time. In effect, Lewis and Clark, through the goodwill they created, enabled a wave of fur traders to flood the territory beginning in about 1808. These would be men with names still familiar 207 years later: John Jacob Astor (who later built a New York real estate fortune), Alexander Ross (who explored the Stanley Basin), Francois Payette (the namesake of the Payette Lakes and Rivers near McCall), and John Colter (who was credited with later discovering Yellowstone).

One trapper whose name is less known but whose efforts had a profound effect on the course of Idaho’s future was Elias Pierce. After serving in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), Pierce joined thousands of “49ers” chasing after the shiny metal James Marshall first discovered in Coloma, California, the previous year.

After his time in California, Pierce joined a trapping expedition to Nez Perce country in the Clearwater River basin of Idaho. However, his interest in fur was short-lived; he couldn’t shake his gold fever. Camping at Lewis and Clark’s Canoe Camp, Pierce became convinced he was in gold country again. In 1860, he led a group of prospectors—surreptitiously and against the wishes of the Nez Perce Indians living there—up along what would become Orofino Creek, a tributary of the Clearwater River. On September 30, 1860, the prospectors discovered “fine gold” in the creek bed. With that, the Idaho gold rush began.

At the time, what we now call Idaho was part of Washington Territory (Idaho became a territory in 1863 and a state in 1890). While there was ostensibly federal governing of the area, it was still the Wild West. This is not to mention the fact that the majority of governing officials back East were consumed with the impending Civil War.

The temptation for lawlessness notwithstanding, the Idaho miners were surprisingly forward thinking in the heat of gold fever. Mining districts were organized with officers and specific rules about claims. For instance, only citizens could locate and hold a claim, which extended 150 feet upstream and downstream of a claim and from bluff to bluff (across a stream). The claims had to be “worked” six days a week; if a claim sat idle for 15 days, it was lost (unless the miner was resupplying). And, due to the heavy snowfall, one could leave a claim idle from December to June without forfeiting it.

Men in light gauge railway cars near Coeur d’Alene area

The Rush South

Almost immediately, the gold rush spread from Orofino like a brushfire. In May of 1861, wide-eyed miners ventured southeast to Elk City to make finds; in July, another group from Orofino discovered gold along the Salmon River near Florence. The following year, groups traveled southeast to Warren and due south to the Boise Basin to make more placer discoveries.

As the snow cleared in 1863, the rush spread even farther south, with gold “cities” popping up in Rocky Bar, then Atlanta, and by May, in Silver City of the Owyhee Mountains. In each instance, hundreds if not thousands of people would follow initial discoveries.

For example, by the end of 1863, there were upwards of 16,000 miners in the Boise Basin, which included the newfound cities of Idaho City, Placerville, Centerville, Buena Vista, and Bannack. At least $6 million in gold dust was pulled from the area (more may have left surreptitiously). In addition to miners, the gold rush attracted the support services of doctors, lawyers, blacksmiths, assayers, packers and stage drivers. In fact, stage driver to the Boise Basin was John Hailey, who would later donate his land and lend his name to the Wood River Valley city.

For the most part, the early discoveries in the ’60s were placer finds; that is, gold found through panning the creek beds (gold is heavier than other silt and so falls to the bottom). Eventually, miners found gold-quartz ore veins in which the gold was locked up. Ore had to be removed from underground, then crushed and separated from the quartz. Early on, miners used an “arrastra,” a circular area in which large drag stones were moved around a pivot point by mules to crush the ore. By 1864, steam-powered iron stamp mills to crush ore were being brought in to remote mining areas by mule train. In the Idaho City area, miners employed high-pressure water to blast mountainsides, then collected the gravel slurry in big sluice boxes to sort out the gold.

Despite the somewhat crude technology, plenty of gold was pulled from the land. From 1860 to 1866, approximately $20 million of gold was extracted from the Salmon River-Nez Perce country. The Clearwater drainage produced $23.8 million. And though it ran over a longer time period, the Boise Basin mines generated nearly $66 million in finds.

The Silver Wave

As the gold played out, a second wave of mining swept through Idaho in the 1880s. Miners at Loon Creek on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River explored south in 1876, finding major quartz lodes on the Yankee Fork River. There, the General Custer mine and city and the settlement of Bonanza were established. Subsequently, miners moved to new finds at Vienna, Sawtooth City, and, in 1879, Ketchum. By the following year, mining camps were in full swing at places that came to be called Galena, Ketchum, Warm Springs Creek, Deer Creek, Hailey and Broadford. While gold was present, bigger veins of lead and silver were discovered. The Minnie Moore mine in Broadford, the Bullion mine west of Hailey, and the Queen of the Hills mine near Bellevue were all big producers.

The difficulty with silver mining was that silver was often found in galena, a lead ore that had to be smelted to separate out the metals. For the Wood River Valley, this meant initially that heavy loads of galena—700,000 pounds over the course of a year—had to be carried by wagon train to Salt Lake City, Denver or other smelting centers. This enormous demand, however, provided the impetus in 1883 for the Union Pacific Railroad to extend its Oregon Short Line from Shoshone to Hailey (and to Ketchum the next year). Supplies and people were brought in, and ore, by the ton, was shipped out. The rail line also enabled large smelters to be brought in to process the galena in the valley. Ultimately, there were smelters in Ketchum (the Philadelphia Smelter), Galena, and Indian Creek and Muldoon near Hailey.

Silver City in the Owyhee Mountains, 1880

The railroad, as well as the general wealth created by mining, ushered in other modern conveniences of life. These included Idaho’s first electric plant, which served residents of the area, as well as the Philadelphia Smelter, which sat near the confluence of the Big Wood River and Warm Springs Creek. In addition, the telegraph and Idaho’s first telephone system, serving households in the Wood River Valley, came online towards the end of 1883. The following year, Hailey developed Idaho’s first water utility.

Northern Claims

Concurrent with the rush in the Wood River Valley, placer gold and then lead-silver veins were discovered in Murray and Kellogg (near present-day Coeur d’Alene). The Bunker Hill and Sunshine mines, first claimed by an out-of-work carpenter named Noah Kellogg, would eventually make the Coeur d’Alene mining district the largest silver producer in the United States. Another big producer in the area was the Hercules mine near Wallace. This mine continued to be productive through 1925, grossing nearly $75 million.

The Panic of 1893

The long-running Hercules mine was, however, the anomaly to the rule. Most claims—gold in the ’60s and lead-silver in the ’80s—were depleted after just a few years of being worked, at least, at the given metal prices and costs and technology of extraction. Most often, people simply moved on to the next hot spot where the early finds would be easier to extract. However, few mines and their miners escaped the Panic of 1893 when the United States entered an economic depression that brought unemployment rates in the East to between 25 and 43 percent. Banks, some Western railroads and thousands of businesses failed. That same year, Congress repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, and the price of silver dropped precipitously. Previously profitable silver mines were closed, never to be reopened.

A Foundation for a New Era

Some mining towns, like those in the Wood River Valley, survived because new industries such as agriculture, forestry and tourism eventually took hold. Other towns simply emptied out; the vestiges of life—stamp mills, schools and homes—slowly fell back to the earth. Nonetheless, during the boom and bust cycles roads had been forged, rail lines built, electricity and telephone systems installed. Most importantly, the lure of gold and silver had brought thousands of people to what was in 1860 the Washington Territory and in 1863 the Idaho Territory. And Idaho’s gaining statehood, which required achieving a population of 60,000, surely would not have occurred in 1890 or anytime soon thereafter had there not been the frenzied rush to strike it rich in the Gem State. The pursuit of the illusive set in motion Idaho’s real and modern history.

While names rattle around in our geographical lexicon—Pierce, Payette, Wallace, Kellogg, Mayflower, Ketchum, Hailey—the clarifying fact is that these were actual people who faced tremendously hard lives with rare equanimity. They built full lives, found love if not gold, raised and educated children with little but their own wits. They had an eye on the horizon, always a foot moving forward. These people saw promise in the streams and mountains, in places most others considered simply too forbidding. And they struggled mightily to realize that promise.

This article appears in the Fall 2015 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.