It is the haunting feeling that comes when walking alone in the grinding summer heat up the steep side of Reno’s Hill at Little Big Horn. Or standing on a New York sidewalk, looking up the fearsome expanse of eight stories at the windows of what used to be the Triangle Shirt Waist Company. Or trudging along the California Trail in southern Idaho, following the wagon-wheel ruts where the pioneers and their oxen raced against the Sierra snows.
These are the moments when you sense them, these phantoms, these elegiac figures—just out of reach, but somehow unnervingly close. Men and women who labored and perished or clawed to survival in places now emblematic of remarkable human drama, of vivid narratives that rightfully lay claim to our imaginations.
You are close now to such places. Their names are assertive: Red Elephant. Triumph. Boulder. Queen of the Hills. Big Camas. Independence. War Eagle. Bullion. More than a century before locals heard the piercing whine of a G-5 or became blasé about a set of $1,600 designer boots, these and many other mines around Ketchum, Hailey, and Bellevue defined the dream of wealth and the possibility of “living large.”
The people who populated this Valley then were neither beautiful nor stylish. Most were threadbare, scrawny, stunted, and scarred, quibbling or cooperating in their many languages, and subsisting parsimoniously on thin rations while anticipating what today’s Sun Valley residents would call a liquidity event. Their veneer of civilization was tenuous. But given the Valley’s code of fast and unforgiving justice, passions and weapons were checked at the door. Generally.
Before the 1880s, prospectors and travelers had noticed tantalizing traces of silver in the rock of mountains flanking the Wood River. But they were nomadic, horrified by the Bannock Indians, and easily distracted: “Been mining for forty years, and thirty of those I spent chasing my burros.” Eventually, though, the Bannocks were banished to the reservation, and “Eureka” became a common cry in the Valley. Queen of the Hills was soon operating west of what is now Bellevue, the Keystone and Callahan were running outside the area that has become Hailey, and opportunities were discovered along Warm Springs Creek, just north of what is now Ketchum. Smelting capability and a railroad connection to the outside world seemed inevitable. The floodgates opened.
The Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman soon reported from the Wood River Valley that “all day long, and far into the night, men from every quarter of the globe, bronzed and bearded miners, merchants, professional men, uncouth bullwhackers, profane mule skinners, quartz experts, stock sharps, gamblers, and desperados crowd the sidewalks and throng the saloons.”
These “men from every quarter of the globe” did not see fit to extend tolerance to those from the quarter of China. Here, as throughout the West, the Chinese were vilified as a “menace to our civilization.” When the local Anti-Chinese Society championed a boycott of their businesses, the editor of a Hailey newspaper denounced the boycott—but only as a violation of the capitalistic spirit. He wrote that his newspaper “is and always has been anti-Chinese but it will not uphold a conspiracy to injure any man’s business.”
Clark C. Spence, author of a readable and authoritative book on the local silver boom, For Wood River or Bust, estimates that by 1884 the Valley had made the transition from a series of camps to a group of viable towns. Contemporary “trendanistas” may be pleased to know that even then the area was au courant. At the Ensor Institute in Hailey, one could take the cure for tobacco, liquor, morphine, opium, or cocaine.
For all the high (and low) living, the Valley evidenced a strong work ethic. In spite of occasional labor tumult, the people and their mines were productive through the 1880s. Fortunes were made and lost, and for many, life was frontier gracious. By the early 1890s, however, government polices in London and Washington had negatively impacted the value of silver—as did the 1893 depression. The boom, and most of the mines, were played out. The three larger Valley towns retrenched. Smaller towns were abandoned, leaving scenes that Arthur Chapman captured in his poem “In a Deserted Mining Camp:”
The few mines that worked well into the 20th century were only faint reminders of what once was. Mining became a conversation in the past tense, focused mainly on the hard-living miners and the speculators and entrepreneurs who drove the boom. But not all miners were rapscallions. Some were, in their own way, noble. Heroic.
Out East Fork, far beyond Triumph, at 8,000 feet, was the Mascot Mine. Sam and Helen Rutherford spent winters at the Mascot. Alone. Six months of unrelenting cold and isolation and snow. Without electricity or plumbing. During October, the couple laid in enough supplies for six months. Sam split wood three hours a day and then struggled to protect the mine facilities from the furies of the season. At night he composed stories in what is now an archaic literary genre, the boys’ story. Some proved quite popular. Helen, who had formal training as a singer, made rugs and wrote stories for the area newspapers. Once a month during the winter, Sam skied and snowshoed, pulling a sled, down to an isolated ranch where their mail was delivered. In the picture of Sam and Helen in the Regional History collection of The Community Library, they look very comfortable together, posed in front of a mining camp cabin.
The highlight of their winter was Christmas Eve. Sam put on a suit, starched shirt, and bow tie, and decorated the cabin with evergreen boughs and holly. Helen cooked the most gracious meal possible with their limited larder, then dressed in her finest and set the table with silver and china. And, of course, there was candlelight. After dinner, they opened the door of their cabin and looked out at the silence and majesty of the Idaho mountains. Helen composed herself in the doorway, as if on stage before a large audience of eager fans. And then she belted out Christmas music. Carols. Anthems. Folk medleys. This woman who saw no one but her husband for six months, who lived a winter of almost unimaginable isolation, joyfully and sincerely offered up great songs of celebration and optimism and redemption.
Eventually, after a struggle with cancer, Helen died at the Mascot. Sam had honored his pledge of “in sickness as in health,” serving as a devoted nurse to Helen, never leaving the cabin when she was awake. And he never forgave himself for being off gathering wood when she went on ahead of him. Sam wrapped her body in furs and carried it by dogsled to Hailey, through the vast Idaho silence that every December 24 had given way to Helen’s repertoire of triumphant Christmas music.
The Rutherfords of the Mascot and other 19th-century miners have faded into obscurity, like the mines they created and serviced. They were replaced first by humble shepherds and gradually by the affluent and far less unassuming recreationalists.
But the ghosts of the miners are with us. They linger near the tailings at the end of mountainside switchbacks, around the rusted equipment in deep gullies where towns once clung to the hills, and in the ancient, sagging log cabins that still dot the Valley. They ask little of us, probably nothing more than a vague acknowledgement that they were here first and gave a good day’s labor for a meager pay envelope.
We owe them more than that, though. They settled this Valley and pushed it off into history with flair and drama and incredible industry. Their remarkable legacy is part of us. We just have to be alert. To hear, on a crisp Christmas Eve night, through the snow and drooping willows, the faint, distant voice of a miner’s wife singing her songs of joy.
Van Gordon Sauter, the former president of CBS News and Fox News, divides his time between Gimlet and California, where he is chairman of the state boxing commission.