We’re up early as we are planning to cover about 450 mountain miles in the next two days. We continue on the Salmon River Scenic Byway eagerly anticipating beautiful views and historic tours through the Yankee Mining District. We’re relieved to see a visitor center (the first we’ve seen in Idaho) just west of Challis that gives us all the information we need to travel through the Yankee Mining District. Maps and information in hand, we head first to Bayhorse, Idaho, another old mining camp.
Bayhorse got its start when gold was first found here in the early 1870’s, but within no time, the mine failed and Bayhorse was almost a ghost town before it ever got started. However, when a rich vein of silver was discovered, Bayhorse began to thrive, populated by numerous businesses, homes, mines and kilns. As we check out this old town, we pass by the saddest little cemetery - only a few graves surrounding by tumbling fences and no markers. Sadly, when these fences decay, the lonely little graveyard will be lost in nature. Today, the ghost town has ambitions of becoming a state park, but not before an EPA clean-up. Due to this, we were unable to explore the town itself, but much of it could be seen from the road and we took the opportunity.
Backing out, we then make our way Clayton, Idaho, which once served as the center of silver mining activity in the area. A large smelter was located in this small town as the area produced a variety of ores through 1902. The town once again got a boost when silver prices rose in 1935 and the region became southern Idaho’s primary silver producer for the next 50 years. The Clayton Silver Mine finally shut down in 1986. Today, Clayton is a semi-ghost but still has a few open businesses and a wonderful museum located in the restored L.B. Worthington Store. There, we ask about the mine, as we know it is on private property -- can it be visited. The courteous volunteers say that there is sometimes a chain across the road blocking access, but we can see the mine for photo opportunites. As we travel a few miles northward, we never come across a chain and are pleased to arrive directly at the mine. It is clear that this mine operated much longer than most mines in the area as it displays more modern buildings and equipment. Respectfully we snap a few photos and make our way back out.
We’re then moving forward again destined for our primary objective of the day – the historic ghost town of Custer, and along the way, a peek at the old cemeteries and what’s left of the Bonanza Mining Camp and the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge in the Salmon-Challis National Forest.
Making our way up Yankee Fork Road, our first stop is Bonanza, which at one time, was larger than nearby Custer. The town got its start in 1876 when gold was discovered and the town was laid out the following year. It’s population peaked in 1881 at about 600 people. The town suffered two major fires in 1897 and 1889, which destroyed much of the town and most of the merchants relocated in Custer. Though there is just a few buildings left in this old mining camp, they make for some great photo opportunities, and up the hill are two cemeteries. The Boot Hill Cemetery includes just three graves – that of Richard King, Elizabeth King Hawthorne and Robert Hawthorne. Richard King dies in 1870 and Elizabeth and Robert Hawthorne die on the same day in August, 1880. According to the tales, after these three were buried in the cemetery, other townsfolk refused to be buried there and another cemetery was built. There’s a mystery here that we will try to uncover.
Next we explore the main cemetery for the entire Yankee Fork area which was utilized up until the 1950's. Seventy people who have been buried in this graveyard have been identified and their names recorded.
Next stop is the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge, which operated from 1940 until 1952, digging out rock and recovering gold by washing and separating the stones and dirt from the gold. During its active dredging years, which left both sides of the road lined with rocks, the dredge recovered some $1,200,000 in gold.
Just a bit further down the road is Custer, founded in 1878 as another gold mining camp. During the 1880's it was second in importance to Bonanza, reaching a peak population of about 300. However, after the Bonanza fires in the late 1890's, Custer superceded Bonanza as the most important town of the Yankee Fork. However, Custer’s heydays were numbered and by 1910 it had become a ghost town. Today, the ghost town is operated by the National Forest Service and the Friends of Custer Museum, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This once bustling miners camp continues to feature dozens of buildings and interpretive sites.
Continuing westward to Stanley, we turn south onto the Sawtooth Scenic Byway, through the way to busy and so glad we didn’t stay there area of Sun Valley, and continue on until we turn eastward again on U.S. 20 along what was once the Jeffrey-Goodale Cutoff of the Oregon Trail. We soon come upon the bizarre, lava encrusted landscape of the Craters of the Moon National Monument and can only wonder how in the world a wagon train could have possibly traveled through this area. Continuing northwest, we finally settle down for the night in the small town of Arco, Idaho.
Though this has been a wonderful trip, it has been long and exhausting. I just try to pack too much into our trips and we are looking forward to our last day of travel tomorrow, winding up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming for the night and flying home the next day. And double Arghhhhh on Jackson -- I knew it would be expensive - but $220 for a Super 8?? Can't imagine what the price of dinner might be.