Map of Wood River Mineral District

Mining Gold and Silver in Idaho, 1865-1885

Map of Southwestern Idaho
Map of Southwestern Idaho

From 1865, when quartz mining was very promising in Idaho, to 1876, a fair degree of prosperity was enjoyed by the owners of mines. Prospecting was, however, much retarded by the Indian troubles from 1865 to 1868, an account of which has been given in my History of Oregon. Expensive milling machinery had been hastily introduced in the first excitement of quartz discoveries, which lessened the profits without much increasing the results of reducing the ores in arastras. But the straw which broke the camel’s back was the defaulting of the secretaries of three of the richest mining companies in the Owyhee region, and the suspension of the Bank of California, which occurred about the same time. These combined misfortunes operated against investment from abroad, and checked the increase of home enterprise; and as mining property is taken hold of with great caution except in the excitement of discovery, the fame of the Idaho quartz lodes became overshadowed by later discoveries in other territories. There occurred no mining rush, no brain-turning find of incredible treasure, after the close of what might be termed the second period in the history of mining in Idaho, when placers were exhausted of their first marvelous wealth, 1 and veins of gold and silver quartz were eagerly sought after. For several years no one thought of mining on Snake River, that stream not presenting the usual features of a placer mining district, although flour gold was known to exist in considerable quantities. But about 1871 the experiment was made, which resulted in finding good pay on the gravel bars in the vicinity of the Great Falls, the mouth of Raft River, Henry’s Ferry, mouth of Catherine Creek, and other localities. In 1871 and 1872 several mining camps or towns sprang up along the river. 2Thousands of ounces of gold-dust of the very finest quality were taken from the gravel in their neighborhood in these two years. The placers, however, were quickly exhausted on the lower bars, the implements in use failing to save any but the coarsest particles. The higher bars were unprospected and the camps abandoned. But about 1879 there was a revival of interest in the Snake River placers, and an improvement in appliances for mining them and saving the gold, which enabled operators to work the high bars which for hundreds of miles are gold-bearing. In many places they lift themselves directly from the water’s edge, ten, twenty, a hundred, or two hundred feet, and then recede in a slope more or less elevated. At other points they form a succession of terraces, level at the top, varying from a few hundred feet to a mile or more in width. 3

Coming to the actual production of the mines of Idaho, I find that, according to the annual report of the director of the mint of the United States, Idaho in 1879, when it was beginning to recover from the misfortunes of the previous decade, produced §1,150,000 in gold and $650,000 in silver, while the estimate in the tenth census is $1,944,203. In 1882 the product in gold and silver was $3,500,000, divided among ten counties, of which Custer, or the Wood River mines, produced more than one third. 4 But the report of the mint director is no more than a guide to the actual amount of gold produced, the larger part of which is shipped out of the territory by banking firms or in private hands, and goes to the mint at last without any sign of its nativity. The total gold product of Idaho down to 1880 as deposited at the mints and assay offices has been set down at $24,157,447, and of silver $727,282.00. But some $60,000,000 should be added to that amount, making the yield of precious metals for Idaho $90,000,000 previous to 1881, when the revival of mining took place. Strahorn estimates the output of 1881 in gold, silver, and lead at $4,915,100. 5

Turning from the precious metals to the baser metals and minerals, we find that, besides lead, Idaho has abundance of iron, copper, coal, salt, sulphur, mica, marble, and sandstone. Bear Lake district contains copper ore assaying from 60 to 80 per cent, and also native copper of great purity. Galena ores 78 per cent lead with a little silver are found in the same district. Bituminous coal exists in abundance in Bear Lake County, where one vein 70 feet in thickness is separated from other adjacent veins by their strata of clay, aggregating a mass 200 feet in depth of coal.

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Near Rocky Bar, in Alturas County is a vein of iron ore seven feet in thickness, and fifty-six per cent pure metal. Near Challis, in Custer County, is a large body of micacious iron, yielding 50 to 60 per cent metal. At a number of points on Wood River rich iron ores are found in inexhaustible quantities. In Owyhee County, a few miles east of South Mountain, is the Narragansett iron mine, an immense body so nearly pure as to permit of casting into shoes and dies for stamp mills. A mammoth vein of hematite in the neighborhood carries thirty dollars a ton in gold. Deposits of iron ore are found not far from Lewiston, which yield seventy-five per cent pure metal; and similar deposits exist near the western boundary of Idaho, in Oregon, in Powder River Valley.

Map of Wood River Mineral District
Map of Wood River Mineral District

The Oneida Salt Works, in Oneida County, manufacture a superior article of salt from the waters of the salt springs, simply by boiling in galvanized iron pans. 6 The demand has increased the production from 15,000 pounds in 1866 to 600,000 in subsequent years, and to 1,500,000 in 1880. A mountain of sulphur, eighty-five per cent pure, is found at Soda Springs, on Bear River. It has been mined to some extent. The same locality furnishes soda in immense quantities. Mines of mica exist in Washington County, near Weiser River, from which thousands of tons are being extracted for the market. Other deposits of mica have been discovered in northern Idaho, as also white and variegated marbles, and beautiful granites and sandstones of the most desirable colors for building purposes, as also a quarry suitable for grindstones. There is little that a commonwealth needs, in the way of minerals, which is not to be found in Idaho.

But no matter what the wealth of a mineral country may be, it is never looked upon with the same favor by the permanent settler or home-seeker as the agricultural region, because there is always a looking forward to the time when the mines will be worked out, while to the cultivation of the earth there is no end. Were Idaho as dependent upon its mines as in the days of its earlier occupation it was thought to be, it would be proper to treat it altogether as a mineral-producing territory, which with the better understanding now had it would not be proper to do.

The conditions necessary to agriculture are those pertaining to soil and climate. Of the former there are four kinds, and of the latter a still greater variety. Taking the valley lands, large and small, they aggregate, with those reclaimable by irrigation, between 14,000,000 and 16,000,000 acres. The soil of the valleys is eminently productive, containing all the elements, vegetable and mineral, required by grains, fruits, and vegetables. It is of a good depth, and lies upon a bed of gravel, with an inclination sufficient for drainage. Springs of water are abundant, both warm and cold. Wood grows in the gulches of the mountains, which enclose the valleys. The climate is mild, with little snow in ordinary seasons. This phenomenon in so elevated a region is accounted for by the theory of a river of warm air from the heated tablelands of Arizona, the Colorado Valley, and the dry valleys of Chihuahua and Sonora passing through the funnel of the upper Del Norte. There are other influences more nearly local, like the Yellowstone geysers and the Pacific warm stream. Deep snows fall in the more elevated regions, and brief periods of severe cold are experienced, but the longest Idaho winter is short compared with those of the Atlantic states. For Boise Valley the average temperature for eight years, from 1874 to 1881, was between 51° and 53°, while the mean temperature for 1880 and 1881 in Lapwai Valley, much farther north, was 56.08°. Peach trees frequently blossom in February at Lewiston. The extremes in the Boise Valley for seven years have been 12° below zero in January, and 108° above in July; but the average temperature in January has been 26.01°, and for July 75.86°, this being the hottest month in the year. Spring and autumn are delightful. The average rainfall for seven years has been twelve inches; the lowest less than three, and the greatest over seventeen inches.

Taking Boise for a standard of valley climate, it should be remembered that altitude to a considerable, and latitude to a less, extent influence temperature in Idaho. Boise is 2,800 feet above sea-level; Lapwai, nearly three degrees farther north, and 800 feet lower, has an average temperature in July of 90° and in January of 20°, being both hotter and colder than Boise. Other valleys vary in climate, in accordance with altitude and position with reference to the prevailing southwest wind. Another factor in the climate of Idaho is the dryness and rarity of the atmosphere, which lessens the intensity of heat and cold about twenty degrees, outdoor labor being seldom suspended on account of either. The same general remarks apply to every portion of the country; the cold and snowfall are in proportion to altitude.

The soil of the mountains and wooded regions is deep, rich, black, and contains much vegetable mould. Its altitude would determine its fitness for cultivation. The valleys having an elevation of from 600 to 5,000 feet, it would depend upon the situation of the mountain lands whether they could be successfully farmed. The soil of the grass and sage plains in Snake River Valley is the best that nature has provided for the growth of cereals, would man but contrive the appliances for bringing water upon it. In the northern portion of Idaho, wheat and other grains may be grown without artificial irrigation, but not in the southern portion, which must be redeemed from drought. There is a limited amount of alkali soil, which produces only greasewood, on which cattle subsist in the absence of or in connection with the native grasses.

Of grazing lands, it is estimated that there are not less than 25,000,000 acres in Idaho, a large proportion of which furnish food continuously throughout the year; hence it is essentially a cattle-raising country. The native grasses are the bunch, rye, timothy, redtop, and bluestem varieties, which together with the white sage sustain and fatten immense herds of cattle and sheep.

The area of forestlands is computed at 7,000,000 acres, lying for the most part in the mountainous regions, which division of territory amounts to 18,400,000 acres. Out of this amount comes also most of the lake surface of Idaho, computed to be 600,000 acres. The wastelands are less than have been supposed. 7

For salubrity of climate Idaho stands unequalled, the percentage of deaths in the army, by disease, being lower than in any of the United States. Thus nature provides compensations for her sternness of aspect by real benignity. Those who best know the resources of the territory predicted for it a brilliant and honorable future. This is the more remarkable when the hardships and liability to accident of a new country are considered; the death rate being one third that of Colorado, one fifth that of California, and half that of Oregon.

The settlement of Idaho having been begun for the sake of its mineral productions, little attention was at first given to agriculture. Further than this, there was the prejudice against the soil and climate, resulting from false conclusions and ignorance of facts. Thirdly, there was the constant danger of loss by Indian depredations to discourage the stock-raiser, and the want of transportation to deter the farmer from grain and fruit raising beyond the demands of the home market.

Bancroft, Hubert H. Bancroft Works, Volume 31, History Of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, 1845-1889. San Francisco: The History Company. 1890.

  1. Idaho Mines[]
  2. Mudbarville, Spring Town, Waterburg, and Dry Town were their euphonious appellations.[]
  3. The deposits were of various depths, the upper bed being from 25 to 50 feet deep, and lying on a hard-pan of pscudo-morphous rock from a few inches to throe feet in thickness, beneath which is another deposit generally richer than the first. Or, in some places, the hardpan is represented by a soft cement, found at a depth of from three to nine feet. The cost of opening a claim, and putting it in good order for working is about $5,000; and the receipts from it from $10 to $.30 a day. Careful estimates, based on actual yields and measurements of ground, give the amount of gold obtained from an acre of ground as being from $5,000 to $10,000, at the rate of from $20 to $100 a day, with the gold-saving machines, which are furnished with an amalgamator.

    The greatest hindrance to be overcome was the hoisting of water for mining purposes from the bed of the river, where there are no streams entering. The most feasible solution of this difficulty would be the construction of a canal taking water out of the river above, and carrying it to all the mines below. This device, besides making mining a permanent business on Snake River, would redeem extensive tracts of land which only need water for irrigation to change them from sagebrush wildernesses to gardens of delicious fruits and vegetables, or fields of golden grain. The principal claims were on tho upper Snake River, at Cariboo, and above in Wyoming, and also at Black Canon, where the Idaho Snake River Gold Mining Company had some rich ground, $100 a day to the man having been taken out with a rocker, a copper plate, and a bottle of cyanide of potassium. The average yield was $25 a day over 80 acres of auriferous gravel. The Lawrence and Holmes Company had a claim near Blackfoot paying from $19 to $50 a day to the man. Lane & Co., near the mouth of Raft River, obtained $25 a day to the man; and Argyle & Co., near Fall Creek, owned placers that paid $100 a day to the man. Other rich placers were mined in the vicinity of Salmon Falls. The best seasons for working, in reference to the stage of water in the river and the state of the weather, was from the 1st of March to the middle of May, and from the 1st of September to the 1st of November.[]

  4. That every county but four should be quoted as gold-producing shows a very general diffusion of precious metals. The proportion was as follows: Alturas $945,000; Boise $310,000; Cassia $25,000; Cutter $1,250,000; Idaho $240,000; Lemhi $210,000; Nez Perce $5,000; Oneida $35,000; Owyhee $430,000; Shoshone $50,000.[]
  5. See Strahorn’s Idaho Ter. 61. The Virginia and Helena Post of Jan. 15, 1867, makes the output of the Idaho mines in 1866 $11,000,000. When Ross Browne made his report to the government on the gold yield of the Pacific states and territories he omitted Idaho, which had produced from $10,000,000 to $20,000,000 annually for 4 years. Silver City Avalanche, Feb. 9, 1867.[]
  6. This salt analyzed yields, chloride of sodium, 97.79; sulphate of soda, 1.54; chloride of calcium, .67; sulphate magnesia, a trace. Strahorn’s Idaho Ter., 63.[]
  7. No great accuracy can be attained. Gilbert Butler divides the area of Idaho as follows: Rich agricultural lands 5,000,000 acres; that may be reclaimed by irrigation 10,000,000; grazing lands 20,000,000; timber lands 10,000,000; mineral lands 10,000,000; lakes and volcanic overflow 3,328,100. Silver City Idaho Avalanche, June 29, 1681.[]

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