The Snake River Valley Reminiscences of the Early Days

In 1833 Captain Bonneville, an officer in the army, secured leave of absence and spent about two years here, mostly in the Snake river valley. He left his horses for the winter with some Indians at a camp near where St. Anthony is now located. He and his men made their way down Snake river in boats till they reached Black Rock canyon, where now is Idaho Falls, the thriftiest town in southeast Idaho: but they dared not venture in their boats through the canyon.

Captain Bonneville found a desolate sage-covered valley, holding out no promise of ever being more than a range where Indian cayuses might pick a precarious living on bunch grass. Not a tree as far as the eye could reach, except an occasional wind-twisted and gnarled juniper growing out of the seams in the lava rock along the banks of Snake River.

In 1849, when the California stampede was on, many of the gold-seekers passed over the same Snake river valley, and, in after years, relating their experience, described it as one of the most hopeless spots encountered in their ox-train journey across the continent.

In 1864 the stampede for Alder Gulch, Montana, was fairly under way. Whether from east or west, the Snake River valley was on the route. A ferry was put in by John Gibson just below where Blackfoot now is, and soon afterward one by a man named Kutch, some miles further up the river. The same year Harry Rickets started a ferry, known as the Eagle Rock ferry, to catch the travel that came over what was known as Lander’s cut-off, or the Soda Springs trail. It was in this year also that Ben Holiday started his ever memorable stage line and put up stage stations at intervals of fifteen to twenty miles.

This very interesting reminiscent and descriptive chapter is contributed by that well known pioneer and representative citizen of Idaho Falls. Mr. Robert Anderson.

This year may be said to have been the starting point in opening southeast Idaho to the knowledge of even western people.

Early in the century Fort Hall had been established for a trading post with the Indians, but it was no more than an isolated post, such as the Hudson’s Bay Company now have scattered over the Northwest Territory. The camp where Captain Bonneville left his horses was not a fort at all, and he, by the way, never saw his horses again. In short, prior to 1864-5 the few white people in the country were hunters and trappers often “squaw men,” who were little more civilized than the Indians, their only associates.

The ferries were the important points in the country. After General Conner’s battle with the Bannocks, on Bear river, in 1864, in which he killed more than half the “bucks” of the tribe, travelers and the ferry-owners still felt insecure, and some of Conner’s troops were stationed at Eagle Rock ferry, about nine miles above the present Idaho Falls. That ferries in 1864 took in tolls over thirty thousand dollars in greenbacks from wagons Montana bound; but it must not be forgotten that thirty thousand dollars in green-backs at that time was only equal to fifteen thou-sand dollars in the current money of the country, gold dust, and, by the way, Anderson Brothers’ Bank, at Idaho Falls, still uses on occasions the identical gold-scales used by Harry Rickets in 1864 for weighing gold dust.

James M. Taylor, an energetic man well known in Colorado and Montana, and Robert Anderson bought out the Eagle Rock ferry in 1865 In the winter of 1865-6, at an expense of twenty thou-sand dollars, under a territorial charter signed by “Caleb Lyon, of Lyonsdale,” first governor of Idaho, they built a toll wagon-bridge across that identical Black Rock canyon where Captain Bonneville had to let his boats down by ropes held on to by men on shore. The bridge timbers were cut and hewn out at Beaver canyon and in six feet of snow, then hauled eighty miles in wagons over the road which Ben Holiday’s stage mules could not keep open with their semi-occasional winter trips. As an instance of the difficulties encountered, and the high cost of every-thing, it is interesting to recall that to get a little strap-iron for stirrups on the bridge one broken-down wagon was bought for the sake of the tires, at a cost of two hundred and fifty dollars. All prices were high. In mining camps it was not uncommon to balance gold and tobacco against each other in the scales, ounce for ounce. In the fall of 1865 the ferry people laid in their winter’s supply of potatoes at twenty-five cents per pound, and were glad to get them at that. The common price for bacon, lard, sugar, coffee and many other articles of food was one dollar per pound. Flour, and a poor article at that, was twenty-five dollars for a fifty-pound sack.

In those “good old days,” besides the Indians squatted round the store, filling the air with the smell of their sage-brush-smoked buckskins and breath nauseating with the smell of wild garlic, were a very few trappers: Beaver Dick, Johnny Poe, and then, in the next two or three years, came Captain Heald, Doc. Yandell, Shep Medaira, Charley Conant, for whom Conant valley was called, “Tex.” (whose name was Parker), and old Joe Crabtree (uncle to Lotta, the celebrated actress, and much ashamed that his niece had descended to the stage).

Paul Coburn was superintendent of the stage line and Paul, justly or unjustly, was not held above suspicion. In July 1865, the stage was robbed at Robbers’ Roost, in Portneuf canyon, and thirty thousand dollars in dust was carried off by the robbers, or road agents. The stage was crowded with passengers and every one of them was killed except a small boy, who escaped in the brush on the Portneuf River, and a man named Carpenter, who got off with the loss of a leg. Suspicion pointed to Paul as a silent partner in the job, but it was never established, though a vigilance committee came down from Montana to investigate.

In the spring of 1866 the wagon bridge was opened and the ferry people moved down from the ferry and brought the name of Eagle Rock with them. A small dwelling house was built of driftwood. A little storeroom and a blacksmith shop were made of some boards and old ferry-boat timbers, and the station of Eagle Rock had been started.

Wells, Fargo & Company, soon after this, bought out the Ben. Holiday stage line and started a first-class daily service. Local charges for passengers was twenty-five cents per mile. William H. Taylor was superintendent, Dan. Robbins and John Burnett being his assistants. A few of the old drivers were Jack Clark, James Boyle, Bilvon, Tom Lauder and Black Jack. Boyle now lives at Oxford, Lauder at Market Lake. The others have probably all gone over the “great divide.”

Good hay in abundance was harvested when it grew on land overflowed by the melting snow in the spring and was hauled to the various stations. The stage company paid for cutting, hauling and stacking at the stations from twenty to forty dollars per ton, the price being governed by the distance to be hauled.

John Creighton, now of Omaha, built the telegraph line from Utah to Montana. Stations were located at Malad, Ross Fork, Eagle Rock, and the next one north at Pleasant Valley, Montana.

Freighting was the great interest through southeastern Idaho. On it depended nearly all business. Long trains of ox-wagons were constantly, during the season, on the road. Two, sometimes three, wagons were trailed together, and ten or twelve yoke of oxen in each team. The stage took the gold dust from Montana in treasure-boxes, and the passengers paid two dollars each for their breakfast, dinner or supper. For beds they wrapped themselves in their blankets and slept on the floor at the stations. At Eagle Rock, one night a little later on, old man Com-stock, the discoverer of the Comstock lode, poured out his plaints nearly all the night into the unwilling ears of the tired travelers in the house, of how he had been cheated out of his interest in his great discovery. He was then on his way to Cheyenne to join a party about to start across the Black Hill country. But the old man never found another “Comstock” and, heartsore and bitter, after the trip was made and they reached Bozeman, he put a pistol to his head and ended all.

Such was the history of the Snake River valley for the next four or five years. A few people came in to stay. The Morrisites had seceded from the Mormon Church and a few of them settled around Soda Springs, the “Beer Springs” of Bonneville. Stock raising was beginning to at-tract attention. John Adams started a little store, and fought mosquitoes, at Market Lake. “Rush Reuben,” whose name was then hardly known as Henry Dunn, settled on Blackfoot river. Presto Burrell came soon afterward, and these two still remain prosperous and respected citizens. Charles Higham, with his family, settled in Lincoln valley, now on the Reservation, and his sons are now thrifty stockmen. N. H. Just, one of the best commissioners our county ever had, was also in Lincoln valley, but was quite young. S. F. Taylor and C. G. Martin were always enterprising in the stock business. “Ryland T.,” one of the most noted geldings on the track, was bred by Mr. Taylor and sold from his range. Still no agriculture was thought of. The windy, sage-covered plains remained unchanged from what Lewis and Clarke saw them in 1802-3 and Bonneville in 1833. On wintry nights the sharp bark of the coyote and the weird cry of the mountain lion alone were heard to break through the winter’s storm. Otherwise there was no sound. In the house, the operator sits at the table and reads the associated-press dispatches being transmitted to Montana. It was a lonely, uneventful life. There was time and food for reflection. A dispatch from Rome: Victor Emanuel; Garabaldi; the Pope. From London: some great commercial house failed; prospective war; an ocean steamer sunk, with all on board. Paris: Napoleon: William; Bismarck will there be war? Then the marriages, deaths, fires, intrigues, elections, defalcations, assassinations. One might look at the world, imagining himself on high, as though riding with the spirit on Shelley’s cloud, he watched the machinations of the creatures called men on the earth below, their petty strivings to undo their fellow men, and for their own selfish advancement; their hopes and fears; their eager quest for wealth, fame and position. And, after all, what does it amount to: “Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away.” Why should a bubble in mid-ocean concern itself as to whether it is larger or smaller, as to whether its prismatic colors are brighter or duller than those of other bubbles floating round it? The ripple of a wave; a drop of rain; a breath of air and it is gone forever, taken back again into the bosom of the great ocean from which it sprang into being for a moment.

In the spring of 1869 Professor Hayden came with his geological party. He spoke favorably of the Snake River valley as a possible agricultural country. He reported the valley as “com-posed of a rich, sandy loam that needs but the addition of water to render it most excellent farming land.” But how was the water to be got from the riverbed? There was one creek. Willow creek, which might be utilized; but still farming was not experimented with.

On Willow creek and the river near was the historical gathering ground for the Indians. Spring and fall, as far back as tradition carried them, Shoshones and Bannocks had congregated in hundreds to fish and to gamble the one tribe against the other. It was not uncommon for a “buck” to gamble away the last thing he had on earth and to walk away at last as naked as he came into the world. But at this time they were peaceful. Often only a single man was at Eagle Rock where there were hundreds of Indians camped around. Mr. J. M. Taylor and his family had sold out and left Idaho; the remaining partner had no family and at times was left entirely alone, acting as stage agent, operator, post-master, storekeeper. Stage passengers no longer got their meals at the bridge. The Corbett station had been started south. Mrs. Corbett, weighing four hundred pounds, is still hale and hearty and living in the county.

In 1869 B. F. White afterward governor of Montana, began operating salt works at the head of Salt River, northeast of Soda Springs. For some years most of the salt used in Montana smelters was furnished from these works. From time to time a little placer mining was done on the banks of Snake River, and the same is the case to this day. but it has never been a profitable branch of industry.

Fort Hall Indian reservation was laid out about this time, and Captain Putnam, for whom Mount Putnam was named, was in command of troops there for a number of years. The country by this time was showing some change more people had settled. A few who are still in Idaho are O. H. Harkness, founder of McCammon; John Watson, still living near Blackfoot; William Adams, living now, as then, at Market Lake; John Hill, now in Idaho Falls. John Kelly was prospecting for gold in 1865 and is prospecting still a type of hundreds from the days of ’49; now almost all dead and, let us hope, at last finding what they vainly sought on earth in the golden streets of the New Jerusalem.

Oneida County was organized, with Malad as the county seat, one hundred and twenty miles south of Eagle Rock, the northern boundary of the county being the Montana line.

In September 1871, J. C. Anderson came out and settled at Eagle Rock. From that time on till 1880 he was in charge of all business at Eagle Rock, and is now president of Anderson Brothers’ bank. The Chief Joseph’s war hardly disturbed the few people who made Eagle Rock their headquarters; though a number of freighters or travelers were killed by the Indians a little farther north. About 1871 Orville Buck, with his family, located on Willow creek, about fifteen miles from Eagle Rock, where he still lives. Peter Kelly tried the experiment of raising a few potatoes and cabbages. He was successful, and this was the beginning of farming in what is now recognized as the most fruitful region in the Rocky Mountains. Poor old Pete! He was one man who knew he could not resist whisky, if whisky could be had, and he voluntarily isolated himself and lived many years entirely alone in a remote locality in the mountains, not seeing a human face sometimes for months together. May St. Peter take it into count when old Peter applies at the gates of Paradise!

In 1879 Dr. Amos Woodward, of Ohio, B. F. White, now of Dillon, and the Anderson brothers, commenced the construction of the first irrigating canal in southeast Idaho. When finished the work had cost seventy thousand dollars, and, with laterals, was about fifty miles long. At the present time the irrigating canals in Bingham County may be measured by the hundreds of miles.

The Utah & Northern Railroad reached Eagle Rock in June 1879, and spanned Snake River with its bridge on the 12th day of the month. The town was laid off, shops located, new houses began to spring up, and the remote wayside station was transformed into a busy town. Farmers began to locate and to fence and improve; other canals were constructed, one after another, and the valley began at last to prove itself what Professor Hayden had so many years before said it was capable of becoming. Soon afterward came a division of Oneida County. Three counties were organized, Bingham, Bannock and Oneida, and any of the three is now larger than some of the eastern states. Blackfoot was chosen the county seat of Bingham.

In due time Eagle Rock organized its village government. Dr. F. Chamberlain, S. F. Taylor, Edward Fanning, Robert Anderson and W. H. B. Crow were the first trustees, in 1889.

A convention to form a state constitution was assembled in Boise City in July 1889, and the delegates from southeast Idaho were Judge John T. Morgan, Sam. F. Taylor, D. W. Standrod, H. B. Kinport, F. W. Beam, H. O. Harkness, Robert Anderson, W. H. Savidge and Homer Stull. Idaho was admitted as a state into the Union, July 3, 1890.

In 1892 a “boomers” company was organized at Eagle Rock by some easterners. One of their first moves was to change the name of Eagle Rock to Idaho Falls, because, forsooth, people would be led by the new name to imagine great water power at the “Falls.” The boom, like nearly all booms, was a calamity. Fictitious prices were asked and paid, town lots were sold by the promoters to servant girls or any other victims, all over the northwestern states; and then came the reaction, from which the town has scarcely yet recovered. But you can’t keep the sun at daybreak from rising by beating it back with a hoe-handle. Still the country improves and the town grows.

“Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur.” No longer the “Great American Desert!” In the last year or two there have been world developments. A trade is only now in its infancy that is going to revolutionize relative values of land on the American continent and the commerce of the world. Asia is calling to America; America is eager to answer to the cry. Huge cargoes of wheat leave some Pacific port almost daily. We do not yet realize what this all means. It means the west is coming to the forefront. It means that probably the greatest city on the American continent is to be on the western coast. It may be San Francisco, Portland, Tacoma; or it may be the foundation stones are not yet laid of what is yet to be the busiest metropolis of all America. Every acre of land on the Pacific slope, capable of producing, has a greater intrinsic value, acre for acre, than land in Illinois, Ohio or Missouri. It is nearer the market that is now just opening.

If we hark back to remote antiquity there is a lesson to be leaned. We see that the earliest developments of civilization have been in irrigated countries. Culture follows wealth. They have been the most civilized because the richest. Egypt, with the great system of irrigation from the Nile is first to attract our attention. Many other instances will present themselves, but we will only note that, while the abundantly rain-watered belt of country along the eastern coast of North America was a scene of Indian strife and savagery, irrigated Peru was wealthy and civilized. Cortez enriched Spain by robbing the temples of the Incas of their gathered wealth.

Crops never fail in an irrigated country: wealth is as sure to follow as light and life follow the rising of the sun.

Now we make the assertion, and we challenge contradiction, that the Snake River valley is the most favored locality in the great west. Nowhere else can be found so vast a body of fertile land and, at the same time, an ample supply of water. When the Nile fails to water Egypt, we may begin to fear Snake River may also fail. Not till then.

It is true beyond controversy that the one hundred and fifty mile stretch from Marysville at the north, above St. Anthony, to old Fort Hall, south of Blackfoot, can, and in due time will, produce more wheat, oats, potatoes, apples, etc., than a like number of acres anywhere else on the continent, and the apples are said to have a more delicious flavor. Not many years are to pass before Bonneville’s desert is to become the Egypt of the west and a small farm to the moderate man will be an ample inheritance.


Bannock, History,

Illustrated History of the State of Idaho. Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company. 1899.

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