Ghost Towns, Gold Dredges and an Old Toll Road
Life on the Yankee Fork
The broken down log cabin sat among tall grasses and a smattering of trees while a nearby sign confirmed that we had reached the town of Bonanza. Or at least, what was left of that late 1880’s boomtown. This was the beginning of a trip back in time along a dirt road in Central Idaho. We had entered the Yankee Fork Historic Area and were just beginning to get a taste of gold rush history.
There were only a few buildings left in the Bonanza town site. Fires, the end of the gold rush era, and time has reduced Bonanza to just a few tilted, faded log buildings. Long gone were the hundreds of residents, the dentist, newspaper, hotels and the saloons. The cemetery still remained and, thanks to the work of the Idaho Parks and Recreation Department and its partners, so was a list of people who had been interred at that site along with some tongue-in-cheek probable causes of death.
A couple of kilometres up the road was Custer, the other gold town that sprang up as men flocked to pan for gold. Whereas Bonanza had a rectangular pattern of streets, Custer had one long narrow main street, which stretched from the General Custer Mill to the town’s China Town. Custer roared to life in 1879, its population peaked at 342 in 1900, and was virtually a ghost town by 1911.
Custer began as a miner’s town. There were saloons and a few houses of ill repute. As the town became more prosperous mercantile stores appeared as well as hotels, rooming houses and restaurants. Reputable women also appeared and the tone of the town changed. There were now families, children and eventually a school. The photos showing couples playing croquette and attending talent shows demonstrated how settled Custer had become. There never was a church, but visiting pastors came through and townspeople regularly conducted Sunday school.
Most mining towns attracted Chinese workers. In Custer the Chinese weren’t allowed to work in mines or do other manual labor. Nor were they welcome to live in the same neighborhood as the original settlers. Their section of town was slightly down the canyon beyond the main buildings. They became the cooks for the various mining operations, did laundry for everyone, and raised vegetables, pigs and chickens, which they sold back to the non-Chinese residents. There was a ‘joss house’ for worshipping (an old English name for a traditional Chinese temple), and the celebration of the Chinese New Year attracted Custer’s
children probably due to the coconut, rice and molasses candy being handed out.
As more gold was panned, the methods for its extraction became more sophisticated. First there was just panning, then sluice boxes, and finally the General Custer Mill, which crushed the ore from the many mines that filled the area. The mill began operations in 1880 and closed in 1888 due to increased costs caused by having to mine the gold rather than quarrying it. The mines which provided the ore were mostly located over Custer Mountain, which formed the east side of the canyon and required a 1000 m (3,300’) long tram with a 365 m (1,200’) vertical drop to bring the ore to the mill.
In 1895 the Lucky Boy Gold Mining Co. bought the mill,
overhauled it and had several boom years until finally closing in 1904 partially due to declining ore value. With the closing of the mines and mill, Custer’s residents moved on and the town faded to the status of a ghost town.
South of Custer at the intersection of Highway 75 with Yankee Fork Road is the now nearly non-existent town of Sunbeam. Actually, at one time it was one of two Sunbeams. The original was eight kilometres (five miles) up Jordan Creek near the town of Custer. That Sunbeam town developed due to gold mining on Jordan Creek in the early 1900’s. The owner of the Sunbeam Consolidated Gold Mines Co. had long dreamt of providing electricity at the Sunbeam Mill. In 1910 he completed an 11 m (36’) high and 45 m (150’) wide dam on the Salmon River just up-river from the mouth of the Yankee Fork River. Electricity and telephone service were supplied to his mill and mine, and to the few families remaining in Bonanza. A month later that dream came to an end. The ore’s value had deteriorated and the company couldn’t pay the debts it had incurred. Electricity, telephone and Sunbeam all ended with the sheriff’s sale of the company’s assets. The current small community of Sunbeam at Highway 75 began with a log store and grew due to the activity of building the dam and is still there because of the nearby hot springs and bathhouse. Seeing the remains of these towns is just the beginning of Yankee Fork’s fascinating history. The only remaining floating gold dredge in Idaho is tucked away in this area as well as the challenging Custer Motorway.
Yankee Fork Custer Building.
YANKEE FORK: Bonanza Buildings.