Ghost Towns, Gold Dredges and an Old Toll Road

Life on the Yan­kee Fork

Snowbirds & RV Travelers - - — Idaho — - Words and pho­tos by Mary Tay­lor

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.

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