Ghost Towns, Gold Dredges and an Old Toll Road (Idaho)

Life on the Yan­kee Fork

Snowbirds & RV Travelers - - Contents -

IF YOU ARE IN­TER­ESTED IN HIS­TORY, ES­PE­CIALLY THE VAR­I­OUS WAYS GOLD WAS MINED, AND AP­PRE­CI­ATE A REM­I­NIS­CENT LOOK AT THE RE­MAINS OF TWO OLD GOLD TOWNS, YOU SHOULD TAKE THE TIME AND THE TURN-OFF FROM HIGH­WAY 75 TO FOR­EST ROAD 013 WHILE YOU ARE IN IDAHO EAST OF STAN­LEY.

DRIV­ING ALONG HIGH­WAY 75 east of Stan­ley, Idaho you’ll even­tu­ally come to the Yan­kee Fork Road, also iden­ti­fied as For­est Ser­vice Road 013, which takes you into the heart of the Yan­kee Fork His­toric area. Go­ing up that road you’ll soon pass through the ghost towns of Bo­nanza and Custer.

An­chored in a pond be­tween the two ghost towns is a faded sil­ver hulk with two large rec­tan­gu­lar struc­tures atop float­ing pon­toons. There are pe­cu­liar ap­pendages at each end. The front ap­pendage con­tains the dig­ging buck­ets, which brought in the ore and the rear one dumped the ex­cess gravel tail­ings be­hind. This is the Yan­kee Fork Gold dredge, which was spe­cially built for min­ing gold dur­ing the mid-20th Cen­tury. It is the only re­main­ing float­ing dredge in Idaho.

This 998-ton dredge was built on-site along the Yan­kee Fork of the Salmon River in 1939-40. That meant con­struct­ing the en­tire dredge (about 16.4 wide x 34 m long or 54’ by 112’) from the bot­tom up in­clud­ing the pon­toons that would even­tu­ally keep it afloat. Once fin­ished, the site was flooded with water from the Yan­kee Fork River and it lit­er­ally dug its way up the Yan­kee Fork leav­ing a trail of tail­ings be­hind. Dur­ing WWII it ini­tially op­er­ated from 1940 to 1942. Later it op­er­ated most years from 1945 to 1952 and re­cov­ered some­where around $1.2 mil­lion worth of gold and sil­ver. Af­ter hav­ing dug its way 9 km (5 ½ mi) up the Yan­kee Fork, the dredge was po­si­tioned in its cur­rent lo­ca­tion in 1953.

The owner of the dredge, J.R. Sim­plot, do­nated it and an acre of land to the U.S. For­est Ser­vice in 1966. It was boarded up un­til 1979 when former work­ers and vol­un­teers formed the Land of the Yan­kee Fork His­tor­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion to work with the U.S. For­est Ser­vice to re­store the dredge and to open it to the pub­lic. In the in­ter­ven­ing years win­dows had been bro­ken, cop­per wiring was stolen, and some hun­ters had even built small fires to stay warm while rest­ing in­side. The good news is that in a state with lots of firearms, there were no bul­let holes.

The dredge is now open dur­ing the sum­mer for self-guided tours that are ably aug­mented by very en­thu­si­as­tic, knowl­edge­able vol­un­teers. Be sure to wear good shoes as the dredge has four sto­ries and steep nar­row stairs. You’ll also want to visit the gift shop to see the his­toric pho­tographs, which pro­vide good in­sight into the daily life of the com­mu­nity of dredge work­ers and their fam­i­lies.

An­other piece of his­tory that shouldn’t be missed is the

Custer Mo­tor­way. Once gold min­ing in the Yan­kee Fork took off, there was need for a road to get the equip­ment for the mill and all the sup­plies for the two gold towns from Chal­lis. A toll road seemed the best so­lu­tion. Con­struc­tion was be­gun in July of 1879 and the 56 km (35 mi) were com­pleted by Septem­ber. Tolls were $4 for a wagon plus four an­i­mals and the 10-hour stage­coach ride cost be­tween $8 and $11.

More mod­ern times brought the Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps (CCC) to Yan­kee Fork. From 1933 to 1941 about 200 men were camped near the old town of Bo­nanza each sum­mer. They were put to work im­prov­ing the Yan­kee Fork and Jor­dan Creek roads as well as tear­ing down the col­laps­ing build­ings in Bo­nanza and Custer and fire sup­pres­sion in the Chal­lis Na­tional For­est.

By the mid-1930’s the toll road was in dis­re­pair and the CCC was given the or­der to re­build it. The dirt Custer Mo­tor­way is now open from July to Oc­to­ber and can eas­ily be driven by high clear­ance ve­hi­cles. Ob­vi­ously, no trail­ers or mo­tor homes should at­tempt what can be de­scribed as a wash­board road in sev­eral sec­tions.

The U.S. For­est Ser­vice, the Idaho De­part­ment of Parks and Re­cre­ation, and the Land of the Yan­kee Fork His­tor­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion, are all co­op­er­at­ing to make this unique area avail­able and wel­com­ing to the pub­lic. And if you do that and are there in early July, you might find your­self thrown back in time pan­ning gold, churn­ing but­ter, quilt­ing, lis­ten­ing to fid­dle mu­sic and maybe even watch­ing a shoot-out as part of the free an­nual Custer Day.

WORDS BY MARY TAY­LOR

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