Ghost Towns, Gold Dredges and an Old Toll Road (Idaho)
Life on the Yankee Fork
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.