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The Ghost Town of Bayhorse

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Gold Pan Kit

Driving along the Salmon River Scenic Byway, we entered the Land of the Yankee Fork: a state park which stretches out to the south of Challis, dedicated to the mining history of the area. There are three ghost towns in the park, and we decided to make a stop at Bayhorse.

Bayhorse-History-Idaho

We had taken our time on the Salmon River road, and didn’t arrive at the gates of Bayhorse until 4:45pm, nearly closing time for the park. But the guard waved us in, and said we could take our time. Idaho, we’ve learned, is filled with easy-going people like this; he must have been getting ready to go home, but was happy to inconvenience himself for a little while. And, being selfish jerks, we always make sure to take full advantage of such generosity!

It was fortunate for us, because the ghost town was fascinating. Like so many of the small towns in central and northern Idaho, Bayhorse got its start during the mining boom of the 1860s and 70s. Tucked away in a narrow canyon, it reached a peak population of around 300, before the mining dried up in the 1890s and people started to leave. In 1958, plucky little Bayhorse finally lost its last resident and became a certified ghost town.

If the ruins are anything to judge by, this must have been a neat place during its heyday. The most notable remnant is the old mill: a big three-story structure resting on the side of the canyon. It was designed to make use of gravity: rocks dumped into the top were processed on their way down. In varying states of conservation, we also saw a saloon, a few houses, and a brick Wells Fargo building in the middle of town. You can even still find some old charcoal kilns on the outskirts.

We’d visited other mining towns that were past their prime, such as Idaho City and Warren, but this was the first fully abandoned town we’d seen, and provided a fascinating glimpse into a rather short-lived period of Idaho’s short history.

Location of Bayhorse on our Idaho Map

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November 10, 2012 at 12:38 am Comment (1)

Kellogg’s Crystal Gold Mine

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The day after visiting the Sierra Silver Mines in nearby Wallace, we were invited to check out Kellogg’s Crystal Gold Mines. Two mines in two days might sound repetitive, but they offered sufficiently distinct experiences to make each worth the time.

Gold-In-Idaho-Mine

Where the most memorable aspect of Sierra Silver Mines had been its still-working equipment, that of the Crystal Gold Mine was its history. This was the first hard rock mine explored in the Silver Valley, dug out by a small group of prospectors years before the silver rush which brought about the first permanent settlers. The identity of the men responsible for the Crystal mine remains shrouded in mystery.

Our guide for the day, a former miner who joined the Navy when the industry slowed, showed us the veins of quartz which the gold-seekers followed into the underground. Gold is often mixed with quartz, and he pointed out some nuggets still embedded in the hard, white rock. No one knows how much gold this mine produced, but considering how much was left when the mine was rediscovered, it must have been a substantial amount.

The miners vanished suddenly, for reasons which are unascertainable. Their equipment, advanced and expensive for the day, was left behind, and the mine’s entrance was sealed up and carefully concealed. It seems safe to assume that they intended to return. The mine was so well-hidden that it remained undiscovered until 1991.

Our tour took about an hour. We learned about various minerals, including the beautiful and worthless Smithsonite, and got to experience the unsettling sensation of absolute blackness when our guide shut off the lights completely. We saw downward shafts now filled with water (and some fish), some of the rotted, original equipment, and an interesting exhibit which demonstrated the blast pattern on a wall packed with dynamite.

And after the tour, we got to try our hand at panning for gold in tubs kept in the yard. I was too clumsy and impatient, but Jürgen demonstrated an innate knack for it. So I wasn’t too surprised when, the next day, he swung into the parking lot of a hardware store and ran inside to buy his very own pan. For weeks, every time we drove by a river, his eyes lit up with gold fever, and we had to stop. Amazingly, he never hit it rich.

Crystal Gold Mine – Website

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October 21, 2012 at 4:27 pm Comment (1)

The Gold-Rush Town of Idaho City

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In the late 19th century, the largest city between San Francisco and Saint Louis was Idaho City — a boomtown constructed after the discovery of gold in the Boise Basin. With a rowdy population of miners from California, Washington, Missouri and China, Idaho City was the kind of place where whiskey was cheap and lives even cheaper.

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The Boise Basin gold rush of the 1860s was one of the biggest in American history, and Idaho City was its nexus. Prospectors arrived from around the world, and the city’s story is filled with murder, gun fights, unbelievable wealth and thievery. Over two billion in gold was extracted from the area, and it’s not hard to imagine the scenes which must have played out… especially when you consider the fact that whiskey was cheaper than water in those days. The only thing more unscrupulous than a greedy miner, is a drunk greedy miner.

Today the town is something of a living museum. People still reside and work there, but there’s a definite focus on the past. The first building we visited was the County Council office, which used to be the town saloon. The bar is still in place and looks surreal amid the bustle of current-day office life. One of the clerks took a break from her computer to show us inside the old walk-in safe, where records streching back to the town’s founding are kept on file.

Across the street is the county courthouse, dating from 1873. Here again, one of the office workers volunteered to take us on a short tour of the historic building — locals here are apparently accustomed to tourists. The courthouse was fascinating, and looked much as it did back in the day. Justice was quicker and more vicious back then — after being convicted, felons were immedately hung over the judge’s desk.

Idaho City is so picturesque and atmospheric that it almost seems fake. Mostly, it reminded me of Frontierland in Disney world, and I half expected a gun-totin’ Goofy to come ambling out of the saloon. Almost every building had a story, from the schoolhouse to the Idaho World building, home of the state’s oldest running newspaper. There was a grand two-story Masonic Temple right next to the county penitentiary and, around the corner, the “Pest House”, where sick unfortunates were locked up. The old post office has been converted into a museum, which is supposed to be great, but was closed during our visit. And we saw the Pom Yam house, owned by a rich Chinese merchant — according to local lore, his ghost still floats around.

I suppose it’s a good thing that the lawless, gun-happy days of the gold rush are behind us. But for anyone nostalgic for that era, Idaho City is the perfect place to spend some time.

Location on our Idaho Map

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September 11, 2012 at 10:28 pm Comments (3)