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The Spencer Opal Mines

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The sun was hot on the back of my neck as I crouched down over another pile of rocks, wielding my hammer and garden fork. My legs were getting sore, and I kept forgetting to drink water, but the growing exhaustion didn’t matter. Every time I had almost convinced myself to quit, a shiny glint appeared underfoot. Yes, my precious, another opal!


Spencer, Idaho, is a small town near the Montana border which owes its existence to the opal. The mines here are the best in America, producing stones renowned for their fine layers and exquisite color. Discovered in 1948 by a couple deer hunters, the Spencer Opal Mines have been owned and operated by the same family for the past 48 years. In 1968, after realizing they were producing more rock than they could work themselves, they opened a mini-mine for amateur gem hunters. For $10, you can scour the stones as long as you want, and keep up to a pound of opal-laden rock for yourself.

When we first read about the Spencer Opal Mines, I was more than a little suspicious. “Sure”, I thought, “like they really dump it into a public mine, without first removing all the good opals”. But as soon I saw the pit, I realized that this is exactly what they do. It’s big, with tons of rocks, and there’s no way they screen them all in advance. And my skepticism was completely dispelled when I found my first opal, a yellow-colored gem, after about five minutes of hunting.

The chances of discovering a truly valuable opal in the Spencer Opal Mines aren’t that bad. While demonstrating how to water the stones down and bring out their full color, the mine’s owner told us about a 10-year-old kid who had recently found a huge pink opal in the public mine. He estimated that the gem could probably pay for the kid’s first year of college.

After about an hour, we left the mine with two full bags of rock, our one-pound quotas easily met. In fact, I had to choose some opals to leave behind, although I could have paid a bit extra to take them all. Most of the gems we found were fairly common, the shiny white color of quartz, but we ended up with a few colorful opals were suitable to be polished and set into jewelry. Not a bad haul.

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December 8, 2012 at 5:41 pm Comments (2)

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.


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)

The Sierra Silver Mines of Wallace

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A Mine We Visited In Bolivia

The history of Wallace is synonymous with that of silver mining in the Coeur d’Alene Mountains. The town was founded when silver was discovered, thrived as long as the mineral was abundant, and faded once the mines closed up shop. The Sierra Silver Mine Tour confidently describes itself as “the most popular, interesting, and instructive tour in the Northwest”, and offers an excellent primer to both Wallace and the industry which defined it.


Our tour started with a trolley ride around Wallace, with the driver pointing out historic buildings and sharing anecdotes from the town’s bawdy history. The trolley then drove outside the town limits and deposited us at the opening to the Sierra Silver Mine, where a retired miner was awaiting us. He outfitted us with hard hats, gave us a short history of the mine, and then led us into the underground.

Discovered around 1900, the Sierra mine was a dud which never produced any real riches. It had a few different owners throughout the years, but regardless of how far or deep they dug, silver was never discovered in sufficient quantity to justify full-scale mining. In 1982, the mine was purchased by a group of locals who opened it up to tours, hoping to preserve and promote Wallace’s mining history and heritage.

Our tour underground lasted an hour. During it, we were taught how to identify silver and lead, and how these differ from lesser-value metals like zinc. Turns out the sparkliest stuff isn’t necessarily the most exciting. Our guide also demonstrated some of the equipment used by the miners of the early 1900s, such as a giant drill which was at least twelve feet long. My favorite was the slushing machine, which removed the sludge and water produced after a blast.

It was a fun tour, and an interesting peek into the history of the industry that shaped the Silver Valley.

Sierra Silver Mine Tour – Website

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October 17, 2012 at 12:22 am Comments (2)

A Walking Tour of Historic Warren

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After learning the year-round population of tiny Warren, located in the western foothills of the Salmon River Mountains, I was shocked. “Twelve?!” I couldn’t believe even that many people lived here.

Warren is the most remote town that we visited in Idaho, stationed at the end of a dirt road 45 miles out of McCall. It’s a moderately popular summer getaway which empties out almost entirely once snow sets in. Understandable, since the only road into town closes for winter. After that, it’s either snowmobile or airplane.

As with many of central Idaho’s tiny towns, Warren had its heyday back in the 1860s with the discovery of gold. Prospectors moved in from every corner of the country — Californians, Missourians, Secessionists from the South — but they were all out-numbered by the Chinese. Over 1200 workers from China flocked to Warren, establishing their own saloons, restaurants and barbershops. One prominent member of the Chinese community, Ah Sam, even became an honorary mayor of Warren.

The Forest Ranger station in McCall had equipped us with a pamphlet titled the “Warren Historic Walking Tour”, which describes the ancient buildings which are still standing, and relates some of the more colorful stories of the town’s past. As we walked past the Green House, for example, we read the following about the overly conciliatory judge who resided there:

Andy Kavanaugh assumed the office in 1895 and was distinguished by never rendering a verdict. Kavanaugh threw all his cases out of court on the basis of “hearsay evidence” because “it made a lot smoother living in the community.”

Perhaps my favorite of Warren’s buildings was the old schoolhouse, noteworthy for its backwards “N” — particularly embarrassing, since this was where children were taught to write. In the 1930s, townspeople rejected a proposal that the “N” be corrected, huffing that “this is the way it’s always been!”

At the schoolhouse, I pointed out an odd bit of playground equipment to my mom. It looked like a medieval torture device, but sent her into a fit of nostalgic ecstasy. “Giant Stride”, she squealed, running toward it like the schoolgirl she actually was the last time she had seen one. Apparently, these deathtraps were all the rage in the playgrounds of 1950s-era Indiana. It’s like a tetherball set, but taller, and with six ropes instead of one, and they’re metal chains instead of rope, and instead of a soft ball on the end of each, there are heavy, metal stirrups. Of course, it’s incredibly fun — I swung around on it for awhile, cursing the dumb kid who must have wrapped a chain around his throat and forced the nationwide ban on this awesomely dangerous toy.

We finished off our day in Warren at its bustling saloon. Literally everyone in town must have been there. A very cool place, quirky like only the bars of very small towns can be. They had old Chinese artifacts on display, and a book compiling the editions of the defunct Warren Times.

Warren was a far more entertaining day trip than I had anticipated. The beautiful Warren Wagon road which leads there from McCall is almost worth the drive itself, but the town has a lot to recommend a visit. Just make sure and pick up the Walking Tour brochure in McCall, first.

Location on our Idaho Map

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September 17, 2012 at 6:49 pm Comments (4)

The Gold-Rush Town of Idaho City

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Gold Mining Books

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.

Blacksmith Idaho

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.

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Back In Time Idaho
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September 11, 2012 at 10:28 pm Comments (3)
The Spencer Opal Mines The sun was hot on the back of my neck as I crouched down over another pile of rocks, wielding my hammer and garden fork. My legs were getting sore, and I kept forgetting to drink water, but the growing exhaustion didn't matter. Every time I had almost convinced myself to quit, a shiny glint appeared underfoot. Yes, my precious, another opal!
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