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Gold Mining in Idaho: Then & Now

by Allison Cohn

Gold Mining in Idaho: Then & Now
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As featured in the May/June Gold Prospectors Magazine

By Allison Cohn

Picking up where we left off in the April/May Pick & Shovel, we’ve made the trek from the Las Vegas Gold & Treasure Show, North to Idaho for the Boise Show. As we prep for the show, we dig a little deeper to see what Idaho’s history can tell us and where the gold is out there today.

Gold Mining in Idaho: Then & Now

Before Idaho became synonymous with potato farming, it was a mecca for gold mining. Now, officially recognized as the “Gem State,” Idaho still possesses millions of dollars’ worth of twinkling flour gold throughout its Columbia and Snake rivers, the Boise Basin and tucked away in its many ghost towns. The “Gem State” nickname can also double as a tip of the hat to Idaho’s vast and stunning wilderness, from the towering Rocky Mountain peaks to its multitude of lakes and waterfalls.

Part of the appeal of prospecting in Idaho — aside from its prevalence of gold, of course — is that about 82 percent of the state is public land, with a majority of its mining areas located within recreation areas. Because of this, lots of Idaho’s claims remain very accessible, with nearby camping and facilities. That being said, there are also a lot more remote gold deposits tucked away into the mountainous regions for adventurous and intrepid prospectors with four-wheel-drive vehicles. Read on to learn all about Idaho’s (literally) rich gold mining history, and some of the state’s best prospecting spots where you can still find gold today — including some helpful local insight from Idaho’s GPAA state director.


Idaho, Once Upon A Time

Nearly 20 years after the first gold was discovered in California and fueling the fire for the greatest migration our country has, or will likely see, Wilbur Bassett and Elias D. Pierce struck gold in Orofino Creek in Canal Gulch in 1860, near the present-day town of Pierce. Idaho remains one of the least densely populated states in the country, and had it not been for the gold rush here, it would have likely remained undeveloped for many decades more.


Idaho gold didn’t stay a secret for long, however. Less than a year after gold was discovered near Pierce, a massive influx of hopeful prospectors ascended onto Idaho via the Columbia and Snake rivers, staking roughly 1,600 more claims in the Canal Gulch region. Because a majority of these ambitious gold-seekers had already been mining in California and Oregon, the route they took into Idaho was unique in the sense that it came in through the west, making Idaho one of the only states to be settled from west to east.


However, most prospectors were disappointed when they realized so much of Idaho’s Snake River gold, which traveled nearly 800 miles from the headwaters in the Teton Range of Wyoming before arriving in the Boise Basin, was nearly impossible to recover. Because this Snake River gold was, and still is, so fine, its distribution and concentration are both erratic and unpredictable. It wasn’t until years after gold was discovered in Idaho that the invention of the burlap sluice made placer gold much more minable, although the device was quite labor intensive, according to many accounts. 


In 1862, the Florence Basin became home to about 10,000 miners and began producing the equivalent of $600,000 of gold each day in modern-day prices. While the Florence Basin was literally hemorrhaging riches, lucky prospectors went on to discover the biggest, baddest gold mining district in Idaho’s history later that same year: the Boise Basin. The Boise Basin quickly evolved into a handful of boomtowns, including Idaho City (formerly Bannock), Placerville, Pioneerville and Centerville. With the exception of Idaho City — whose population swelled to 7,000 during the mid-1860s, making it the largest city in the Northwest at the time (even bigger than Portland!) — the rest of Idaho’s boomtowns are now mostly desolate, with just a few remaining, but long abandoned, structures. Idaho City, with a present-day population of just under 500, had during its heyday several hundred businesses operating in town, with about twice as many saloons as law offices.


It was so crowded in Idaho City that prospectors arriving in 1863, who were a bit late to the party at this point, were forced to settle elsewhere on the outskirts of town. This led to the discovery of even more gold throughout Jordan Creek in the Owyhee Mountains and, ultimately, to the boomtown of Silver City. And thus, the Idaho Territory was officially born in 1863, with Lewiston as its capital. Just a few short years later, Boise City became Idaho’s territorial capital and major supply center for its surrounding mining districts. Idaho wasn’t admitted into the Union until 1890, clocking in as the 43rd state.


About 20 years after Idaho’s first gold discovery, Northern Idaho stepped into the spotlight. Prospectors flocked up to the Coeur d’Alene region after Andrew Prichard struck gold in the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River in 1881. There was one major factor that made this Northern Idaho gold discovery arguably more significant than the last: The Northern Pacific Railroad. The train company advertised its services by promising “free gold” in Northern Idaho for the price of a railroad ticket. Silver was then discovered in the Coeur d’Alene region a few years later by Noah Kellogg. Shortly afterward, the Coeur d’Alene River was pronounced the highest navigable river in the world, thanks to the paddlewheel riverboats responsible for transporting ore between the lake and the railroad. Big things were happening in Idaho at breakneck speed.


And it wasn’t just American prospectors seeking out Idaho’s riches. The 1870 Idaho census revealed that nearly one in four gold miners was Chinese. Many Chinese families had relocated to the Pacific Northwest during this time hoping to provide their families with better lives than they’d had back home, fleeing China due to economic instability and political rebellion. In fact, the Chinese miners outnumbered white miners by about 1,000, many of whom worked the lower grade deposits that paid less and were typically located among more challenging terrain.


The highest returning deposits during the late 1800s into the 1900s were said to be on Bonanza Bar, west of American Falls. The area between Raft River and Buhl was thoroughly mined during this time, with lots of the region’s thought-to-be exhausted sites reopening during the Depression so that desperate farmers could still make a couple of bucks each day.


In an attempt to economically mine Idaho’s fine gold, large dredges were constructed on the Snake River. The Burroughs Dredge was the first, built at the mouth of the Raft River in 1892. The dredge’s system — made up of an engine, boiler and six-inch sand pump — was extremely advanced for its time. Its glaring flaw was that big rocks would clog the suction pipe. The Sweetser-Burroughs Mining Company later built a second dredge, which ultimately returned profits after nearly a decade of work, due to its low operating costs.


Around the turn of the century, phosphate was discovered in Idaho, which spawned even more mining over the next 50 years throughout the state, both underground and on the surface. During the 1980s, Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene mining district went on to produce lead, copper and zinc. Idaho is still home to many prominent mines, including Morning Star (one of the country’s deepest mines, famed for producing over 300 million ounces of silver) and Bunker Hill (America’s largest underground mine).


Prospecting in Present-Day Idaho

According to Idaho GPAA State Director Ron Rhoads, placer gold can be found throughout most of Idaho’s most popular attractions, from Craters of the Moon Monument to City of Rocks National Reserve. All you need is a sluice box and some pans (no permit necessary!). Whether you’re heading out into the wilderness to rock climb, hike, bike, fish, check out some of the state’s historic fossils or base jump off of Idaho’s famed Perrine Bridge, it’s all too easy to turn your Idaho nature excursion into a prospecting trip.


Idaho is home to five GPAA chapters: Mountain Home, Idaho Falls, Twin Falls and two in Boise — with another one coming soon to the remote panhandle region of Cœur d'Alène. Prospectors still flock to Idaho from all over the country to take advantage of its crystal-clear waters, glittering with fine gold particles. Be sure to reach out to one of Idaho’s local GPAA chapters before you head out into the state’s sprawling wilderness. The GPAA will gladly provide advice and recommendations about specific regions, including safety tips. Rhoads recommends always connecting with the local GPAA chapters to get local info just right.

“It makes a big difference,” he says. “The GPAA will tell you what equipment to use, as well as offer guides to help you navigate those hard-to-find claims in mountains. The GPAA Mining Guide shows the claims and the GPS coordinates to get you close enough — but nothing beats speaking with the locals.”


Rhoads is full of useful information. He’s been prospecting since he was just 14 and has found gold all over the world, from Santa Cruz to Frankfurt. His family has a rich mining history: Rhoads’ grandpa owns 17 gold mines in the Black Hills of South Dakota. “Everyone I’ve ever known has been a prospector,” Rhoads says, smiling.


“Snake River gold is all flour gold (which is a type of placer gold),” he said. “It’s so fine and hard to get out of the sand. If someone could figure out how to get it out economically, they’d be a millionaire overnight! Your better gold is located up in the Caribou Mountain Gold District, Pocatello, Fairfield and the Boise Basin area (just south of Boise in Silver City). It’s easier access, and the gold is big enough to see. There’s also a little bit of gold in South Hills, but it’s also really fine.”


The Idaho GPAA chapters are extremely family-friendly and all inclusive.

“We’re all family,” Rhoads says. “When we have our outings, all the kids come with us. There are usually about 26 outfits and 90 people, and we all set up horseshoes and games, everybody plays in the creek. And I’m always out there to help out and teach.” Rhoads says the best season for prospecting in Idaho is typically between Memorial Day and October, depending on the storms. “It’s usually June or July before the water really goes down enough to work safely,” he explains.


“In Idaho,” he tells us, “you can camp anywhere that isn’t posted ‘private property,’ since it’s mostly public land. But one thing most people don’t realize is that when you get a mining claim, the only thing it does is give you right to minerals. You can’t stop people from camping and fishing there, just from taking the minerals. People think they own the property just because they’ve got a mining claim.”


“There are some areas where dredging is allowed, but you’ll need a permit from Water Resources,” Rhoads divulges. “To use a highbanker, for example, you’ll need a temporary water rights permit ($50/year) from the state of Idaho. You can’t dredge at all in California, Oregon or Washington — which is part of the reason so many people come to prospect in Idaho. Our rules are much less strict.”


Where does Rhoads personally like to go prospecting? “Up by Featherville and Little Smokey Creek, there’s a little mining district up there. Yankee Fork Ridge is good, too. It’s a ghost town. I know how to get in and out of Atlanta without destroying everything,” he laughs. “I always carry my equipment in my truck. Fishing usually leads to prospecting. It’s just a fun thing to do. No matter what your outdoor enthusiasm is, you can throw a pan in your backpack and stop at any creek.” 


Where to Find Idaho Gold Today

If you’ve got four-wheel drive and lots of ambition, check out the rugged Atlanta District, located southeast of the Boise Basin in Elmore County. Tucked into the Sawtooth Mountains, the former mining town of Atlanta is quite remote and hard to access, but likely still contains a fair amount of placer and lode deposits.


According to Rhoads, the “problem (with Atlanta) is getting in since there’s about 75 miles of bad road.” He says there are several ways to get there, and the GPAA Mining Guide shows a claim just outside Atlanta — but to definitely check in with the local chapter for advice on how to best access it. “It’s not unusual for roads to get washed out and rebuilt each year,” he tells us. “And definitely plan on leaving your trailer behind.”


Florence is another far-flung, former mining district located in Central Idaho. Its high elevation and intense terrain give it a much shorter mining season, but the Salmon River — which flows about 4,000 feet below this ghost town — is accessible from I-95 and still contains lots of placer gold.


The area near the headwaters of the South Fork Boise River near Pine and Featherville is also a great place to go prospecting. Silver City, located in Owyhee County, was once a proper boomtown and home to thousands of miners. Jordan Creek runs through Silver City, which is now a ghost town, and is also a great place to dip your pan.


Wallace, located in the northern panhandle area in the Coeur d'Alene mining district, is proud to be home to some of Idaho’s richest mineral deposits, especially silver. Wallace was once notorious for vice, where legal prostitution in the town’s red-light district helped to fuel the local economy and madams were considered well-respected businesswomen. This once-progressive historic town is currently home to several hundred people — and gold can still be mined here in nearby Murray, an old mining ghost town. The town of Wallace also offers guided mine tours.


Rhoads also recommends Sun Valley for prospecting, where there are plenty of horse and bike trails, plus excellent fishing in its three big lakes. It’s quite a busy area during the summer time, which just adds to the fun. Take a cruise along the 46-mile Custer Motorway that runs between Custer and Bonanza, ending at the little ghost town of Yankee Fork. Yankee Fork hosts a family-friendly Custer Day each July with lots of activities and historical reenactments, and the Yankee Fork dredge is open for tours all summer. The ghost town of Bayhorse is also along this route and provides yet another great prospecting spot, located just above Sun Valley. Bayhorse “is mostly accessible by asphalt roads, with the exception of the last seven miles or so,” according to Rhoads. Gold panning anywhere in this region along the scenic Salmon River (largely accessible by I-75) is guaranteed to yield a flash in the pan.


According to Rhoads, “You’ll really find gold any place you put your pan in in Idaho!”


Allison Cohn is a freelance writer based in Colorado.

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