They say that all that glitters is not gold, which is especially true in the Gem State of Idaho, where garnets, opals and jasper gemstones can be found sparkling just as brightly as gold. But back in the late 1870s, it was the gleam of gold and little else that attracted prospectors to the Yankee Fork of Idaho’s Salmon River. And where gold glimmered yesterday is often where ghost towns can be found today.
The twin towns of Bonanza City and Custer are examples of once-booming mining settlements gone bust and are well worth a visit when traveling through scenic central Idaho. You’ll also find the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge in the same area. Both ghost towns and the dredge are nine miles down a gravel/dirt road off State Highway 75 (13 miles east of Stanley). While not paved, the road is pretty well graded and passable for most RVs, though not recommended for trailers.
The Yankee Fork, a large tributary of Idaho’s upper Salmon River, was named in 1867 by hopeful miners from Montana. Before returning to their home state empty-handed, the party of “Yanks” dubbed the creek the Yankee Fork. Those “Yanks” should have looked longer because a great deal of gold was eventually found here. In fact, the General Custer Mine and Mill were established in 1876, and the towns of Bonanza and Custer sprang up almost instantly. The communities then prospered side-by-side for over 30 years—until the gold ran out around 1910.
Bonanza came to life first and was the main business and social center for the new Yankee Fork Mining District. The name “Bonanza” represented the optimism felt by early day miners, and luckily their dreams were realized for decades. By 1881, the population of Bonanza peaked at 600 and the town boasted of a dentist, a tin shop, a watchmaker, hotels, saloons, boarding houses, a post office, and even the first newspaper in Custer County, the Yankee Fork Herald.
From the beginning, Bonanza was a well-planned settlement. Its streets were laid out in a rectangular grid, which was very unlike most boomtowns that tended to be constructed haphazardly. Bonanza’s main thoroughfare was wide and lined with trees, and there was a public well and a water system. Despite the latter, major fires in 1889 and 1897 destroyed much of Bonanza. But by then, Custer had been established two miles away, and most merchants reestablished their businesses there.
Not much is still intact in Bonanza now. Most of its old buildings succumbed to heavy snow and windstorms, but they still make for interesting photos and historic reminders. It’s tempting to treasure hunt amongst the rubble, but posted signs prohibit the removal of artifacts, so stick to just taking pictures. The historic Bonanza Cemetery, about a mile west, is a peaceful resting place among the pines. Most of the townsfolk from both Bonanza and Custer were buried here, including some of the more colorful characters of the day. Look for the headstone of Agnes “Lizzie” King, who ran Bonanza’s Arcade Saloon and Yankee Fork Dance Hall. She is buried between her two husbands. Lizzie and her second husband were mysteriously murdered just a week after their wedding. Following that tragic event, the original founder of Bonanza City, Charles Franklin, was found dead, clutching a gold locket containing Lizzie’s photo. There are also three marked graves in nearby Boot Hill Cemetery.
The town of Custer started out in 1879 as the smaller sister to Bonanza, just two miles north. With the defeat of General Custer three years earlier still fresh in their minds, the founding miners named the town in his honor. Unlike Bonanza, Custer was just a single street—narrow and a half-mile long—with a Chinatown located at the southern end. The 1880s brought rapid growth to the region as the Lucky Boy, Sunbeam, General Custer, and other mines produced abundant ore. With a capacity to process 900 tons of ore a month, the General Custer Mine alone produced an estimated $8 million in gold between 1880 and 1888 and was consider the mother lode of the Yankee Fork. Thanks to the economic support from the mines, Custer’s population doubled by 1896, and it became the larger of the two towns. It even sported a schoolhouse, jail, miner’s union hall and a baseball team.
By 1903, the glory days of mining were slipping away as the mines played out one by one. Business, of course, slumped. By 1910, Bonanza and Custer had become ghost towns. Custer was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, and through the efforts of volunteer organizations, the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Forest Service, is open to the public from June through September.
Some of Custer’s original buildings have been renovated and more are in progress, so you’ll see and learn plenty along the self-guided walking tour. The outdoor exhibit of old mining equipment is especially interesting and makes you appreciate not having to work that hard for a paycheck! Even the unrestored structures are in very good condition. It’s enticing to discover their history and wonder about everyday life in a mining town. Plan your visit during business hours, and you’ll find that Custer’s old schoolhouse is open now as a museum. Souvenirs and refreshments are available at the Empire Saloon.
If you visit after hours, brochures and placards explain the original purpose of the buildings and also give good information on the founding of the town and its mining history. One such informative sign explains the role of the huge 30-stamp General Custer Mill that once provided jobs and processed gold ore from the General Custer Mine. It was demolished in the 1930s, but you can still see the ore bin on the hillside. A small cemetery in town contains just seven known graves. Unless the road was closed because of deep snow, most burials were made in the Bonanza Cemetery.
If you’d like to see a ghost town come back to life, visit Custer on the second Saturday of July. During the annual Custer Days celebration, you’ll see demonstrations on rug weaving, soap-making, broom-making, and ice cream making, too. You may even have the opportunity to learn how to gold pan, and there’s usually a gunfight in town as well!
Yankee Fork Gold Dredge
Brought in by the Snake River Mining Company in 1940 to mechanically recover gold left behind by early prospectors, the massive Yankee Fork Gold Dredge operated for about 12 years. It is located between the towns of Bonanza and Custer, and you can’t help notice evidence of the dredging as you drive—huge mounds of gravel and rock are alongside the road. The dredge left behind over five miles of these “dredge tailings” as it worked its way upstream. From 1940 until all the company’s claims were worked out in 1952, the enormous dredge dug out 6 million cubic yards of stream gravel and recovered an estimated $1.2 million in gold. The Yankee Fork Gold Dredge remains the largest self-powered dredge ever to operate in Idaho and was donated to the Forest Service.
A dedicated, hardworking group of volunteers eventually restored the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge and it’s now open for guided and self-guided tours from Memorial Day through Labor Day. You’ll definitely want to take a peek inside! Its gigantic dimensions are quite impressive—112 feet long, 54 feet wide, 64 feet high—and it weighs 988 tons. There are 71 buckets on one continuous chain and each bucket holds eight cubic feet of dirt. In its day, the dredge was considered very efficient and was powered by two 7-cylinder diesel engines that produced the electricity to operate the dredge.
Modern-day travelers stopping in these glittering ghost towns might not strike it rich, but you’ll certainly gain an abundant appreciation for how precarious the livelihood of mining towns really was—rising and falling solely based on the availability of gleaming gold.
In addition to writing about her travels, Denise Seith of Dallas, Oregon, assists businesses with their graphic design, copywriting, and marketing needs. She can be reached through www.DeniseSeithCo.com.