Marble Creek, the historic timberland area north of St. Maries, Idaho, is the place to go to see steam donkeys in their native habitat. At least nine steam donkeys are running wild in the Marble Creek area.
Well, “running” may be overstating the case, since those steam donkeys are actually huge steam-powered log-pulling machines that are now rusting out in the woods where they were left. They haven’t been running for decades. The loggers who used those donkeys a century ago just left them in place after either the trees were gone or new equipment took over.
The Marble Creek steam donkeys are metal hulks standing about 30 feet tall. When operational in the early 1900s, each donkey’s massive wood-burning boiler heated the water that created the steam that powered a winch. The winch cables were used to pull logs from the hillsides to a central location to be floated or railroaded to the lumber mills.
Also scattered around the Marble Creek area are dozens of other relics of the early logging era in the Idaho forest, including splash dams, logging camps, cabins, and an incline railroad complete with trestles and a railroad engine.
This logging memorabilia has been located, identified and cataloged through the Historic Marble Creek project. The project also resulted in the creation of an interpretive center that shares the area’s logging history, and the construction of a half-dozen trails, covering a total of 40 miles, that take visitors to the remains of logging camps and abandoned logging equipment. Today, thanks to that Marble Creek project, visitors can combine enjoyable hikes in the woods with lessons about the reality of timber harvesting a century ago.
Buried in the Forest
The preservation of logging history at Marble Creek is the result of actions by a group of St. Maries area residents in the late 1980s. They recognized that on-site evidence of Idaho’s lumberjack history was fast disappearing. The forest was reclaiming the old campsites and equipment the loggers left behind. They also recognized that the Marble Creek area, due to the quality and quantity of timber there and the relatively early period when the area was logged, held a remarkable concentration of logging relics.
The nonprofit Marble Creek Historical Society spearheaded the preservation effort. The group managed to raise $625,000 to fund the project. Half of the money came from the U.S. Forest Service and the other half was donated by the local timber industry. The trails and the interpretive center were dedicated in 1990.
In addition to those on-site amenities, the partnership between the Forest Service and the Historical Society created a very useful trail brochure, entitled “Historic Marble Creek: Building a Window on the Past.” The brochure includes a full-page map of the trail system identifying the location of the steam donkeys, the logging camps and the incline railroad. The brochure, which also shows the location of the three campgrounds in the area, is available from the St. Joe Ranger District in St. Maries, or at the Marble Creek Interpretive Center.
To find the interpretive center, go to the town of Plummer on Idaho Highway 95 (midway between Coeur d’Alene and Moscow). At Plummer, turn east on Idaho Highway 5 for 18 miles to the town of St. Maries. The Marble Creek Interpretive Center is about 35 miles north of St. Maries.
From St. Maries, turn north on Idaho Highway 3, the White Pine Scenic Byway, and cross the St. Joe River. One mile later, at the intersection of Highway 3 and the St. Joe River Road (also known as Forest Road 50 and as the St. Joe Scenic Byway), turn right toward Avery. Follow that road for 35 miles as it parallels the St. Joe River to the Marble Creek Interpretive Center, located at the intersection of the river road and Forest Road 321.
The interpretive center houses a remarkably complete display of photos and objects from the first era of homesteading, 1890 through 1910, and then documents the subsequent purchase of the land by the logging companies, their elimination of the Old Growth forest, and then finally, the management of the area by the U.S. Forest Service.
In addition to the quality historical exhibit plus maps and trail brochures, the interpretive center is a worthwhile stop because of the drinking water, picnic tables and accessible privy provided.
To visit the trails and historic sites, follow Forest Road 321 up Marble Creek. Three campgrounds have been developed (none with hookups) in this historic district. Remember to drive carefully, since the road is narrow, graveled, and may be used by logging trucks. The Forest Service calls the road “one-way with turnouts,” so be aware.
The Marble Creek Road winds about 20 miles from the interpretive center to the top of the ridge at Hobo Pass. The Hobo Cedar Grove Botanical Area is located there.
From Hobo Pass the road continues for 11 miles to the town of Clarkia and Idaho Highway 3. From Clarkia, return to Idaho Highway 95 by turning right (west) on Highway 3 to Fernwood, Emida, Potlatch, and Idaho Highway 95.
At Marble Creek, remember that logging is still allowed. The area is classified as timberland, not recreational land. So visitors may hear the whine of chainsaws or share the roads with trucks. However, the area has recovered well from the years of industrial timber harvest; the forest is vigorous and beautiful, and the creeks are running clear. When coupled with the opportunity to see the steam donkeys and other logging relics in their natural habitat, Marble Creek is a delightful forest destination.
For more information, contact the U.S. Forest Service, St. Joe Ranger District, P.O. Box 407, St. Maries ID 83861. Phone (208) 245-2531.
Bill London is a writer who lives in Moscow, Idaho.