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Dead Ore Alive

The eeire pleasures of Idaho's obscure mining towns

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Mineral prospecting is as deeply woven into Idaho history as any other industry, but the obsession goes far beyond gold. From cinnabar to copper, tungsten to tantalum, dingy lead to brilliant quartz, each element spawned its own hunters, machinery, settlements and cultures almost overnight throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. A century later, we can showcase pristine, restored ghost towns like Silver City, Custer and Idaho City. But for every one of these hallowed tourist hotspots, dozens of virtually forgotten camps like DeLamar, Nicholia and Boulder City slowly crumble just out of sight in locations as brutal and beautiful as any ever braved by Idahoans. Some of these decayed museums are still recognizable as towns; others have been razed over time into little more than rat-palaces. They hook no tourists, receive no restorations and historic registries avoid them like toxic mining runoff, but Idaho was borne as much out of near-nameless dives as any surviving towns. Here are five forgotten ghost towns deserving of a visit if in the area, even if they are not famed enough to garner a trip of their own. Bring a topographic map, a full tank of gas and the address of the respective county's historical society and learn the other side of Idaho history: from the untouched skeletons of those who failed miserably.

[DeLAMAR]

Immaculate Silver City in the heart of Owyhee County may be the self-proclaimed "Queen of Idaho ghost towns," but history buffs looking for the messy and all-too-real history of Idaho's forgotten corner should head eight miles west to the Queen's bastard stepson DeLamar. DeLamar certainly isn't easy on the eyes, as the visible remnants of a cyanide-based strip mining operation still scars the surrounding hills. But as a comprehensive tour of the highs and destructive lows of Idaho mining, it has no peer.

Former sea captain Joseph DeLamar purchased the town property and numerous abandoned mining claims in 1886, 20 years after the height of Owyhee gold fever and almost a dozen years after Silver City suffered its first financial crash. Little mining had been inflicted on this area in the original Owyhee boom, but DeLamar pumped enough money into his namesake town that by the turn of the century it had almost single-handedly reinvigorated Idaho's most prosperous county, including neighboring towns Dewey, Ruby City and Dogtown (renamed Jordan Valley, Oregon).

Not that the ore-smashing mill was the only draw in this 2,500-person hub. Lower DeLamar, dubbed "Tough Town" by surrounding periodicals The Idaho Blue Book and The DeLamar Nugget, fast became the gambling and womanizing capital of the region--thanks to industrious madams with names like Old Lady Yell and Long-Toed Liz. Millions in high-grade silver came out of DeLamar mines in the early 20th century, and a party atmosphere ruled until the dual blows of World War I and the petering out of seemingly bottomless silver veins caused it to abruptly vacate in 1914.

As has been the case in many western locales, however, rising silver prices brought the DeLamar mines out of a 62-year coma in 1976. The town remained a phantom, but the gaping pits on nearby Florida Mountain produced more than half of America's new silver in the late 1970s and 1980s--and not to mention more jobs for Owyhee and Jordan Valley residents than any other industry. When the low-grade mines finally ceased operations in 1999 a crippling blow was dealt to the local economy, and Owyhee County's fate as a calm, if marred, artifact was finally fulfilled.

For decades DeLamar appealed to ghost town enthusiasts for its ornate and well-preserved boardinghouse, one of the finest such structures to be found in southern Idaho. Searchers using the excellent 1974 guide Southern Idaho Ghost Towns by Wayne Sparling, could even be given the impression that the structure still remains. However, it was burned down by a tourist's cigarette in 1978, and today only a handful of structures mingle amongst the junipers. Drive through to witness the creepy consequences when ghost towns aren't allowed to rest in peace.

[Roosevelt]

The handful of abandoned mining camps in remote Valley County, just east of harmonica-haven Yellow Pine, stand on par with locations statewide both for history and interesting remnants. In Stibnite, one can see the leftovers of America's once-chief tungsten production facility, so vital to World War II munitions production that the federal government subsidized the site. In nearby Yellow Jacket, a colossal five-story boardinghouse remains from the town's 1890s heyday, undoubtedly one of the most visually impressive mining relics in Idaho. But neither of these gems carry a story as bizarre as the all-but-forgotten gold hub of Roosevelt, the town that True West Magazine dubbed in a 1962 article, "The Town that Committed Suicide."

Origins of Roosevelt's name are conflicting. Some authors cite then-president Theodore Roosevelt as the inspiration for the town's 1901 designation, while others claim that randy miners named the village after a nearby rock formation that resembled the face, bust and waist of the president's daughter Alice. In either case, the town's proximity to the fruitful Dewey mine, as well as its thriving saloon and cathouse scenes, caused a population swell of over 7,000 prior to an event that caused Roosevelt to be permanently hidden to all but the most devoted ghost town searchers.

On May 31, 1909, an unusually moist spring thaw, possibly aided by years of hydraulic mining, caused thousands of tons of mud to slough off of nearby Thunder Mountain into Monument and Mule Creeks. Incredulous town members took no action, having seen numerous smaller slides in previous years. Within days, the waters had backed up into and finally over Roosevelt, which became little more than a goldfish castle at the bottom of what is now Roosevelt Lake. Most Rooseveltians escaped, but pieces of their homes and belongings periodically surfaced throughout the ensuing decades. On a calm day, one can see the building structures still lurking a few meters underwater while casting for trout, but little else is left to memorialize the berg named after Teddy's hottest offspring.

[Gilmore and Nicholia]

Halfway between Idaho Falls and Salmon, in the high altitude prairies linking Idaho's Lemhi Range with the Continental Divide, are the twin ghosts of Gilmore and Nicholia. Gilmore is the more picturesque of the pair, offering a gorgeous abandoned hotel, post office, general store and numerous other buildings all clustered as a sad congregation in worship of nearby Sheep Mountain. Although mistakenly named (after John T. Gilmer, owner of a western stage company), the town was prosperous enough to demand its own railroad line before the mines were closed. Today the tracks are gone, but Gilmore's deserted main drag under a cloudy sky with the wind howling out of the Lemhis still provides a post-apocalyptic thrill unlike any other in the state.

Of Nicholia very little is left other than a couple of buildings, including the local school and some decayed remnants of an old tramway system. When 1,500 local men (and men only) voted in the 1886 election, the town seemed to be on a promising surge. Today it is as barren as if sucked into outer space--an impression aided by the eerie presence of four beehive-shaped charcoal kilns across the rural highway from the town site. These conical oddities once created fuel for smelters in both Gilmore and Nicholia. Now they only power an intriguing self-guided tour put on by the Targhee National Forest.

[Rocky Bar]

Driving through the rustic handful of cabins making up the Elmore County ghost town of Rocky Bar, it is hard to imagine that the site was once one of central Idaho's premiere metropolitan areas. Local legend posits that Spanish immigrants began building water-wheel powered arrastras (a type of Mexican-inspired mill) near Rocky Bar as early as the 16th or 17th century--a tantalizing yarn that is also, by all historical evidence, patently false. Spanish prospectors were, however, among the first to settle the town in the early 1860s (before Boise, even), and helped it to rival Idaho City in the quest to be named Idaho's first territorial capital. Neither succeeded. With a hard-working population hovering around 2,500 during its brief half-century of activity, Rocky Bar's mills were responsible (depending on who you believe) for anywhere from six to 100 million dollars' worth of gold production, dozens of gunfights and at least one early Idaho catastrophe. According to an August 1864 article in the Idaho Tri-Weekly Statesman, then-territorial-governor Aleck Smith died of "rheumatism of the heart" while visiting Rocky Bar and is buried outside of town.

Rocky Bar has been cast as a premier Idaho ghost town by publications around the state since the early 20th century but has not received the subsequent upkeep bestowed upon its peers Idaho City, Silver City and Atlanta. The forest once used to construct mills and saloons has long reclaimed almost all that was not previously disposed of by vandals or lumber scavengers. Patrons interested in taking the town back, though, currently have the opportunity to purchase the original jail, "hotel" (wink, wink) and eight acres of town ground from the summer inhabitants for $300,000 or an equivalent amount of rotgut whiskey.

To locate Rocky Bar, drive eight miles north of Featherville off of Highway 20, approximately a two and a half hour sedan-friendly campaign from Boise. For an extra dose of scenery and history, lug the 4WD rig up the 12 or so miles to Atlanta on James Creek Road. This single-lane forest byway winds from the hip of the Boise Range to the butt of the Sawtooths, cutting through high desert, charred pine stumps and rockfall galore--a stunning crosscut of the landscapes making up Idaho's high country. Then imagine the fateful night in 1898 when, according to Ghost Towns of Idaho author Donald C. Miller, notorious Atlanta madam Peg Leg Annie and her minion Dutch Em attempted to trek on foot from Atlanta to Rocky Bar atop several feet of crusted snow. Em was found dead three days later; Annie, near dead and incoherent, had both feet amputated. She lived out her years as a shotgun-toting whiskey broker and eventual mother of five in Rocky Bar. What can one say--folk were made of tougher, drunker stuff back then.

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