If you're driving Idaho 75 between Challis and Stanley, take a side trip up Yankee Fork for a lesson in Idaho's mining history.
The area is a historic district complete with ghost towns and boot hill cemeteries.A visit to Yankee Fork is a nice day trip from Ketchum/Sun Valley or Stanley or a pleasant diversion if you're simply passing through on your way to Salmon.
The ghost town of Custer is the focal point.
Janette Burstedt-Piva, who works at the Yankee Fork interpretive center near Challis, has a personal connection to the historic mining district.
Her grandmother, Mae Dellen, moved to Custer in 1900 as a youngster. She started at the Custer School the first year it opened, in 1901. The family later moved to Bonanza.
Mae's father worked as a miner and her mother ran a boarding house.
Mae married William Sullivan, one of the local boys. They moved to Squaw Creek (near the town of Clayton) and raised a family.
"My mother talks of going up to Bonanza to visit them (her grandparents) at the boarding house," recalled Burstedt-Piva. "They took cream from the cow and picked wild strawberries along the way. When they got there, they made ice cream."
Custer was named after Gen. George Armstrong Custer, of the Battle of the Little Bighorn fame. "At that time they thought Custer was a very good general," said Burstedt-Piva.
The area reached its zenith at the turn of the century. It went into decline after the last major mine closed in 1911.
Today it provides a glimpse of the past.
The Custer Motorway Adventure Tour takes you to the significant places. It begins and ends in the small ranching town of Challis on the cusp of the mountains and encompasses the mining district along the way. One leg of the route is a gravel road that was once a toll-road from Challis to the mining towns of Custer and Bonanza. The other leg is Idaho 75, a paved highway between Challis and Stanley and a designated scenic byway.
Challis, established in 1876, was supply central during the mining boom. Supplies were taken to Challis by horse-drawn wagons from Corinne, Utah, which was on the Union Pacific Railroad. The roundtrip took about a month. From Challis, they were hauled to the mines by freight wagons pulled by horses or oxen.
Modern travelers are forewarned: The gravel road from Challis to Custer is for high-clearance vehicles only and should not be driven in rainy weather. (Please see the accompanying box.)
Bonanza and Custer are easier to get to by following Idaho 75 from Challis to Sunbeam, and turning into Yankee Fork at Sunbeam.
Among the highlights of the Custer Motorway Adventure Tour:
- Custer was established in 1879. Buildings lined both sides of its only street for a half mile. The General Custer Mill was at the upper end of the street. China Town was at the lower end. In 1896, the population reached its peak of 600. The area's last major mine closed in 1911 and Custer became a ghost town.
In 1990, Custer inhaled a breath of new life when it was chosen to be the focus of the Yankee Fork Historic Area.
During summer, its few remaining original buildings are open to visitors. They include the Custer Museum, which is filled with paraphernalia from the time and traces the area's history.
The museum is in the school house, which was built in 1900. Other structures include the home of Kenneth McKenzie. He owned a livery stable and a saloon. His saloon had the only bathtub in town. Miners came there to clean up. The McKenzie buildings date from the 1880s.
The Empire Saloon has been restored and now has a gift shop.
Follow the road upstream from Custer and you'll come to the Custer graveyard, where weathered wood fences mark the final resting places of seven people.
- Settled in 1877, Bonanza was the first of the two Yankee Fork towns. By 1881, its population had swelled to 600. It had a dentist, a watchmaker, hotels, saloons, a newspaper and a post office. Fires in 1889 and 1897 swept through town destroying many of the buildings. Businesses subsequently relocated to Custer. Bonanza, like Custer, became a ghost town after the area's last major mine ceased operating in 1911.
Unlike Custer, none of Bonanza's buildings have been restored. "We've been trying to get Bonanza on the National Register," said Janette Burstedt-Piva, an interpretive aide at the Yankee Fork interpretive center.
Stop at Bonanza's cemetery and continue along the road to Boot Hill. Lizzie King and her two husbands are among the people who are buried there. Lizzie's first husband was shot and killed. She remarried but wasn't considered a proper lady because she ran a saloon. When Lizzie and husband No. 2 were killed, they were buried in Boot Hill. The women of Bonanza wouldn't permit her to be buried in the city cemetery. The murders of Lizzie and her second husband were never solved.
"It's a mystery," said Burstedt-Piva. "Maybe they killed each other. She had another friend who thought she would marry him. Maybe he killed them."
- The Yankee Fork gold dredge sits amid piles of rock like Noah's Ark run aground. The ungainly structure is a cross between a boat and a mining mill. Like a boat, it floated, dredging its way along the creek bottom of Yankee Fork, pulling dirt and rocks onto a conveyor that carried them to the top level. There the debris began a downward journey through screens of various sizes that sorted it into what was valuable and what wasn't.
In its wake, the dredge left rocks piled like waves alongside the creek bed. The mounds cover more than five miles. They are referred to as dredge tailings.
The dredge was built in the late 1930s near what is now Pole Flat campground. The structure was so massive that parts were shipped in and assembled at the site. It first operated in 1940, but was shut down during World War II. After the war, it operated until 1947. It was then sold to Fred Baumhoff and J.R. Simplot, who ran it from 1950 until 1952. By then, all the ground in Yankee Fork had been dredged or mined.
It was too big to move. The dredge remains where it was when it ceased operations. Simplot donated it to the U.S. Forest Service.
The only survivor of the 60-some dredges that operated in Idaho at one time or another, it's now open to the public as a museum and a lesson in mining history. Volunteers from the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge Association serve as museum guides. There is an admission fee.
If you go
The Custer Motorway Adventure Tour is a loop that includes a gravel road through the mountains between Challis and Sunbeam into the heart of the Yankee Fork Historic Mining District. During the area's heyday, the route was a toll road. The ghost town of Custer is the highlight of the historic district.
Access the route, Forest Service Road #070, from Challis - the road is gravel, suitable only for high-clearance vehicles, should be driven only in good weather and doesn't open up until late June. The easier way to Custer is to drive Idaho 75, a designated scenic highway, from Challis to Sunbeam. Turn off at Sunbeam. The distance to Custer is 11 miles. The first five miles are paved. The remaining six are suitable for the family sedan.
The Yankee Fork interpretive center, which is open year-round, is at the junction of U.S. 93 and Idaho 75 on the outskirts of Challis. Summer hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. The sites at Custer are staffed from Memorial Day generally through the end of September.
A pamphlet with a map and descriptions of the historic sites along the Custer Motorway is available at the interpretive center, Custer, the Yankee Fork Ranger District office on Idaho 75 south of Clayton and the Stanley Chamber of Commerce.
Accommodations are available in Challis and Stanley.
Forest Service campgrounds in Yankee Fork include Pole Flat, Lola and Flat Rock. The cost is $5 a night per vehicle.
For more information, call the interpretive center: 208-879-5244.