Idaho History July 23, 2017

Silver City, Owyhee County, Idaho


Prospectors Discover Gold in the Owyhee Mountains

by Evan Filby

Early that month, the group had set out from Placerville, in the Boise Basin. They were chasing rumors that Oregon Trail emigrants in the Forties had observed gold signs in southwest Idaho. After crossing the Snake River, they followed along it to the mouth of Reynolds Creek (which they named) and turned into the mountains.

According to the account given later by party member Oliver Hazard Purdy, scouts had observed “what appeared to be a large stream, judging from the topographical formation of the mountains, which were well timbered.”

Purdy, born west of Rochester, New York, had been a Forty-Niner in California at the age of twenty-five. After several years of indifferent success there, he taught school in Oregon. In 1863, he follow the rush to the Boise Basin, where he joined the Reynolds Creek band.

The explorers picked their way south through rough country and over a succession of small streams. Finally, about 4 o’clock, they curved eastward into the broad base of a canyon that narrowed as it cut deeper into the high country. Leaders decided the shallow bowl at the mouth of the canyon offered a better camping spot than anything they might find further up.

Most of the men began to unpack their mules. One man, however, saw some likely-looking gravel and scooped a batch into his gold pan. Excitement exploded when his pan showed something like a hundred “colors.” Everyone dropped what they were doing and spread out along what they called “Discovery Bar.”

Further prospecting along Jordan Creek, named for one of their party, confirmed that they had found more than an isolated pocket. The men spent ten days following the creek deep into the mountains and locating claims. Then they got together and organized a mining district. That settled, they returned to Placerville. (Over a month would pass before Major Pinkney Lugenbeel picked a site for Fort Boise, which sparked the founding of Boise City.)

Their finds set off a major stampede into Idaho’s Owyhee Mountains. A letter-writer in Placerville commented (Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, July 17, 1863), “The rush this spring to the Boise mines was frantic … But violently as it raged, it was but a small matter compared to the rush from Boise to Owyhee.”

By mid-summer, hopeful miners had scattered all over the area, and two rough towns had already sprung into being. One of them, Ruby City, almost immediately became the county seat for Owyhee County. Then, before the end of the year, entrepreneurs founded Silver City.

Early Silver City. H. T. French photo.

They called it that because prospectors discovered that the real wealth of the Owyhees was not gold. It was silver, with lodes said to be richer than any others known except the best of those around Virginia City, Nevada. Silver City grew rapidly and supplanted Ruby City as the county seat less than four years later.

The presence of so many miners quickly sparked a vibrant stock-raising industry in the area. Michael Jordan, for whom the creek was named, started one of the first ranches. He was, unfortunately, killed by Indians in 1864. (O. H. Purdy was also killed by Indians, in 1878.) When the mining furor died down, cattle and sheep ranching became the life-blood of the Owyhees.

source: South Fork Companion
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Skinner Toll Road Connects Silver City to California Supply Route

by Evan Filby

On May 19, 1866, with great fanfare in the Owyhee mining camps, the Skinner Toll Road opened for business. The new road vastly improved stagecoach and freight wagon traffic into Silver City and the other nearby mining towns.

Silas Skinner, from the Isle of Man, followed the rush after the May, 1863 discovery of gold along Jordan Creek in the Owyhee Mountains [blog, May 18]. He prospected for a time, but the cost of supplies shocked him. Merchants sympathized, but pointed out that they paid huge shipping costs to stock their shelves.

Goods reached the area over two main routes. The older route started in Oregon and back-tracked the Old Oregon Trail as far as Boise City. Wagons then traversed thirty to forty miles of rough road to reach the Snake River. After paying the toll to cross the river by ferry, the freight road followed Reynolds Creek deep into the mountains. The final two miles leading to the pass over to Jordan Creek rises over a thousand feet … greater than a 10 percent grade.

By around 1865, more freight rolled directly out of northern California and cut across the southwest corner of Oregon. The track hit the Idaho border 70-80 miles north of Nevada. From there, travelers might head northeast over the high ground to drop onto the Snake River plain and then on into Boise. Traffic for Silver City turned east and then southeast. Before the Skinner Road, pack trains and wagons from the west could only pick their way along the stream beds leading into the mountains.

Skinner and his partners actually obtained two franchises, applicable to the two tracks into the high mountains. They made some improvements to the Reynolds Creek road, and even purchased an existing toll road to complete their holdings in that direction. However, that north-facing route suffered badly from winter storms. It was impassable at times, and costly to maintain.

To connect with the California traffic, Skinner’s workmen hacked a new road down the Jordan Creek ravine to Wagontown, near the base of the main grade. From there, the Creek wanders south for 10-15 miles before turning back to the north. Skinner basically shortcut across the loop to rejoin the Creek further west. Once they were out onto the more level terrain, builders encountered only one other place where they had to make a difficult cut with pick and shovel.

Freight wagons near Silver City. Commercial Directory.

Their route was not only shorter, it was better protected against weather from the north. The Owyhee Avalanche announcement on the 19th said, “The Ruby City and Jordan Valley toll-road is now in good order for teams, empty or loaded. … It is built on the north side of the creek, thus giving it the full benefit of the sun to keep it dry.”

The toll road made money for Skinner and his partners right from the start. Its presence also encouraged settlement in the lower plains along the Idaho-Oregon border. Over time, Skinner diversified his holdings, raising cattle and horses on range near the stage stop he and his wife ran about ten miles west of Silver City. He also sold parts of his road franchise, apparently being totally out of that business by about 1875. By 1878, Owyhee County had purchased all the Idaho portions and opened them as public roads.

source: South Fork Companion
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Governor Issues Proclamation to End Owyhee War

by Evan Filby

Idaho Governor D. W. Ballard issued a proclamation on March 28, 1868 to halt a shooting war near Silver City. The statement said, in part, “the lawless proceedings of the parties referred to must cease and peace and order be restored, and to that end the whole power of the territory will be used.”

Mine and mill buildings on War Eagle Mountain, 1866. Historical Directory of Owyhee County.

The conflict, now known as the “Owyhee War,” occurred between two competing mining companies: the Ida Elmore and the Golden Chariot. Both had claims on War Eagle Mountain, 1-2 miles southeast of Silver City.

The lode that developed into the Ida Elmore had been discovered in the summer of 1863. Within a few years, mining investor J. Marion More and a partner gained control of the mine. More had arrived early in the northern mining regions, and then got in on the ground floor in the Boise Basin. By the mid-1860s, he was one of the wealthiest capitalists in the Territory, and well known in Western mining circles.

Prospectors also found several other likely veins in War Eagle Mountain, one of the most promising being the Golden Chariot. By the end of 1867, owners had shipped or stockpiled over 350 tons of valuable ore.

Registration records for the claims showed that they overlapped on a two-dimensional map. However, no one paid much attention to this commonly-occurring feature; the respective veins were at quite different depths within the ridge. Developers assumed – in perhaps a bit of wishful thinking – that the two lodes did not connect deep below ground.

That turned out to be an incorrect assumption. When their tunnels met, the confrontation escalated into an underground shooting war. The first deaths occurred on March 25 and 26, when one man on each side was killed. Soon, the exchanges became extremely heavy, and included blasts with “giant powder” and fire bombs. A later investigator observed that one 15-inch supporting beam had been “nearly cut in two” by bullet impacts.

The same day as the proclamation, the Owyhee Avalanche, in Silver City, published (March 28, 1868) an overview of the dispute. The article concluded, “As there are, at least, fifty men armed to the teeth, on each side, we are prepared, at any time, to hear of a bloody battle.”

Aside from such reports, the governor had been forced to act by wide-spread rumors claiming many battle deaths and secret burials. (Later, investigators were unable to substantiate any of the wild claims.)

The proclamation, delivered by a Deputy U.S. Marshal, led to an uneasy truce. But bad feelings remained, and opposing viewpoints exchanged hot words.

As usual in such affairs, what happened next is highly muddled. A Chariot supporter shot J. Marion More, supposedly because More was about to brain him with a rough walking stick. An Elmore partisan then shot the Chariot man in the arm.

J. Marion died soon after the shooting. The Chariot man survived an amputation but died from gangrene several agonizing weeks later. Expressions of regret over More’s death poured in, for he had friends all over Idaho. His body was returned to Idaho City for burial with full Masonic honors.

source: South Fork Companion
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Murphy Gets Regular Train Service

by Evan Filby

On [August 7] this day in 1898, the Boise, Nampa & Owyhee Railway initiated railroad service to Murphy. Colonel William H. Dewey promoted the line, with construction beginning in September 1896. The venture encountered just one unusual obstacle, but it was a substantial one: They had to bridge the Snake River. Even the economical design chosen – Parker trusses – represented a major expense in the overall budget.

Guffey Bridge, ca. 1898. Directory of Owyhee County.

Right after workers completed the bridge in 1897, the town of Guffey, named for one of Dewey’s partners, sprang up a mile or so downstream from the crossing. Guffey was the railway terminal for a time, and grew to be quite a respectable little town. Shippers transferred their freight to wagons for the long climb into the mountains.
Then crews laid the tracks into Murphy. The transfer point quickly moved there once trains began arriving. At the time, developers had high hopes for the mines around Silver City, but those optimistic notions never panned out.
In fact, the original concept called for the tracks to continue into the town of Dewey, a few miles from Silver City. That would have required the construction of another 25 miles of railway, with an ascent of over 3,800 feet. Needless to say, that line was never completed. By around 1912, all the big mines in the Silver City area had shut down. Still, shipments of livestock and other agricultural products kept the railway going until 1947.

excerpted from: South Fork Companion
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Silver City Stage 1910

(link to larger size)

Front: Can you find me? This was taken at the half way house where horses are changed. Spect I’ll most freeze when I go over the summit going home.

Back: Silver City, Idaho. Nov 1, 1910
Dear Friend, Was indeed glad to get your card and know you had a good vacation. Course you describe inside of church! I meant to answer sooner but been trying to get your address, but those Grenleafs won’t send it. Risk this now. My Land! I wish I could run over and have a good visit with you all, and a good lunch. Big doings last night. I planned a Haloween party for eight school children and a good time we had too. Carried and used pencil you gave me so all the print is off. This old stage brings all my letters everyday. I’m planning to go out on it Wed. before Thanksgiving for Boise. My I can hrdly wait! O can’t I go with you and Edie tomorrow night? And I agrieve yet over the bacon picnic we never did have! Come have it up on one of our great mts. They’re great, but I like a city. I get so homesick sometimes. People are so rough. If you get this send another card.
“Little Eva”

source: Bob Hartman’s personal collection
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Silver City

Silver City is without a doubt the queen of Idaho ghost towns. And while she may be a ghost town during the winter months, in the summer a combination of weekend visitors and local residents make for a busy community. The town contains many old and interesting buildings in various stages of disrepair as well as several nearby mine dumps.

Perched high on War Eagle Mountain, the Cumberland Mill near Silver City overlooks the Snake River Valley.

The Stoddard Mansion in Silver City presents the ornate “gingerbread” trim of its day.

Silver City had the distinction of having the first telegraph service in Idaho. In 1874, a line was built north from Winnemucca, Nevada, and in 1875, the line was continued from Silver City on to Boise City. Another first for Silver City was the printing of a daily newspaper. In 1874, The Idaho Avalanche, edited by W.J. Hill and considered one of the best paper in the West, became the first daily newspaper in Idaho Territory. This newspaper, under several different editors, continued to serve Owyhee County and in later years the name was changed to The Owyhee Avalanche. Silver City served as the county seat from 1867 until 1935, when it lost this honor to Murphy.

excerpted from: Southern Idaho Ghost Towns By Wayne C. Sparling
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Silver City

by Henry Chenowith

Certainly one of the better ghost towns having enough still standing to give visitors a good idea of how it was in its heyday. Silver City even had a brewery and a bottling plant. Some of the mines produced ore well into the millions of dollars during their lifetime. Silver City started its decline about 1889 when the inevitable began to appear. Even at that time, the city still had six general stores, two hotels, a newspaper, two lumber yards and several doctors and lawyers and, of course, its “Virgin Alley.” It is said one married man was added to the population above Slaughter House Gulch by his wife. The cemetery is located above Slaughter House Gulch. Silver City can be found just east of the Oregon Idaho border in the Jordan Valley.

source w/lots of photos: Ghost Towns
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Silver City in need of new watchman

As the snow fell in the Treasure Valley this last winter, even more- much more fell in Silver City.

But among the silence of the snow was one man, alone, watching over the historic mining town.

… In the late 60’s after a lot of vandalism occurred they decided to hire a watchman to take care of the town all winter. The job has been filled ever since.

source: Lacey Darrow Jul 19, 2017 KIVI TV (broken link)

page updated September 12, 2020