The Wolf Fang Mine
Big Creek, Valley County, Idaho
Deep in the Mountains, a Family Mine
By Robin McRae
Photos Courtesy of Robin McRae
Recently, the author provided an account of minerals prospecting by his family as part of a 2017 report compiled by Richard H. Holm, Jr., for the Payette National Forest Service Heritage Program, USFS. The following story includes numerous verbatim passages used with permission from that report.
During summers of my youth in the 1950s, I left Boise to help my parents run their mining operation, McRae Tungsten – or the Wolf Fang, as most everyone called it, after the nearby mountain peaks – in the remote upper reaches of Elk Creek Summit east of Warren in the Payette National Forest.
In 1955, after I finished ninth grade, I was paid $1.25 an hour to do janitorial work and to split wood for the cookhouse. The latter was my main task, because the wood stove was kept going from 5 a.m. until 8 or 9 p.m. to cook breakfast and dinner for six or seven men. A diesel engine from a PT boat ran the whole camp, including a generator that provided electric light from about 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Miners entered the tunnel at about 7:30 a.m. and the first load came out roughly an hour later.
On days off, I hiked trails and fished the beaver ponds on Smith Creek, always catching the limit. I fondly remember how the year-round employees trained the local marmot population to join them during their lunch hour. Some of the marmots had become tame enough to practically eat out of their hands, but not out of mine – the critters didn’t trust the summer help.
Our camp had a little commissary, where employees and their families could buy small goods. I lived in the bunkhouse, which was an eye-opener for a fourteen-year-old. The men were unmarried and worldly about women and liquor, although the camp itself was a dry space. One subject I became familiar with was what it meant to visit Pioneer Street in Boise wherever a blue light showed in a window. Evenings in the bunkhouse, a lot of card games were played, cribbage most popular among them, and many paperback mysteries were read.
In 1955, my friend Curt Clarkson worked with me at the camp for a month or so. We had grown up in Stibnite and had gone to grade school together. His family moved to California and he was homesick for the Idaho mountains, so my dad hired him for part of the summer. That year, ore had been stored while the crusher was being remodeled, so we shoveled the ore into wheelbarrows, which we pushed to the mill.
In 1956, my jobs included operating the jaw crusher when it was filled with ore, adding pine oil to the slurry, and watching the magnetic separator, which extracted iron pyrite from the concentrate. I also roasted the concentrate on a plate heated by fuel oil injection, which burned off sulfides. Like iron, the sulfides were impurities, which decreased the price paid for each twenty-pound bag of concentrate. Another of my jobs was to stencil each bag with the company’s name. I also drove to the post office at the Big Creek store to retrieve mail for the camp.
As the recent history of the Wolf Fang written by Richard Holm points out, my grandfather, Dan McRae, came to the Thunder Mountain/Big Creek area in 1897 from Warren. A self-taught prospector/miner, he located what became the Independence Mine near Fawn Meadows in about 1898. He established himself as a knowledgeable miner, geologist, and businessman in the area and spent his career owning and working several properties, including the Gold King, the Dewey, and the Sunnyside. He married Grace Carrie Turner in 1906 at Meadows, and they had two children: my father Robert “Bob” (born in 1908) and my Aunt Marjorie (born in 1912). Bob married my mother, Ruth Cook, and Marjorie married James “Jim” Collord.
The early prospectors were not too successful in locating gold in the upper reaches of Elk Creek Summit and Smith Creek, but several deposits of tungsten ore were found, including large traces of two of its primary minerals, scheelite and hübnerite. With the onset of WWII, tungsten was in demand as a hardening agent in steel production. Between the early 1940s and the early 1960s, my family located several ore bodies of tungsten in the upper reaches of Elk Creek Summit, which can be divided into two areas.
The first, which became known as the Upper Snowbird mining claims, was operated only during the summer months between 1942 and 1944. The mine was chiefly hübnerite, and my grandparents sold their unpatented claims to an investor, but they continued to work there as employees.
A few years later, my father looked at various zones east of Upper Snowbird at about three hundred to four hundred yards lower in elevation. Locating a vein that he thought had good potential for tungsten, he obtained several samples and determined they had a ratio of eighty percent hübnerite to twenty percent scheelite. By 1951, these three claims morphed into eleven unpatented claims, commonly referred to as the Wolf Fang.
In spring of that year, my father was given a ride with two other men, Harry Sargent and Wilbur Wiles, to a spot about four miles from the Big Creek airport heading toward Elk Summit, after which snowshoes were required to go farther. The men hiked to the base of Elk Summit and then climbed about twelve hundred feet to the ridgetop, where the snow was about seven feet deep. They spread “lamp black” on the snow to melt it, so they could dig an ore discovery pit.
Wilbur spotted a dead tree stump just above the snowline and lit it to melt snow and make tea. About a half-hour later, the stump burned down into pitch, and flames rose four feet in the air.
“If the Forest Service sees those flames, they may call in a fire,” Harry said.
“If the rangers are that dense, so be it,” Wilbur replied with a smile.
The men snowshoed eleven miles back to Big Creek. When they returned a week later, the lamp black had melted the snow to the ground, allowing them to dig their discovery holes. Results from the samples were good, and my dad and grandfather procured a TD-14 bulldozer and put together a crew in 1951-52 to build a road along the Middle Fork of Smith Creek to the claims. Wilbur, today the eldest resident of Big Creek at age 101, was among the main crewmembers, and he did a lot of jackhammering to carve the road through the rocky terrain.
At about the same time, Dad applied for and received a loan from the Defense Minerals Exploration Administration, whose goal was to help expand the production and supply of strategic and critical metals and minerals. By then, tungsten was in demand because of the US conflict with Korea. The terms of the loan required full payment only if the critical metals/minerals were found, but if our family came up empty-handed, the loan would be forgiven. As it turned out, Dad was able to pay back the twenty thousand dollar loan in full.
Once he had the loan in place and was making progress on construction of the road, he began looking for more capital. His friend Charlie Chaffee, a Boise businessman, put him in touch with Dick Graves, who owned gambling concessions in Garden City. Graves was interested, and after a tour of the mine in 1953, he lent Dad thirty thousand dollars at a competitive interest rate. The loan was promptly paid back. My dad and grandfather used that extra cash to acquire two 1930s prefabricated wood-framed buildings from the defunct mining community of Stibnite that they dismantled, trucked to the Wolf Fang Mine, and reassembled. One building became the cookhouse and the other was assigned to the superintendent. Another building, built as a prefab by my grandfather and hauled to the site, became the bunkhouse for employees. Two new twenty-foot aluminum travel trailers also were hauled in to help house fulltime employees. The same summer, Dad built a wood-framed machine shop and a warehouse, and helped to bring over extra needed equipment from the Sunday Mine and the Sunnyside Mine at Thunder Mountain. Sadly, as the Wolf Fang was nearing startup in 1954, my grandfather died.
When the snow melted, my father contracted with Martin Construction Company of Boise, which had built the majority of the homes and mining improvements at Stibnite, to construct the main building to house the mill. The Wolf Fang was designed for ore to be hauled out of the tunnel in a cart by cat/dozer for about a half-mile, where it was dumped into a crusher that reduced the material to about the size of baseballs and golf balls. It was moved by conveyer belt to the mill for further reduction, and then to a motorized table slotted with riffles that moved back and forth, separating materials of higher and lower density. Discarded material became tailings (waste) and the saved material was moved onto a second table, where it was separated into high- and low- grade. During this process, water mixed with pine oil and a solution of chemicals was distributed across the tables to remove unwanted particles. The water for the process was diverted from natural runoff and springs and the wastewater was used several times before being moved to settling ponds below the mill site. Additional water in the late summer was often pumped up to the site from the Middle Fork of Smith Creek.
Another of my jobs involved ore processed by the rod mill, a cylinder perhaps twelve feet long, lined inside with high-test steel plates made in a Boise machine shop. Six-foot-long iron rods tumbled inside the rotating mill to grind the ore, and new rods were added periodically as the old ones wore thin. This was by far the loudest noise inside the mill building. As the mill feed fell onto the jig tables that separated fine and coarse ore, I watched to ensure that the streams of ore material being pushed off the tables went into their proper channels.
After these concentration processes, lower-grade material was bagged and moved to warehouses in Boise, as the value was not high enough at the time to justify further processing. The higher-grade material was moved onto the magnetic separator. Initially, the Wolf Fang didn’t have this piece of equipment, and the high-grade material had to be hauled to Stibnite for further processing. But in 1955, my dad got his own magnetic separator, which essentially was a brick furnace with a metal top on which super-wet tungsten was placed and heated to up to nine hundred degrees Fahrenheit. This process not only dried the high-grade material but caused a certain amount of the remaining sulfides to evaporate, causing further reduction and refinement. After that, I stenciled the burlap bags that held the final product.
When the rod mill was finished in 1954, the main tunnel was yet to be completed. Not wanting to waste time or money, my parents leased the nearby Red Bluff Mine from Wilbur Wiles. He and my dad had sampled the unpatented claim and discovered it was much smaller than the Wolf Fang vein, but it was slightly richer. Wilbur “drove” or opened the tunnel himself, and the Red Bluff provided enough material to keep the mill running until the Wolf Fang tunnel was finished. The latter was framed in timber for the first forty feet and then went into solid rock that ran roughly twelve hundred feet deep.
The mine operated year-round from 1954 to early 1958. The mine superintendent was Harry Sargent, who had helped my dad dig discovery holes on Elk Summit. Harry managed a fulltime crew that included an assistant, one mill helper, about four underground workers, a cat driver, and a camp cook. Harry’s wife Opal was the company clerk. Jack Walker, who ran the cat, had recently been honorably discharged from the military and moved to the camp with his wife Ruth and a young son. The Walker family lived in one of the two aluminum trailers on the site. Jack, who has maintained ties to Big Creek and its mines ever since, still spends summers at his property on Logan Creek.
Each summer, the mined tungsten was driven to Cascade and placed on a train, where it eventually was delivered to a US government collection point in New Jersey for examination. The logistics of moving the tungsten out in the winter were more difficult. After a year of operation, Dad acquired a snow cat from Horace Fereday, the then-owner of the Big Creek Lodge. Horace had owned the cat only a short time before a friend drove it off Profile Summit Road on the way to Yellow Pine. The friend was injured in the accident and was forced to spend the night at high elevation, losing several of his toes. After that incident, Horace no longer wanted the machine. He and my father struck a deal, in which Dad obtained the snow cat and Fereday gained a minority interest in the Wolf Fang. (The mine was never publicly traded and our family was the majority owner, but we had several minority investors, including the Sargents and a few other families associated with the community of Stibnite.) Once we had the snow cat, the tungsten could be hauled down to the Big Creek Ranger Station in the winter on mail day. From there, it was flown out of the forest and delivered to the train stations in Cascade and Boise.
When President Eisenhower began his second term after the 1956 election, he started dismantling many of the economic policies associated with the Korean conflict. No longer seeing the need for a large quantity of strategic metals, he discontinued the government’s purchasing program. This decision caused the value of tungsten to plummet. From 1955 to 1957, tungsten from the Wolf Fang earned about fifty dollars per twenty-pound bag, but by 1958, the price fell to about thirteen to fifteen dollars, making the operation unprofitable.
In early 1958, my parents were forced to close the mine. My father had found a buyer for it in 1957 but he withdrew when the price of tungsten fell. At the end of production, my parents determined that the mine had a net profit of more than ninety thousand dollars. A portion of this money was used to pay out the few investors, complete the minimal cleanup required at the time, remove a few buildings, and maintain the claims. The mill was salvaged, the equipment was sold in Boise, and the metal-sided warehouse was removed and later rebuilt at the property of my Aunt Marjory and Uncle Jim in nearby Edwardsburg, where it still stands.
In the summers of 1958 and 1959, Wilbur Wiles and I took down the mill building and sold the lumber to folks around Big Creek. Through the example of Wilbur’s work ethic, I learned to do my best on whatever task I undertook. He remains the most honest individual I have ever known, and that was why my dad trusted him to do any job he was assigned, including sampling properties for the Bunker Hill Mine after he received geological training from my father.
My parents sold the unpatented Wolf Fang claims and the remaining improvements to a consortium of investors based in St. Louis, who made a few payments and then defaulted. The mine was then sold to Howard Hollingsworth of Kellogg, prior to my dad’s death in 1969. Hollingsworth was a speculator who did little with the property, except for some minimal assessment work to keep the claims active. As I recall, his “assessments” mostly involved dynamite that he set off on some rocks every couple of years.
Hollingsworth’s dynamite became an issue around 1972, when my mother received a telephone call from the Valley County Sheriff’s Department. Apparently, someone had found five or six cases of rotted dynamite in one of the buildings at Wolf Fang. The sheriff’s department inferred that our family should take responsibility, calling the dynamite a “public hazard.” My mother explained that we hadn’t owned the mine for years and knew nothing about the explosives. Unable to determine the direct ownership or a responsible party, the sheriff’s department called in a National Guard bomb disposal squad.
Hollingsworth died in Sitka, Alaska, in the early 1980s, after which his son Wiley took over the Wolf Fang claims. Jack Walker later staked the area and today Conway Ivey owns the claims, having purchased them and others from Walker. In the early-1960s, the timbered portion of the Wolf Fang tunnel began to cave in but over the years, the Forest Service has carried out reclamation work at the site, returning it to nature. The housing was destroyed and the small tailings pond was covered and replanted with meadow grass. All that remains is an outhouse built by my grandfather and a small toolshed.
I still think about the marmot families, always looking for a handout and responding if you whistled to them. I don’t think there are many places left where they’ve survived in such numbers. And there’s something else I still see: images of the men and women who came together to make a success of our family mine in such a rugged place.
Winter in Big Creek.
Robert McRae with his right-hand man, Wilbur Wiles.
Bob McRae and Charlie Chaffee at the Wolf Fang’s entrance.
Bob and Wilbur with tungsten samples, 1950s.
Bob with the snow cat.
A boulder marked what would become the mine’s entrance.
View of the camp below the Wolf Fang Mine.
Bob with sacks or ore.
Flying the tungsten to Cascade.
These houses were moved from Stibnite to the mine.
A Marine transport vehicle was used in winter at the mine.
Napier Edwards, whose father William was among the area’s early miners.
Wolf Fang Peaks.
Photos by Robin McRae
About Robin McRae
Robin McRae was born in St. Luke’s Hospital in Boise, has lived in McCall, and moved to Stibnite in 1943. He returned to Boise in 1954 to attend high school. He then attended Boise Junior College, and graduated from the University of Oregon and Pacific University College of Optometry. He has lived in Boise for fifty-five years, spending most summers and falls at Big Creek.
published in: IDAHO Magazine
courtesy Jim Collord
page updated September 24, 2020