Idaho History December 24, 2017

Cabin Creek History

Big Creek, Valley County, Idaho

The Caswell brothers

Photo Credit: Idaho Historical Society

Early Cabin Creek

The Caswell brothers, Lou, Ben, Dan and Court mined in Thunder Mountain, Mule Creek and Monumental Creek around 1894. Their Elkhorn Ranch located 15 miles west of the mouth of Big Creek was later called the Cabin Creek Ranch.

from page 248, “Homesteads Filed in Valley County”, complied by Linda and C. Eugene Brock, “Free Land! Hopes and Hardships of Pioneers of Valley County, Idaho” by the Valley County History Project
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Cabin Creek

Placer claims and lode claims were located along Big Creek, below Crooked Creek as early as 1894 at Cabin Creek. The J.M. and E.O. Eakin, D.D. Stephens, Gamble, and J. Nelson group took 7000 pounds of freight into the area to spend the winter and explore the area, as well as look for gold. There were five or six cabins still standing in the area when the Caswells arrived; thus the name Cabin Creek. Also, a cabin on the south Big Creek River bank had been a placer claim and was occupied at various times as a lay over cabin. The Caswells built a bridge across Big Creek at this place several times. High water took each one out as well as the cabin. (Jean Orr Wallace)

The Caswells, Ben and Lu, borrowed money for supplies from Huntley at Cuprum in the Seven Devils and came into the Big Creek country in August, 1886. There was no snow water to placer the higher prospects. Being capable trappers, they wintered the first year on Cabin Creek to get furs for money. They added cabins on a bench above the mouth of Cabin Creek, had a garden, cut hay, trapped, and prospected from 1895-1897. When they discovered gold on Mule Creek, they wrote to their other brother, Dan, to come help them. The Bulls had been placer mining at Survey Creek and Pioneer Creek and gave it up. John Bull came up and stayed with the Caswells. When the Bulls gave up Survey Creek, [Dave] Lewis moved from his part rock house on Goat Creek, into the Survey Creek cabins.

The Caswell’s cabin at Cabin Creek burned and they built another one at the mouth of Spring Creek. Dan and his friend, Wes Ritchey, a recorder, came west but it took them over a year to reach Cabin Creek in 1897. Their Dad, half brother Cort, and sister followed them west and settled in Boise. Cort came into the country to help them. Dan and Wes married their respective fiances after the sale of their claims. West married Edith on April 29, 1902, and took her into the mine and Cabin Creek by horseback that year. On the way out she was pregnant and made her riding skirt bigger by sewing in a piece of tent. She was nineteen and had ridden 400 miles. The Dewey and the Sunnyside claims were both sold and the Caswells went out of the area, except Ben. Ben was still doing assessment work on Thunder Mountain with I.P. Smith in 1916.

John Conyers, from Silver City and Van Wyck [now under Lake Cascade], came into the area a prospector but he turned to raising cattle. He was the first man to bring cattle to the area and lived on both Cabin and Pioneer creeks.

Able and Routson bought the Cabin Creek place in 1910, but disagreements caused Routson to move up to the Yardley/Beal/Moore Ranch. O.M. (Orlando Mel) Able retired from the Rail Road and was a 32 degree Mason. He protested his sister’s filing on the upper Cabin creek homestead. He was killed in 1920. Two men from Big Creek, Pete Gillstrap and McDermitt, wintered with him. [Archie] Bacon had been living on and homesteaded above Able on Cabin Creek, but went out to educate his two girls, Ruth and Mary. Ed James, a famed cougar hunter and guide, moved onto the place with his wife. She delivered two daughters there between 1918-1920. Ed James was accused of Abel’s murder. Ed came into the country with cattle for Kid Garden. Ed was a friend of Howard Elkins who had bought the Root Ranch. [Ed James came to Big Creek earlier with Howard Elkins. When he came to Cabin Creek was after he was discharged from WWI. He returned the third time when he married Dewey’s daughter Addie. Addie was Ed’s 4th wife. One of his daughters was born at Cabin Creek and the other daughter was born on the Routson place. – personal notes] The Masons hired men to bring Abel’s body to Cascade. They were Claude Jordan, Glen Morris, and Johnny Williams from Big Creek. They remained overnight with Annie Edwards.

Mrs. Bellingham was Abel’s sister and she took Abel’s ranch when he died. She had the upper part of Cabin Creek and lived in the old cabins there. She contracted to have a two story log house built on the place. It was started by Warner, alias Vanderpool, and finished by Vernie Warner Adamson and men from Big Creek, two of whom were Howard Elkin and Joe Bayok. Mrs. Bellingham visited up and down Big Creek and stayed with Mrs. Edwards, but was unable to winter in Big Creek and returned to Walla Walla where she had been a post-mistress. Eventually she leased the place. The Mabes leased the Bellingham and Able place. Jean Orr Wallace and Blackie [Wallace] bought the Bacon place and homesteaded the land between the Bacon and Bellingham’s. Blackie [Wallace] moved the Caswell cabin onto the Bacon place and brought cattle and hogs into Cabin Creek when he left for Alaska. Jean sold the ranch to Rex E. Lanham so that she could afford to send her son to school. She eventually married Lester Curtis from Little Ramey. Jeanie packed the mail from Big Creek down to Cabin Creek during fire season to free up the men. She was a schoolteacher in McCall. [The Wallace ranch was the Flying W ranch and Rex kept that name on all of it after he bought out Gordon Ray. – personal notes.]

excerpted (and updated) from “The Big Creek Area”, by Catherine M. Gillihan, “Valley County Prehistory to 1920” by the Valley County History Project
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Blackie Wallace

“Blackie Wallace packing pipe to the Snowshoe Mine on Crooked Creek, tributary of Big Creek. The rig could carry two lengths of pipe.”

Photo from “The Middle Fork and the Sheepeater War” by Johnny Carrey and Cort Conley – copyright 1977
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“Blackie Wallace worked for the Forest Service and for the Snowshoe Mine to supplement their income. He also had cattle and hogs.”

(personal notes)
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John Routson

JohnRoutson-a— — — — — — — — — —

Cabin Creek

The Caswell Brothers, Lu, Ben, Dan and Cort established the Cabin Creek ranch 15 miles west of the mouth of Big Creek where it joins the Middle Fork of the Salmon. The Caswells sold the ranch to John Conyers in 1902 and returned to mining at Thunder Mountain. In 1910, Conyers sold the ranch to O.M. Ables and John Routson. Ables eventually patented the land in 1913. Two other homesteads were established before 1920: Elizabeth Bellingham and Archie Bacon.

O.M. Ables met with a mysterious death in 1920, after sufferings a blow to the head. A bloody hay knife was found in a nearby beaver dam, but no one was accused nor convicted. The Payette Lake Star reported a story in Dec. 1919, that Mr. Ables was gored to death by a bull.

Excerpted from: page 209 Backcountry Homesteads by C. Eugene Brock, “Valley County Idaho Prehistory to 1920”, Valley County History Project
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The Caswell Brothers

The Caswell brothers first cabin at Mule Creek
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The Caswell Brothers and Thunder Mountain

… It all started about 1894 when the Caswell twins, their brother Dan and cousin A.O. Huntley came to Idaho from Colorado to trap, hunt and look for mineral riches in the Seven Devils area in the Hells’ Canyon Wilderness – without success. Next, they tried Thunder Mountain (8,579 feet) and found surface gold at the mouth of Monumental Creek that flowed down from it.

… The men panned for gold by running water from the melting snow through a sluice rocker box. It was a short season but paid off.

In 1894, they recovered $245 worth of gold in eight days — about $7,000 in today’s money. The following year, they made another $190, while they started building sluices for future production.

Then one day in 1900 at the old Overland Hotel in Boise, a man named Erb Johnson showed a glitzy sample of the Caswell gold to Ed H. Dewey who quickly told his father, the “fabulous Col. Dewey” in Pittsburgh about it. Millionaire Col. William H. Dewey instructed his son to get an 18-month option on the Caswell property and would pay $100,000 for it.

continued: Idaho Back-Country: The Men, The Mountain, The Gold and The Town That Drowned

see also: Roosevelt History

see also Thunder Mountain History
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Wilderness Brothers: Prospecting, Horse Packing & Homesteading on the Western Frontier


By G. Wayne Minshall

Wilderness Brothers is a work of non-fiction dealing with western US history from the mid-1860s through the 1960s in the region ranging from Colorado to California, but it is especially focused on Idaho from about 1890 to 1910. The book traces the lives of Luman Caswell, his two brothers Ben and Dan, and their close associates A. O. Huntley and Wesley Ritchey during the time leading up to and following their discovery of gold on Thunder Mountain. It includes a 2500-mile odyssey, by buckboard wagon and horseback, from western Colorado, across Utah and Nevada and into Idaho. Thunder Mountain is located in central Idaho within the present day Frank Church Wilderness. The Thunder Mountain stampede of the early 1900s (which the Caswells triggered) was the last major gold rush in the region. However, the emphasis of this account is on self reliance and day-to-day activities and adventures of the times, rather than on the rush per se. Wilderness Brothers captures the spirit of the times from a different perspective than other books of this genre, to document several poorly-known aspects of the history of the region, and to provide a record of land-use practices prior to designation as “wilderness.” Although it is set mainly in Idaho, many of the same kinds of events were occurring throughout the western US and Canada during this period. Many readers of western US history, from those with general interest to professional scholars, will be interested in this book.

source: Amazon
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Wilderness Brothers by G. Wayne Minshall

Review by Ron Watters

… The book centers on the diaries of Luman Caswell. In the late 1800’s, Caswell along with his brother, take a 2,500-mile journey by buckboard wagon and horseback, eventually settling along Big Creek deep in the mountainous wilderness of central Idaho. It is, in fact, still wilderness to this day. Big Creek is a part of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, one of the largest wilderness in the lower 48 – where, it so happens, Minshall has spent many years as a research biologist.

There’s much more here than homesteading. In the wilderness, a day or two journey from their small ranch, Caswell and his brothers, in time, discover enough gold that they set off what would become one of the last great American gold rushes: the Thunder Mountain rush.

Several years before their major gold discovery and their first year in the wilderness, the Caswell brothers established a winter ranch on Big Creek. (A third brother later joined them.) The cabin was hastily constructed out of logs and chinked with mud, but as Minshall writes “it got them through the first winter.”

The next year, they moved to a new location across Big Creek and established a main cabin and several other buildings. All the work was done by hand. Logs for the cabin were cut and dragged to the cabin site by horses. Planks for flooring, roofing, tables and beds were cut in a pit using a large saw known as a whipsaw: one person worked below in the pit on one end of the saw and the other on top, alternating pulling and pushing, sawing endlessly all day.

WhipsawingNPS-a[Whipsawing Lumber – NPS]

In a later chapter, Minshall describes whipsawing in more detail: “Over the next day, Lu [Luman] and an unknown partner saw out lumber including 152′ on the 15th, 290′ on the 16th, 230′ on the 20th.” This went on, and then upon concluding the work, Caswell writes in his own succinct style: “Finished sawing 1230 feet of boards.” Over a thousand board feet! It’s an utterly astonishing amount of work, demanding an almost inhuman effort. Yet Caswell mentions it as casually as he might mention tying his shoes.

The variety and number of chores accomplished in one day is bewildering. Minshall elaborates their undertakings in late 1896: “November and December are spent hunting, trapping and cutting wood, and doing a variety of lesser tasks; for example mending shoes, sighting in guns, loading cartridges, and making moccasins, shakes [shingles for the roof], tubs and a drawing knife.” They grade a primitive wagon road on their homestead (all by hand and horse power) and then proceed to build a bridge over the creek. Amongst all this, they prepare their own meals – and even manage to turn out a few treats: “On December 30th,” Minshall writes, “Lu makes some pies and cakes to close out the year.”

As the season progressed into the dead of winter, the work never stopped. The idea that wilderness pioneers like the Caswells settled back in front of pot belly stoves and read books all winter is pure fable. The same sort of exhausting schedule was kept up throughout the winter.

Then finally as the snow melted and the trails become passable, they continued prospecting. They had already found “color” in the Thunder Mountain area high on one of the tributaries of Big Creek – that was the impetus for their homestead – but each summer, they filed more claims, worked existing ones and continued seeking out a larger find.

Finally in 1901, with gold assaying out in promising amounts, they sold several of their claims to a group of investors. The news of the sale set off a stampede of thousands to Thunder Mountain: starry-eyed prospectors, merchants, speculators and schemers of all stripes. In the midst of the wilderness along Monumental Creek, the town of Roosevelt sprang up.

continued: Wilderness Brothers: Prospecting, Horse Packing & Homesteading on the Western Frontier. By G. Wayne Minshall. Streamside Scribe Press, Inkom, ID. ISBN 9780984949007
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Cabin Creek Chronicle: the history of the most remote ranch in America

by G. Wayne Minshall


Cabin Creek Chronicle is a non-fictional account of the key activities that occurred at a little known but historically significant place in the rugged mountains of central Idaho from the mid 1800s to the present. It provides details about the last battle between the US Cavalry and Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest and follows the lives of the series of inhabitants that occupied an isolated ranch as it developed through trying times that saw it fragment into four individual homesteads, endure the era of the Great Depression, and emerge post WWII reconstituted as one of the first dude ranches in Idaho. Special focus is on land use changes during those times. The story also includes the return of the area to uninhabited wilderness and little known aspects of the events leading up to its inclusion in the present day Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. The account is based on and constrained by unpublished diaries, homestead records, and correspondence of the principal residents of Cabin Creek. To the extent that it follows the occupation of Cabin Creek by Luman Caswell and his brothers, it also provides a sequel to my earlier book Wilderness Brothers. In addition to those who enjoyed Wilderness Brothers: Prospecting, Horse Packing, & Homesteading on the Western Frontier, this book will be of interest to many other readers of western US history, from those with general interest to professional scholars. Illustrated with over 100 photographs, many of them of the Cabin Creek area more than a century ago. A number of the photos illustrate landscape changes between then and now.

source: Amazon
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Cabin Creek Chronicle By G. Wayne Minshall

Review by Ron Watters

Photos, below, used with permission

… [Minshall] begins the narrative before the arrival of white men with the Sheepeater Indians who had occupied the mountainous wilderness of central Idaho for millennia. A faction of the Northern Shoshoni people, it is thought that they may have found refuge from warring tribes in this land of plunging valleys and sweeping ridges.

The late Sven S. Liljeblad a prominent linguist and anthropologist described Sheapeaters as “peaceful” and held in respect by other Indians for their ability to hunt big game.

It is on the ridge to the west of Cabin Creek, and in view of the flat on which the Caswell cabins would be erected, where occurred one of the last skirmishes of the Pacific Northwest Indian wars.

The Sheepeaters had been blamed, rightly or wrongly, for the deaths of five Chinese miners. Lieutenant Henry Catley, commanding a force of 50 men, was sent to subdue and capture the Sheepeaters. On July 30, 1879, Catley awoke from his camp at the mouth of Cabin Creek. It is doubtful he slept very well and he couldn’t have been in the best of moods. He and his men were on the run.

(WH Jackson)

He had been outmaneuvered by five — yes just five — Sheepeater warriors the day before, causing him to retreat. And, before evening came, he would be outmaneuvered once again by an equally small number of Sheepeaters. Minshall recounts Catley’s predicament that day and events that followed.

It was about a decade or more later that began what Minshall calls the “squatters” period of occupation at Cabin Creek. The Homestead Act had been passed in 1862, but land could not be claimed under the act until it had been surveyed. Because of its remoteness, much of central Idaho remained unsurveyed, and therefore was ineligible to be homesteaded. Those few individuals who managed to settle on ground which might allow some semblance of farming or ranching did so as squatters hoping to one day gain official legal title.

The Caswell’s weren’t actually the first squatters. When they arrived in 1894, Minshall explains, there was already a cabin at Cabin Creek, but who built it and how long they lived there remains a mystery. The Caswell’s fixed up the cabin, eventually adding other structures, along with fencing, irrigation, a newer and larger cabin, and a sizeable garden.

The Caswell’s moved on and sold the squatters’ rights to another person who in turn sold them to a partnership of Mel Abel and John Routson, marking the beginning of the homestead period.

MeyersHanmerLewis-[Names associated with photo: Meyers, Hanmer, Lewis]

continuedCabin Creek Chronicle: The History of the Most Remote Ranch in America By G. Wayne Minshall, Streamside Scribe Press. ISBN 9780984949014
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Cabin Creek Historic District

Idaho State Historical Society Reference Series Number 856 1987
Publications–450 N. 4th Street, Boise, ID 83702–208-334-3428

Cabin Creek is a rural historic district with four major episodes of National Register significance. Northern Shoshoni occupation was important prior to Henry Catley’s and R. F. Bernard’s Sheepeater Campaign of 1879. Catley’s expedition camped there July 28, but retired immediately after a remarkable Big Creek Gorge-Vinegar Hill clash there left his army force and packers stranded without supplies. These battle sites are included in a somewhat larger Vinegar Hill Historic District, and his campground simply is an interesting historic site without archaeological inventory. (Vinegar Hill is a quarter mile away, and should be incorporated into any Cabin Creek Historic District nomination.) After military operations ended, army authorities persuaded their Big Creek adversaries to move to Fort Hall, and Indian activity at Cabin Creek was terminated.

Mining operations became prominent in a number of new middle fork districts after additional mineral discoveries during military operations there in 1879, and Cabin Creek Historic District became Ben and Lew Caswell’s prospecting base for their Thunder Mountain gold discoveries that finally set off Idaho’s last major gold rush in 1902. Local mining markets encouraged a number of ranchers to take up Cabin Creek homesteads, and some of their early ranch buildings and archaeological inventory survive as evidence of that episode in Cabin Creek’s Historic District.

Within a decade after Ben and Lew Caswell’s Thunder Mountain discoveries, mining there went into decline until 1937-1941 and after 1980, but an era of recreational development maintained Cabin Creek Historic District. An airstrip provided access to that remote wilderness outpost, which was later incorporated into Bill Harrah’s middle fork recreational enterprises. This transition to hunting and fishing use became Cabin Creek Historic District’s major significance, and a larger architectural and transportation inventory reflects that period of importance. All surviving structures are essential components of ranching and recreational eras of Cabin Creek Historic District’s significance.

Cabin Creek’s current era of Forest Service and wilderness administration has antecedents in 1930 when Governor H. C. Baldridge and Senator William E. Borah recommended that a large area of central Idaho’s Salmon River mountain wilderness be protected as a roadless zone. Forest Service designation of a primitive area there followed a year later, and in 1974, Forest Service acquisition of Cabin Creek Historic District brought wilderness management to that dude ranch outpost that was included in a much larger wilderness era in 1980. Specific provisions in that congressional legislation protect cultural and historic resources of that area.

source: Idaho State Historical Society (broken link)

see also: National Register of Historic Places
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History of the Cabin Creek Airstrip

The first landings were done north of the Bellingham holdings. Blackie Wallace relocated the airstrip to the present position. The southern half, over 900 ft., was built by Wallace with a horse drawn road grader and fresno and ended on his property, at a shop, close to the middle of the strip. It was used for his hunting activities and by Rex Lanham when he bought the property. Johnson Flying Service and many other pilots used it for years. After Hollenbeck brought his cat into the area for rebuilding the hay meadows, he lengthened the air strip up to Cow Creek, which continues to run, unaltered, in its historic location. The existing roads were built by the Caswells and Wallaces. The cat was later used to run Hollenbeck’s sawmill for his barn building and etc. The FS bought all of the property in 1974 and leased it back to Rex Lanham and took possession of it in 1976.

In 1988 the Forest Service requested FAA re designation of the strip to provide for public use, from its previous private use status.

(personal notes)
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Horse Drawn Fresno

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Cabin Creek 1972

from G. Wayne Minshall’s book “Cabin Creek Chronicle”
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Cabin Creek Landing Strip

July 2008

source: ShortField
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Idaho Back Country – Landing Cabin Creek

Jim Hudson
Published on Aug 27, 2008

Further Reading

Link to Big Creek / Edwardburg Index page
Link to Sheepeater Campaign

page updated September 13, 2022