Idaho History Oct 7, 2018

Elk City, Idaho County, Idaho

(Part 1 Mining)

Elk City, Idaho Post Office 1890


Copyright Idaho state Historical Society 2012
source: Idaho State Historical Society
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Elk City, Idaho

Elk City is an unincorporated census-designated place in Idaho County, Idaho, United States. As of the 2010 census, its population was 202.

Elk City is located at an elevation of 4,006 feet above sea level. Located at the eastern end of State Highway 14, it is 50 miles east of Grangeville, the nearest city. Elk City has a post office with ZIP code 83525.

Elk City was the site of a gold strike in 1861, as prospectors rushed south from Pierce, two years before the formation of the Idaho Territory. In the 1870s, Chinese miners leased the claims but were later driven out by mistreatment. Quartz lode operations began in 1902 and dredging in 1935.

source: Wikipedia
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Idaho County

Idaho County was named for the Columbia River steamer Idaho launched in June 9, 1860 to transport gold seekers in north Idaho. By 1861, there was a settlement in the new county, but no town existed until the following year when the local government was formed in Elk City. In August 1861 rich placer deposits discovered in the mountains of north-central Idaho brought thousands of miners. By the fall of 1862, a sea of tents, lean-tos and make-shift houses had become the boom town of Florence. When Idaho County was established February 4, 1864 by the first Idaho Territorial Legislature, Florence was named the county seat. With the influx of miners and settlers into the area, conflicts arose with the native inhabitants culminating with the 1877 Nez Perce War.

source: Idaho County Historic Places
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Nez Perce

The mining camps of Orofino, Pierce City, Elk City, Florence and Warrens were all located on lands claimed by the Nez Perce Indians, yet, although their game was slaughtered and their streams polluted by prospectors and miners, and notwithstanding that they were a powerful tribe of recognized prowess in war, they quietly submitted to the confiscation of their property, without resort to the only court to which they could have appealed – that of war. That they did not go on the war-path in what would have proved a vain effort to right their wrongs was due, no doubt, to the spirit of friendliness they had entertained for the whites since the Lewis and Clark party had visited them, this spirit of friendship and good will having been fostered and cultivated by Rev. Spaulding and his wife during their missionary work among them. I believe that those who are promoters of missionary efforts among the Indians may claim, with justice, that the forbearance of the Nez Perces was largely, if not entirely, due to the teachings they received at the Christian mission at Lapwai.

excerpted from: (pgs 57-58) “Early History of Idaho” by WJ McConnell 1913
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Main Street Elk City, Idaho


source: Gen Disasters – Albuquerque Journal New Mexico 1930-03-19
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Gold Prospectors Found Elk City Deep in the Idaho Mountains

Riffle Box for Placer Mining. Library of Congress.

On August 6, 1861, a band of miners founded the mining town of Elk City, Idaho, about 35 miles east of the present town of Grangeville. Prospectors had first entered the area in the latter part of May. A large party left the Orofino area earlier in the month. Somewhat less than half penetrated the region, having ignored protests from a Nez Perce Indian chief because they had intruded onto reservation land.

They found gold near the confluence of the American and Red rivers. Further prospecting discovered more and more “color.” By mid-June they had slapped together a log cabin to serve as a recorder’s office, in which “Captain” L. B. Monson recorded the first claim on June 14, 1861.

Some men returned to Orofino for supplies and the new rush began, somewhat dampened by worries about the Indians. However, as more and more prospectors struck pay dirt, the rush swelled. That finally led to the founding of Elk City.

By the following summer, the town had four to six stores of various kinds, five saloons, and two decent hotels. Because of its location deep in the mountains, heavy winter snow shut down work on almost every claim. By the fall of 1862, a quickly-established Express company had shipped out over $900 thousand in gold dust (over $50 million at today’s prices).

Gold discoveries in easier country in Montana drew many prospectors away from Elk City the next year. However, the Evening Bulletin in San Francisco reprinted (May 29, 1863) a letter that said, in part, “Six ditches have been dug during the last winter in the vicinity of Elk City, and are now furnishing water to the miners.” As could be expected, “The miners are doing much better than before the ditches were completed.”

Also, in 1864 and 1865, determined gold-seekers built mores ditches, and flumes, to begin large-scale hydraulic mining. Thus, the value of metal extracted from the region actually increased. A sawmill built to supply lumber for these flumes did a booming business.

Miners continued to obtain reasonable returns from claims in the region for more than a decade. Then, after 1880, many claims were leased to Chinese miners. Like most of the older mining towns, Elk City’s prosperity rose and fell with the output from the gold fields in the region.

The economy received a “bump” when prospectors discovered gold in the “Buffalo Hump,” region, about 20 miles to the southwest. By the summer of 1899, about five thousand prospectors had poured into that area. Although Grangeville became the major supply point for “the Hump,” Elk City also won a share of the stagecoach and freight traffic. However, significant work at Buffalo Hump ran its course by about 1910.

source: Evan Filby, South Fork Companion
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Miners Extract Much Gold from Boise Basin, Elk City Ditches

May 29, 1863, the Evening Bulletin in San Francisco, California

A correspondent reported, “Six ditches have been dug during the last winter in the vicinity of Elk City, and are now furnishing water to the miners. The shortest of them is three miles, and the longest nine.” As could be expected, “The miners are doing much better than before the ditches were completed.”

Elk City [1901] Idaho State Historical Society

excerpted from: Evan Filby, South Fork Companion
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Elk City – Oldest Town In Idaho County

The story goes that fifty-two miners left the Orofino district in May 1861 to explore the upper waters of the South Fork of the Clearwater River. This was rugged, uncharted territory traversed only by an ancient trail, known exclusively to the Nee-Me- Poo (Nez Perce People). The trail was the Nez Perce’s route from present-day Salmon City to the northern Camas Prairie. Overlooked by the Lewis & Clark Corp of Discovery, no record of this trail had been recorded.

The miners from Pierce continued on, following a stream to where the present day town of Stites now is. Six miles farther on, they found themselves on a wooded plateau; the site of Chief Looking Glass’s village. They were not met with a warm reception, Chief Cool-cool-snee-nee objected to their advancement and told them they needed to refer to the treaty which excluded white men from the south side of the Clearwater River. Thirty turned back at that point. Twenty-two ignored the Chief’s warnings and proceeded onward. After approximately 22 miles of travel, they came to a high, flat valley or prairie which they promptly called Elk Valley. The whole flat was watered by springs and covered with rich grass. The soil they found was filled with shot gold running as high a twenty-five cents to the pan. Upon their discovery, several miners returned to Pierce City.

(Main Street towards Elk Creek Meadow – Parr Hotel on Right)

The first reported claim of gold being found was at the bottom of Ternan Hill at the mouth of Glass Gulch; the confluence of Red River and American River Road. For years a crude sign once marked the spot where the first cabin was built in 1861. By July of that same year, a town was laid out between Elk Creek and American River and renamed Elk City due to the abundance of these animals in the neighborhood. Elk City soon had a population of 2000 people, several business houses, 40 dwellings and more in the process of being constructed. This new encampment was approximately 125 miles from Pierce; this trip covered two mountain ranges separated by Newsome Creek. Since many of the miners that came to Elk City hailed from California, they feared the harsh, cold winter that was [soon] to be nipping at their heels. They left to return to Walla Walla to winter.

Elk City Main Street 2-1-1917 – Cleveland Collection

As these men were leaving for warmer climates, other miners felt that Elk City was “here to stay” and turned their attentions to founding establishments; one such investor was Lloyd Magruder along with a partner by the name of Wickersham. Magruder was knowledgeable of the Montana Territory and knew that gold would soon be discovered there. In 1862, his hunch paid off and Montana had its gold boom. Magruder knew that Elk City would become the supply point for the mines in Montana. The most direct route for the transportation of gold and supplies was through the Selway –Bitterroot Mountains. This trail followed the old Nez Perce Trail and tied Elk City directly to present day Darby Montana. He invested heavily in Elk City; especially in the development of the Elk City Mining District and it aqueducts. Elk City continued to flourish.

Lloyd Magruder – Elk City Store Proprietor

In 1896 the development of the Elk City Wagon Road (yet another portion of the Nez Perce Trail) brought new settlers to the area and they found Elk City to their liking. A stage and freight line was developed. With it, a new sense of civilization emerged. Elk City was a robust town! The development of quartz mining in the Buffalo Hump region added to Elk City’s longevity. The town was the supply point since it was directly connected with the railroad terminal at Stites via the Elk City Wagon Road.

Elk City Wagon Road – Winter Travelers – Johnson Collection

… Lumbering quickly became a good economic resource as quartz mining picked up. This sort of mining required tunneling back into the side of the mountain and heavy beam work was needed to support the shafts. Numerous sawmills sprang up to supply the growing demand. Mining remained prevalent in Elk City until 1935 when the government ordered the discontinuance of dredge mining. By this time, lumber had taken its place and would remain as such for next the 60 plus years.

Elk City today. A small, quiet community; still serving as the center of supply for the folks living in town and the outlying regions of Red River, Dixie, and Orogrande. A trip of scenic Highway 14 is a real treat. At the end of the road, you come to this quaint little hamlet. It is hard to image that Elk City once started out as tent-camp mining town.

Elk City in 2016

source: Dusty Windshield July 9, 2016
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Captain Pierce, the discoverer of gold in the north, located Pierce City on the site of his discovery, in the dense wood away up in the wild spurs of the Bitter Root mountains, about fifty miles from the Shoshonee river. Then “Oro Fino City” sprang up; then Elk City was laid out; but the “cities” did not flourish; indeed, all these “cities” were laid out only to be buried! The gold was scarce and the mighty flood of miners that had overrun everything to reach the new mines began to set back in a refluent tide.
(pg 4)

Pierce City, or Oro Fino, was one of the early camps of Idaho, and yielded upwards of thirty million dollars in placer gold. In the last few years quartz prospectors have gone back to the old deserted camps and opened up some wonderful quartz veins. A number of companies have been organized, and mills and machinery put in; three new mills having been built in the past year. The district is fast making a name for itself and will soon take a front seat as a producer.

Elk City is another of the old placer camps that gave to the world in its placer days twenty million dollars of gold. Great veins of quartz have been found in her hills, — veins of ore from ten to forty feet in width, and milling upwards of twenty dollars per ton free on an average. Two years ago these mines were prospects, but they have been prospected by shaft and tunnel for hundreds of feet, and the great ore bodies improve with depth, and modern gold mills of twenty stamps were erected last year. There is no question as to the future of this district, and it is scarcely prospected. In sight of the little camp are whole mountain ranges that have never had a prospecting pick stuck in them.
(pg 430)

excerpts from: “An Illustrated History of Idaho” 1899

1912 Buster Mine – Elk City

(link to source full size)

(more photos of the Buster Mine at link below)
source: © PBC Compiled by Penny Bennett Casey, Idaho County GenWeb
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The Modern Village of Elk City, Situated near the famous Elk City Placer District.


Discovery of Salmon River Mining District (1861- 1862)

It was the belief of many of the prospectors that the mines at Pierce City and Oro Fino were but the outskirts of some rich central deposit. Parties of prospectors scoured the country to the southward and in the summer of 1861 located rich diggings in the gulches and creeks of the Elk City district, situated on the South Fork of the Clearwater. North of the Salmon and southwest of Elk City lay the astonishingly rich placer-camp of Florence which was discovered in the autumn of 1861.

excerpted from: (pg 91) “History of the State of Idaho” By C. J. Brosnan 1918
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Elk City (Gold)

As soon as weather permitted prospecting, parties from Pierce set out to examine the surrounding country, and by the middle of May, 1861, fifty-two miners were on their way to the south fork of the Clearwater, where gold had been noticed in 1856 by a white traveler on the Nez Perce Trail. Gold was found before the end of May, and a mining district was organized June 14.

The South Fork got off to a slow start, but Elk City was established before the end of July, and some handsome strikes August 1-2 improved the reputation of the district enormously. By then the diggings there were rated as an ounce a day, and the dust was relatively good – about $16 per ounce. Some 800 or 1,000 miners were there by late August, but the rush to Florence swept away almost all the miners by the end of September, so there was little opportunity for big production the first season.

Elk City revived in June, 1862, when a surplus of miners overflowed from Florence, but production rates again were rather low. Even though ditches were dug for water during the 1863 operations, the season was a bad one, and recovery was poor. The camp, though, went on, and with hydraulic giants a relatively small number of miners began to work a lot of placer ground.

After 1872, Chinese placers predominated. Quartz properties go back to 1870, but production did not begin on any scale until 1902; some $725,000 quartz production has been recorded. Work at Elk City had gone on now for over a century, and with extensive dredging and dragline operations total production may have reached as high as sixteen million.

excerpted from: Mining in Idaho Number 9 1985, by Ernest Oberbillig and the Idaho State Historical Society
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Vernon dredge on road between Elk City and Orogrande


source: Idaho State Historical Society In Copyright
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Elk City Idaho

The year was 1856. There were some folks traveling on the Nez Perce trail along the South Fork of the Clearwater River when they spotted the glitter of what they thought to be gold in the river. 5 years later, in May, 1861, there were 52 miners on their way to the south fork of the Clearwater, to where the gold had been been reported to have been seen. Sure enough, Gold was found in May of that year, and by June 14th of 1861 a mining district was organized. The camp town of Elk City was established before the end of July.

Mining in the area was slow but in August a couple of rich strikes were made and the reputation of the new mining district became well known. Some of the diggings were rated as an ounce a day, and the dust was also reported to be relatively good ranging about $16 per ounce. By late August of 1861 there were estimates of almost a 1,000 miners in the area. In 1863 ditches were dug to provide water for hydraulic operations. The first season was not very good and the amount of gold recovered was poor. The work continued and with help of the hydraulic giants, small groups of miners were able to work a large area of placer ground.

One of the largest in the area was the Buffalo Pit Mine shown in the photo. The rich and easy to get to ground was mined out fairly quick and by 1872, most of the miners had moved on.

The Chinese miners took the leftovers but eventually even they moved on to better ground.

There is still some good gold to be found around Elk City if your willing to look for it. But be careful where you go as many active claims are being worked in the area.

“Buffalo Pit” hydraulic placer mining operation near Elk City, Idaho

The photo copyright is undetermined. Photo courtesy of Idaho State Historical Society.

source: Prospector Art
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Geology and Ore Deposits of the Elk City, Orogrande, Buffalo Hump, and Tenmile Districts, Idaho County, Idaho

By P. J . Shenon and J . C. Reed 1934


This report presents the preliminary results of the authors’ field work in 1931 and 1932 in the drainage basin of the South Fork of the Clearwater River and just south of the divide between that stream and Salmon River.

The oldest rocks of the area are gneisses, schists, quartzites, and limestones and appear to belong to the Belt series. These old rocks were intruded and injected by quartz monzonite and granodiorite of the Idaho batholith in or before late Cretaceous time. Remnants of a widespread erosion surface cover parts of the area. Faulting and warping of the partly dissected peneplain, possibly in Niocene time, formed certain basin-like depressions in which were deposited gravel, sand, and clay. Only the higher parts of the area, around Buffalo Hump, have been glaciated.

The total production of the area has probably been between $15,000,000 and $25,000,000, but records are incomplete. Most of the production has come from placer mines.

The gold lode deposits are classified as vein deposits, including fissure veins and bedded veins, and disseminated deposits. The placers comprise the high-level type, the reconcentrated type, and the recent stream type.

The lode gold has come mainly from fissure veins. The veins in the Elk City district are arranged radially within about 2 miles of a curving contact of granodiorite and gneiss. They dip steeply and stand at nearly right angles to a linear schistsity, or stretching, in the country rocks. The veins of the Buffalo Hump district are in schist or quartz monzonite at the crest of a large isoclinal anticline which has been invaded by the batholith. They apparently bear no structural relationship to the linear schistosity in the vicinity and in that respect differ from the Elk City veins, although they are otherwise similar. The veins in the Tenmile and Orogrande districts in many respects resemble those of the Elk City and Buffalo Hump systems.

The transportation facilities of the districts have been greatly improved by the completion in the fall of 1932 of a good highway up the South Fork of the Clearwater River to Elk City. This should be a stimulus to the mining activity of the region.

About 55 lode mines and prospects and 17 placer properties are briefly described in this report.

… Placer gold was discovered at Elk City and along Newsome Creek in 1861, and by fall over 2,000 people had flocked to the new diggings. By 1872 the richer and more accessible ground was largely worked out, and most of the white miners had left the field to the Chinese, who came in great numbers.

When the Chinese miners had worked over the ground left by the white miners, as well as many of the old tailings dumps, they too left the country. Since 1900 some of the more extensive, low-grade placer deposits have been worked by large-scale mining methods.

… Before 1904 trails were the only means of access into the Elk City district. That year a road as completed from Stites, a tail road point on the Clearwater River, to Elk City by way of Newsome, a distance of 58 miles, and a branch road was extended to Golden, on the South Fork. Between Stites and Elk City this road crosses two divides — Baldy, at an altitude of 6,280 feet, and Elk, at 5,700 feet.

In 1920 a road was constructed from Grangeville up the South Fork as far as Castle Creek , a distance of 18 miles. By 1929 the South Fork road has been completed to Golden, where it joined the old branch road from Stites. After that travelers to and from the district went from Grangeville to Golden and thence over the old road to Elk City. This route avoided the higher summit on the old Stites road and thereby considerably increased the season during which Elk City was readily accessible.

Another connection to the old road was completed from Fall Creek to Mud Springs by way of Moose Creek in 1931. Late in 1932 the river highway was finally opened all the way to Elk City. This is a water-grade route except where the road climbs out of the South Fork Canyon to Camas Prairie, near Mount Idaho. By this route Elk City is about 60 miles from Grangeville and is accessible by automobile or truck during all months of the year. The ultimate completion of the highway down the Clearwater to Lewiston is contemplated.

full report: Shenon, Philip J. and J.C. Reed. “Geology and Ore Deposits of the Elk City, Orogrande, Buffalo Hump, and Tenmile Districts, Idaho County, Idaho. U.S. Geological Survey Circular No.9. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1934.
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Gold Dredge On Crooked River

(click to see original size post card)

Gold dredge on Crooked River, between Elk City and Orogrande. These dredges recall the gold years between the early 30’s and late 50’s when they were seen on many Idaho stream beds. Huge mouths full of gravel were screened down to the fine and heavier gold.

source: Card cow

Link to Elk City (part 2 News)
Link to Elk City (Part 3 Murder)
Link to Elk City (Part 4 Transportation)

page updated Aug 17, 2020