Thunder Mountain – Big Creek Mining Area
Chapter 5 “Southern Idaho Ghost Towns” by Wayne C. Sparling 1974
Because of the remoteness of this region, prospecting and mining occurred slightly later than for the rest of Idaho. About 1900, stories of the Caswell brothers’ gold discoveries on Monumental Creek began to circulate and Colonel William H. Dewey (of Owyhee County fame) became interested. In the fall of 1901, Colonel Dewey declared his faith in Thunder Mountain by purchasing the Caswell claims for one hundred thousand dollars. This act immediately raised everyone’s gold fever to a high pitch, and the last of Idaho’s great stampedes was under way. Thousands of poorly equipped people, both on foot and on horseback, traveled this rough, inaccessible country with only visions of easy gold to lighten their load.
Interest in Thunder Mountain ran high in the spring of 1902 with stage lines being planned, a telephone line under construction, and the Union Pacific searching out the best route for their rails. Since the mines were accessible only by trail, it was natural that a wagon road be planned and local newspapers avidly pursued the merits of each route. While roads from Boise and Garden Valley were eventually completed, it was Colonel Dewey’s wagon road from Emmett to Roosevelt that carried most of the freight. The Idaho Northern Railroad, owned by Colonel Dewey, ran from Nampa to Emmett, and by starting his road at this railhead, he hoped to promote business for the railroad. From Emmett this wagon road led up through Brownlee and High Valley, across the Payette River at Smiths Ferry, then on through Long Valley to the small outfitting community of Thunder City. At Thunder City the road turned east-ward over Big Creek Summit to the popular way station at Knox, then rose sharply over Cabin Creek Summit and down Johnson Creek to Twin Bridges. Climbing again to Trapper’s Flat the road wound down and across Riordan Creek, only to climb up over Monumental Summit and down the long grade into Roosevelt. Parts of this tortuous old road have been utilized in the present road system, and other portions can still be covered with a pickup or four-wheel drive vehicle.
The rush to Thunder Mountain at least served to open up the great back country in central Idaho, a beautiful area of clear, swift streams and deep valleys surrounded by high, rock-strewn peaks.
Today, Yellow Pine is the jumping off point for the Big Creek and Thunder Mountain areas. A favorable location, coupled with a reasonably light snowfall, made Yellow Pine a natural site for a settlement, and for years a genial Mr. Behne operated the store and post office. When the road from Yellow Pine to Edwardsburg was completed in 1933, it was a great boon to the miners and ranchers along Big Creek. The Edwards ranch, with a post office under the name of Edwardsburg, served the remote Big Creek country for many years. The Edwards were Southern aristocracy who migrated north during the later years of the mining rush and took up a homestead near the mouth of Logan Creek. While Mrs. Edwards ran the post office, Mr. Edwards became interested in the mining game, holding claims at Copper Camp and for a time operating the Sunday and Moscow mines on Logan Creek.
At the very head of Big Creek, the Cleveland Mine dates from prior discoveries in 1885, when the Alton district was struggling to make itself know. Near Profile Summit, the Red Metals Mine and the Wilson Mine share opposite sides of a ridge, and Profile Sam Wilson became a well-known figure. Placer mining down in the meadows along Big Creek was undertaken by the Golden Placer Mining Company. A short ways up from the mouth of Smith Creek is the old camp of the Smith Creek Hydraulic Mining Company, farther on is the huge mill at the Werdenhoff Mine, and at the head of Smith Creek is the Independence Mine, located in 1898. Ramey Ridge, the Golden Hand, Copper Camp, and the Snowshoe Mine were all names familiar to the miners along Big Creek.
Big Creek Store and Big Creek Ranger Station are now the centers of activity for the valley. The road in from Yellow Pine is good as far down Big Creek as the mouth of Smith Creek. Beyond there it gets very rough and narrow, possibly the most miserable road Idaho has to offer. Another road leads from Big Creek to Warrens so that a loop drive can be made from Yellow Pine to Big Creek, up over Elk Summit and down across the South Fork of the Salmon River to Warrens and back out to McCall. Elk Summit, where alpine flowers still bloom in August, affords a panoramic view of Idaho’s intriguing back country. Past Elk Summit the descent into the South Fork seems almost unending; long before you reach the valley floor, you’ll swear there’s an odor of brimstone in the air. Finally the road does level off a bit and crosses the river on a good steel bridge, only to begin the long climb back up through the fragrant pines to Warrens.
Discovered during the Thunder Mountain rush, the mines around Stibnite became famous for mercury, antimony, gold, and tungsten. The Meadow Creek Mine was one of the first discoveries, and all of the early mines were opened up by tunneling. It wasn’t until the World War Two mining effort that the huge open pit was created. During the war years this mine became a leading producer of vital tungsten, and the town of Stibnite was at the peak of its glory. Changes in metal stockpiling procedures following the war years led to the closing of the mine, and the huge mill has been dismantled into a pile of debris. Most of the houses have been trucked out over the hazardous road to McCall and sold. The glory hole complete with its small lake and running stream can be seen far below the road that leads into town.
From Yellow Pine the road to Stibnite follows up along the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River. After passing through Stibnite the road climbs up over Monumental Summit and then follows down along Monumental Creek to Roosevelt Lake.
Colonel Dewey’s display of confidence in the Thunder Mountain mines immediately triggered a great influx of people, and in 1902 the town of Roosevelt was established. Named for Teddy Roosevelt, the townsite was laid out by The Idaho Land and Loan Company of Boise and lots were sold for $100 on up. The town was strung out along Monumental Creek with the Dewey Mine just two miles assay on Mule Creek. Although there were attempts to establish other towns, a good central location plus the opening of a post office in July of 1902 helped Roosevelt become the leading community.
From a blossoming tent village it had grown to a substantial town by 1904, when the wagon road and telephone use were completed. Over this new wagon road came heavy mill equipment for the Belleco mine, and construction of this mill on Marble Creek, along with a steady output from the Dewey Mill, made for prosperous times.
Upon acquiring the Caswell claims, Colonel Dewey had a sectionalized ten stamp mill and a steam boiler packed in on horses. This mill as more or less continuously from 1902 until 1907 and produced the biggest share of gold mined on Thunder Mountain. Over the ridge east of the Dewey Mine, the Sunnyside claims were purchased by a group of Pittsburgh industrialists who established The Belle of Thunder Mountain Mining and Milling Company.
The forty stamp Belleco Mill on Marble Creek had a mile and a half long tramway that carried the ore down from the ridge. This elaborate operation got under way in 1905, and after a series of problems, including the lack of proper equipment to separate the gold and the growing reluctance of the stockholders, the mill ran again briefly in 1906, never to run again.
A large portion of the tunneling at the Dewey Mine collapsed in 1906, and with the remaining ore becoming steadily poorer in grade, the Dewey Mill closed down in 1907. Although several small mining ventures continued to operate the failure of the two largest companies heralded the finish of Idaho’s much publicized Thunder Mountain.
Aside from the closing of the mines, the death of Roosevelt was enacted in a more dramatic way. On the last day in May of 1909, a huge mud slide let loose in a draw just south of the Dewey Mine and started flowing down Mule Creek. The sodden earth didn’t travel any faster than a man could walk, but it inexorably moved boulders and trees and when it finally stopped, after about thirty-six hours, Monumental Creek had been effectively dammed. Only about twenty or thirty people still resided in the town, and as the water slowly came higher they hurriedly moved possessions to higher ground. Still, there wasn’t time to remove everything, and for years people came to “fish” for items they could salvage. Today the lower shore of Roosevelt Lake is covered with logs that have floated up from the old cabins, and when the water is calm you can see the shapes and outlines of buildings.
The present Sunnyside Mill is a later development, having been constructed during the winter of 1924 and 1925. Like the Belleco, it is located on the Marble Creek side of the ridge, and a short tramway was built to bring down the ore.
Thunder Mountain City
In March of 1902 several Weiser businessmen purchased a group of placer claims at the mouth of the West Fork of Monumental Creek and set up the Thunder Mountain Placer Mining Company, Ltd. This townsite was named Thunder Mountain City, and with five mercantile stores, a blacksmith, an assay office, a hotel, restaurant, and nine whiskey mills, it was Roosevelt’s closest rival. Some prospects were discovered on nearby creeks but nothing big developed, and Thunder Mountain City served mainly as a stopping place for the many travelers on Monumental Creek.
The similarity in the names Thunder City and Thunder Mountain City has created some confusion and warrants an explanation. Thunder City was located approximately six miles south of Cascade and served as a way station and outfitting point on the wagon road into the mines. When the railroad came up the Payette River and established the station at Cascade in 1913, it doomed the small villages of Thunder City and Crawford. Although Thunder City was still going in 1916, no trace remains today.
Thunder Mountain City was situated about three miles on down Monumental Creek from Roosevelt. This town was deliberately laid out as a money making enterprise, and lots were sold for one hundred dollars and up. The tumbled remains of several log buildings can still be seen, and the numerous leveled-off spots were used for tent houses.
Marble City was another log and tent town on upper Marble Creek, below the Sunnyside Mine. This town was used mainly by people coming in from Salmon, Challis, and Ketchum. Only trails came in from this direction, and after crossing the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, the travelers would take the trail up along Marble Creek, crossing the ridge at the head of the creek to get on to the Dewey Mine and Roosevelt. Marble City was in existence only a short time, and there are no remains.
from: Chapter 5 “Southern Idaho Ghost Towns” by Wayne C. Sparling 1974
page updated Nov 9, 2020