Thunder Mountain and Roosevelt
Its Ghosts Walk Under Water
The famous “Reef” of the Dewey Mine in the Thunder Mountain Mining Area.
by Faith Turner
The epic story of Thunder Mountain was a decade drama in three acts.
First, the discovery of gold deep within Idaho’s primitive wilderness where the earth’s crust is up-tilted to dizzying heights, and meadow valleys are lovely beyond description in their brief summer. Then, a gulch town dubbed Roosevelt that mushroomed into a lusty existence despite the tortuous trails that were its life-line. And finally, the landslide and flood that brought oblivion to the town.
This Thunder Mountain story has never been completely told, nor will it ever be. Few of the twenty thousand people who traveled there at the turn of the century are around to tell what they saw, and of those who are, each witnessed only a part. Zane Grey wrote a novel about that gold rush, but the old-timers did not care for his Actionized version; the facts were plenty colorful.
About fifty miles straight east of McCall as the crow doesn’t fly is the Thunder Mountain area, in almost the exact center of the state of Idaho. Thunder Mountain itself is rather an isolated peak in the Salmon River Range; because of certain atmospheric conditions in that spot during storms, thunder echoes and re-echoes with terrific effect, making the earth tremble. Indians called it “Tome-up” – meaning “The Place Where the Clouds Are Crying.” It is a densely timbered divide separating Monumental Creek and Marble Creek; Mule Creek was a tributary of the former.
The men primarily responsible for the Thunder Mountain gold rush were the three Caswell brothers: Dan, Ben and Lou, and their cousin, A. O. Huntley. The Caswells were trappers and hunters from Wyoming who decided to move into Idaho for new trapping grounds. They came by way of Yellowstone National Park, with a number of half-broken pack horses and a couple of hundred traps, finally arriving at Big Creek and locating on what was known for years as the “Old Caswell Ranch.” … Trapping in winter and prospecting in summer, they discovered gold at the mouth of Monumental Creek, which they traced to its source on Thunder Mountain. It was free gold, near the surface of a light, flaky formation at the head of Mule Creek.
On a day in the old Overland Hotel in Boise it is said that Erb Johnson showed a rich sample of the Caswell gold to the late Ed Dewey – who promptly communicated with his father, the “fabulous Colonel Dewey,” then in Pittsburgh. Colonel Dewey, Silver City mining millionaire, instructed Ed to secure an option on the Caswell property. That was August 1, 1900.
“Father’s option was for eighteen months,” says Con Dewey, the old Colonel’s only living son. “He paid $100,000 on January 1, 1902.”
A photostatic copy of that check was printed and copied by various newspapers, probably sparking the gold fever that sent hundreds of prospectors over the trails to the new bonanza. It has been estimated that twenty-thousand people flocked to Thunder Mountain by 1902, and eleven thousand claims were located. More than fifty mining companies were organized but only two operated on their own money: the Dewey and the Sunnyside. It was a wonderful opportunity for stockselling schemes; many gullible buyer was left holding a nicely engraved certificate . . . and a claim in the middle of a creek bed! Those who expected to reach the wilderness by rail, and pick gold off the street, left in disgust. The ones with grit and determination stayed.
The real stampede begin in July 1901. The Warren and Florence diggings were deserted for the new bonanza. Notes from the Grangeville paper give a glimpse of its realism:
“Dec. 1901 – 500 men on the way to Thunder Mountain. Need wagon road. No grub.
“Jan. 1902 – Dog team tried by way of Elk Creek Summit.
“Feb. 1902 – Petition to Wash. to establish P.O. at new town of Roosevelt.
“March 1902 – 10 feet of snow on main trails. 100 men marooned. Camp population – 800. First newspaper established.
“April 1902 – Scores arrive daily. 1500 men in camp, 60 to 70 a day coming. Town of Roosevelt founded. Telephone line to Elk City.
“May  – Rush so great stock exhausted in 3 Lewiston stores. 20,000 population predicted. “Aug. – 2000 men working in mines, twice as many as many more seeking gold in district. Law enforcement a problem, necktie parties. Stores waxing rich. Claims staked out over a 30-mile area. Dewey mine total production: $35,000.”
Among substantial business firms that advertised in the THUNDER MOUNTAIN NEWS (established May 16, 1902, George L. Lewis, founder and editor) appear the following ads in a frayed copy in the State Historical Museum, Aug. 18, 1906:
Bank of Commerce, Boise
John E. Yates, President
L. A. Coate, V.P.
G. W. Green, Cashier
Directors: Thom. Davis; S. T. N. Smith; F. R. Coffin; H. N. Coffin; J. B. Morrow; John M. Haines; B. F. Olden; M. Alexander; Geo. M. Parsons.
* * * * *
L. A. Wayland & Son – General Merchandise
White Rose Flour made from Camas Prairie Wheat
* * * * *
J. B. Randell, (Notary Public)
* * * * *
Patrick McMahon – Miners and Prospectors Supplies
* * * * *
From the four main points of the compass (and several in between), prospectors, promoters, gamblers, packers, capitalists, merchants, engineers, and thrill-seekers swarmed over the trails to Thunder Mountain.
The northern route from Grangeville or Florence came through Burgdorf, Warren, Elk Creek, Big Creek, to Monumental Creek. From the west, especially later, Cascade was the starting point (Cascade, in time, absorbed Thunder City, Crawford and Van Wyck), and they passed through Knox, beyond the south fork of the Salmon, and Landmark. Those who took the Garden Valley route followed the south fork of the Payette, with supplies freighted from Placerville. From Boise the road led from Lowman up Clear Creek and into Bear Valley, through Stanley Basin. (Mose Kempner tried to find a shorter route across Cape Horn, but he got lost and had to live on hardtack for a considerable time.) One pass, before reaching Marble Creek and Thunder Mountain, was called “Chilkoot Pass,” and it was a “bear-cat,” evidently a Klondiker had named it.
Salmon City tried to promote an eastern route, claiming it was shorter – although it lay on the other side of both the Salmon River and Yellow Jacket ranges, as well as the Salmon Middle Fork. Herndon says that “a wild and enthusiastic meeting” was held in this little mountain town, with Al Mahoney of Leesburg contracting to build a bridge across the Middle Fork. However, the people hadn’t figured on “the influence and power of the state capital.”
Whatever the route, the hardships were great. Today, the mountains and the seasons have not changed, but there are many forest roads and limited landing fields – and motored vehicles. Where once it took days or even weeks to reach the primitive areas, now it might be a matter of hours. But it still is not easy.
John Scanlon, 83, is one of the last of the old packers who freighted supplies to Thunder Mountain half a century ago. He lives in Boise with his daughter.
W.D. (Bill) Timm, as assayer, was one of the first to reach the gold camp from north of Chamberlain Basin. Timm served in the 8th Session of the Legislature from Idaho County, which then included Valley County.
Jacob Ullman, of Boise, went into Roosevelt, the gold camp at Thunder Mountain in 1902. He operated a store for Moses Alexander that summer.
Thunder Mountain Pioneers
In Washington, D.C., Robert G. Bailey read of the gold strike, left the government printing office, took a train to Lewiston, a stage to Grangeville, and a pack outfit and guide over the old Nez Perce Trail to Elk City, to Dixie, to Chamberlain Basin – to Big Creek, and on into Thunder Mountain. W. D. (Bill) Timm, with two years at Stanford and two at Washington State behind him, was up in the Hoodoo Mountains in the heart of the Palouse country when news of the strike filtered north. Teaming up with Charles Goodsell, once a football coach at Pullman, the two started in April with a pack string of five burros, ten gallons of gas for their assay outfit, grub, and twenty cents, heading for adventure. They got it.
“It was snowing at Dixie before we crossed the catamaran ferry,” says Timm, whose memory has by no means dimmed. “One burro rolled – the one with all our kitchen equipment, syrup, and tobacco. After that we smoked kinnikinic, and tried to make dough-gobs out of our $300 flour.”
They arrived – on foot – June 10, and found 500 people waiting to get in.
Nevada W. Stonebraker, a seasoned miner among the first to pack in, found his flour had traveled too close to a can of coal oil. “The result would have shuddered a bear,” he admitted.
Jake and Eric Jansen were in the vanguard of the stampeders; they were colorful figures. Sam Ilasbrouke stayed throughout the boom. A party from Telluride, Colorado, went in by way of old Lardo (now McCall), Burgdorf and Warren, finding 22 feet of snow on Elk summit. Along Monumental Creek they counted 82 head of moose. In this party were John (Jack) Diamond and David Diamond, father and grandfather of Mrs. Vic Goertzen of Boise. As the elder Diamond started back out he lost seven head of stock, including his lead mule, in a blizzard between Thunder Mountain and the Caswell trail.
Julius Lachs, who had a wagon shop in Boise in the 90’s, went early to Thunder Mountain, had a saw mill run by water power, and did most of the cabinet work and store fronts for Roosevelt, as well as making coffins for those who died. “Jake” Ullman of Boise spent about eight months in Roosevelt running a clothing store for Moses Alexander. He packed in by way of Long Valley, Knox, Johnson Creek, and Chilkoot Pass with 30 feet of snow in April; found one hotel and many saloons but no money in Roosevelt – “they had gambled all winter by passing their checks back and forth.” Ben Francis, former Boise police chief, operated a store and saloon.
William Sharp of Pocatello went in by way of the Buckhom trail – “so steep it would make a goat dizzy.” A Dr. Ilanmer came from Butte, Montana, and was said to have taken many photographs.
In 1902 three young Boise boys spent an adventurous summer at Thunder Mountain: Ed Coffin (now living in Boise), Cole Wilson, and Clayt Symons (a nephew of John Haines). When they left old Central school Prof. Daniels kissed them on each cheek and rubbed it in. Thunder Mountain was 180 miles from the nearest railroad – “might as well have been Alaska.” The conductor at Meadows objected to their six-shooters. They took a livery rig as far as snow permitted, then they shouldered 40-pound packs and mushed through slush. On the trail they met a number of get-rich-quick sports from Boston coming back out, and pack strings going in. A big man named Hugh Fulton who served as guide for the boys prodded them along as they climbed mile-high divides – and then sat down and mopped his bald head with a blue bandanna that faded off, leaving him resembling a goblin. These boys found Roosevelt wild and wooly – and also hungry, as it awaited a pack string bearing grub, from Salmon City. W. E. Pierce, Boise realtor, was there, and he filled them full of jokes and hotcakes.
The town depended upon the freighters for supplies of all kinds – mining equipment, stores of goods, wood for fuel, as well as food. The Spanish packer, Jesus Urquides who had come to Boise in 1863, was best known of all, and famous throughout the Northwest. His name, Jesus, pronounced “He-soos,” was corrupted into “Ko-suth,” by which he was familiarly known.
When a 10-stamp mill was ordered by Col. W. II. Dewey in 1901 for the mine that came to bear his name, it was Urquides who packed it in by way of Bear Valley on the backs of his tough little mules. Again, when the Sunnyside mine had a 40-stamp mill brought to Thunder Mountain, it was Urquides who packed the mile-long cable over the twisting miles, the heavy steel coiled in loops between his pack animals, three abreast. It was an almost unbelievable feat. Urquides was efficient and dependable.
There was Billy McClure, who was a well-known packer, James Jewell, and many others. “Johnny” Scanlon of Garden Valley freighted into Roosevelt in 1902. He remembers when more than a ton of blasting powder once lay abandoned at Landmark, with glycerin trickling out of the broken boxes. Packers were offered 18 cents per pound to haul it to camp, if they signed a release. Scanlon would have none of it, but a tenderfoot tried it and actually succeeded without being blown to kingdom-come.
William “Bill” Hendrix, present Ada County commissioner, freighted into the Thunder Mountain area when he was a young feller, with his step-father, D. R. Miller. They went by way of Knox and Trappers’ Flat; he remembers the roads “were awful.” Most unique, even to the old-timers, was the cow pack train brought in by Asa Clark of Boise. It was a smart idea. The cows carried packs in, were milked all summer to the tune of 25 cents per quart, and then, when fall came with no hay, they were butchered to provide meat at handsome prices.
A road to Roosevelt was needed. When engineers and mine operators held a meeting at the Overland Hotel in Boise to discuss ways of financing such a road it is said that “Ras” Beamer, a deputy U. S. Marshal, exclaimed, “Never mind the road to Thunder—let’s keep the trail open to Pittsburgh!” (That’s where the capital flowed from.) Actually, there was a $30,000 appropriation made to build the wagon road and Frank Johnesse of Boise was made superintendent for the state’s part of the construction. Con Dewey was the first to drive a four-wheel vehicle into Roosevelt over it.
Bert Haug was superintendent of the Dewey mine. Peter Donnely, Colonel Dewey’s old friend, had charge of the forwarding camp. In June, 1902, Haug had 1,600 pounds of very rich ore on hand which he wanted to get out. Con Dewey, just a young chap then, happened to be in camp with a small train of pack horses; Ilaug asked him to take the ore. Con loaded his train, with the help (?) of a tenderfoot from Louisiana, took along J. M. Clark (engineer on his father’s railroad) who was ill, and set out June 30. He camped at the head of Indian Creek, sixteen miles from the mine, and woke up next morning in a foot of snow. The storm lasted two days. On the -1th [?] of July they reached Chilkoot Pass in a blizzard. Con tailed the horses, going up the grade. Near the top the tenderfoot played out completely, and the horses couldn’t get their breath in the face of the wind. Con cut across the side of the mountain and finally found a cabin and help.
About half of the crew of the old Dewey Mine in the Thunder Mountain Mining District.
“Glory Hole” in the old Dewey Mine at Roosevelt, Idaho. The men are directly over the big stope which later collapsed and started the landslide that flooded Roosevelt.
Those Who Died
Among such cosmopolitan citizenry there were bound to be many who died and lay in nameless graves. In recent years Bill Timm took steps to have markers put up for these. He felt that perhaps he alone was left who could supply that information. (Timm lives in Dixon, California; he comes back to Thunder Mountain each summer to look after his old claims.)
He succeeded in this project, and on September 9, 1950, a ceremony was held at the old cemetery at Roosevelt. A bronze plaque bearing the names of ten men was dedicated. Dan McRae, Thunder Mountain pioneer, who now lives at Stibnite, was present; many assisted in cleaning up the site in preparation.
Behind the names on the marker were human-interest stories. There was Perry Watson, for instance, otherwise known as “Slim,” who packed the mail and was caught in a snowslide. When rescuers arrived his little bob-tailed dog had been digging for hours in a pathetic attempt to reach down to his master. . . . The snows caught W. D. Smith, too—an elderly man who lived in a tent and kept to himself. He disappeared. They found him next spring beside a trail where he had fallen. . . . Dave Sutton bought a little plot of ground and raised vegetables; he offered $1000 for a wife — then sat on a log and committed suicide. . . . “Slim” Gardner died with his boots on and a young college man from Chicago who was in camp “preached” the funeral sermon in the biggest saloon with the dance-hall girls singing Rock of Ages and Timm closing with Nearer My God to Thee. .. . Gustave Dahms, the “Little Swede,” went home to bed one night and a snow slide buried his cabin. They ran a tunnel through to get him out, lifted his body off the crushed bed and were petrified to hear a ghastly wail. It was his dog, miraculously alive under the bed; it lived, and had puppies!
Roosevelt was a man’s camp — yet there were women, too. There was the postmaster’s wife, there was a laundress whom everybody called “Auntie,” and a number of others at various times. Mrs. Frank Johnesse drove a buckboard into the town over the road her husband had completed for the state. Olive Euler of Boise was there one summer with her father, R. L. Euler, an assayer. Young Olive went as far as Emmett by rail, then in a spring wagon to Knox, and in a pack train, beyond there.
Col. W. H. Dewey, owner of the Dewey mine, never went to Thunder Mountain himself. He was too old, too tired, too ill. When the ores showed such rich promise that the 10-stamp mill seemed inadequate, a 100-stamp mill was ordered in 1902. It got as far as Emmett, but the big boilers had to wait for the wagon road — which was not completed until 1904. Col Dewey died in May of 1903, and the mine activity slumped. The ore had been over-estimated; it proved to be of lower grade than at first believed. Parts of the big mill lay by the tracks at Emmett, parts were left along the trail. Eventually the boilers were retrieved and used in the Dewey Palace Hotel. The mine closed down in 1906.
Submerged mining town of Roosevelt
As early as 1906 John Oberbillig looked at the Dewey mine, as he was cruising the primitive area before he laid out what is now Stibnite. He declared that a landslide was inevitable. . . . Paul Swayne of Star, who was working there in 1906, says that the timbers jack-knifed. In the spring of 1909, he claims, the Dewey stope was full of slush and started to move downhill. The earth formation was “tufa”—a volcanic ash.
It took exactly 26 hours for the slide to travel down Mule Creek – a distance of two and a half miles – and pile up in the narrow canyon, damming up Monumental Creek to the town of Roosevelt. Nothing could stop that slide, not even 20-ton boulders. Presently Roosevelt was a lake, with its buildings under forty feet of water. Nobody was injured – there were few inhabitants left – and there was plenty of time to escape.
For a few years visitors to the area noted several roofs sticking up out of the lake. Some thirsty souls yearned, it is said, to dive down and explore a certain saloon cellar for some well-aged whiskey thought to have been cached there. Now, nothing shows of the town that drowned. The Forest Service has destroyed the decaying cabins that lingered on the slopes above. The old trails are still littered with boxes of mine machinery and endless ricks of wood. The Dewey mine, which produced a lot of gold in its day, is still there — waiting for further development. It is owned, now, jointly by Marie Dewey Davis and Dan McRae. A few miles west is Stibnite — the modern mining camp for strategic metals that have been flown out . . . by air, not over the still torturous trails.
Prospectors say there is still gold in Thunder Mountain. And the ghosts of Roosevelt walk under water.
Author’s note: As SCENIC IDAHO goes to press we are informed that W. D. Timm, who furnished some of the data for the Thunder Mountain story, died October 6 in Oakland, California. He was almost 82 years of age. Many people who knew the “back country” of Idaho had met and admired “Big Bill” Timm. (William D. Timm (1872-1953) is buried in Dixon Cemetery, Solano County, California) at findagrave.com
Mr. Timm achieved two ambitions before his death. He secured a monument and name plaque for the unknown dead at Roosevelt, and last winter saw to it that a picture of the Eighth Legislature members (of which he was one) was hung in the Statehouse at Boise. . . . It is interesting to note that he was a classmate of Herbert Hoover at Stanford University where they each were studying to be mining engineers. (F.T.)
Wells calculates that Thunder Mountain produced $500,000 worth of minerals. Compare to $400,000 for the South Fork Salmon River sandbars and $53,000,000 for Stibnite. – Wells, Merle W. — Gold Camps & Silver Cities/Nineteenth Century Mining in Central and Southern Idaho. Idaho Department of Lands, Bureau of Mines & Geology, Moscow, Idaho, 1983.
from “Scenic Idaho”, Winter 1954. (note: “Scenic Idaho,” published by Belcher Publishing Company, Boise, Idaho, has long been out publication and Faith Turner appears to have died in 1979)
source: Valley County, IDGenWeb Project
[h/t SMc 12-16-2012]
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Stock certificate for Thunder Mountain Consolidated Gold Mining Co., Ltd.
Certificate #331, 50 shares, S. J. Dunlap purchaser 1902
Link: Thunder Mountain / Roosevelt History index page
page updated October 29, 2020