Idaho History April 28, 2019


Idaho’s Pompeii

A Gold Rush Town Drowned

by Robin McRae – photos courtesy of Robin McRae and Jim Collord

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Thunder Mountain – first cabin built at Mule creek by Caswells (on right) from a roll of film found on site by the author’s father.

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A camp at “Rubber Neck Creek” – Thunder Mountain from a roll of film found on site by the author’s father.

Some years ago, Doug Tims asked me to travel with him to the site of Roosevelt, a former gold rush town almost five hours’ drive from Cascade in the Payette National Forest. My forebears lived in the mining area around Roosevelt known as the Thunder Mountain District. Doug, who owns the historic Campbell’s Ferry Ranch on the main Salmon River to the north, was interested in the area’s history and geology for a book he was writing… Many gold rush folk came into Roosevelt by way of Lewiston, through Elk City and then Campbell’s Ferry, where they crossed the Salmon to reach Thunder Mountain. From there, they followed the Three Blaze Trail sixty-five miles to Roosevelt.

During the drive with Doug, I related stories of mining and the town that grew up to support most of the seven thousand people who once received their mail at the Roosevelt Post Office.

“Most likely, this was the most isolated cultural area ever formed in the state of Idaho,” I told him.

Nowadays, Roosevelt is best known for the torrent of muddy water that flowed down Thunder Mountain in 1909, covering the town to create Roosevelt Lake. After the settlement met its watery fate, my grandparents moved with their six-year-old son (who would become my father) and their two-year-old daughter to the Dewey Mine, two miles above the new lake that covered about forty buildings.

Bob [Robin’s father] and his sister, Marjorie [Jim’s mother] both went into Thunder Mountain in 1914 — when mom was two.
– from Jim Collord

Mom-&-Bob-1916-aRobert and Marge McRae, the father and aunt of Robin, on mules at Roosevelt in 1916

img007-aMom on grandpa Dan’s back while snowshoeing in

Dewey-Snow-aThe cabin at the Dewey. Grandma Grace, Bob and Marjorie and Fred Holcomb.

Dad-Lightning-Peak-a[Photo] of my dad [Jim Collord Sr.] on top of Lightning Peak .. 1930 when he first went in to work at the mine.

My grandparents, Daniel C. and Grace McRae, first had interests in the area from about 1897 to 1902. They lived on Thunder Mountain from 1914 to 1942, after which the government put a moratorium on gold production. They worked both of the two main mines, the Dewey and Sunnyside, eventually partnering with Marie Dewey Davis in ownership of Sunnyside. My father, Robert McRae, then patented Sunnyside in 1960 in partnership with local logging baron Warren Brown. The mine remained in the family until we sold it to the Public Trust for Lands in 2005, which subsequently sold it to the U.S. Forest Service.

My father grew up to become the metallurgist for the Stibnite Mine, to the west of Roosevelt. I lived in Stibnite as a child with my parents and my sister Lorie, and we often visited Roosevelt.

“After the flood, Roosevelt provided very good fishing,” I told Doug. “My father would take a raft out to the five or six buildings that were floating like ducks on a pond. Apparently, kitchen pots and pans were still attached to the walls. My grandmother said she salvaged a frying pan.”

Scavengers have been busy in the area over the decades. For example, in the 1970s, several crewmembers on a break from a movie being made in Idaho dove among what remained of Roosevelt’s submerged buildings and came up with a very ornate door with a large window in it. They cleaned up half of the door, leaving the other half in its original condition for contrast, and sold it to a Yellow Pine resident.

I told Doug about the time in 1950 when I saw about four men diving for souvenirs, using a metal diving suit and a compressor for air. The lake was then about thirty feet deep. They brought up an ax, a chest of drawers, and bottles. “I remember the divers had an ongoing tussle with beaver,” I said. “Every night, the beavers would dam up part of Monumental Creek and flood the camp.”

Monumental Creek flowed in an S-shape through Roosevelt, roughly perpendicular to Mule Creek, which came down from Thunder Mountain. The namesake of Monumental Creek is an amazing geologic oddity that still stands nine miles below Lake Roosevelt. It’s an eighty-foot-tall monument of mud and gravel, twenty-six feet in girth at the base and topped by a two-ton boulder. Considered sacred by the Sheepeater tribes, it was created during a volcanic period about forty-two million years ago, and is a prime example of the volcanic mud that played a key role in Roosevelt’s demise.

Monument-aThe namesake of Monumental Creek, a formation still standing from ancient volcanic activity.

Doug and I visited the site of the old Roosevelt cemetery at the south end of the lake, where a plaque commemorates thirteen people interred there. The cemetery held twenty to thirty graves, but the names of the others could not be recalled by my grandfather or by former Roosevelt assayer Bill Timm. When the marker was installed by Stibnite residents in 1949, the Idaho Statesman published a photo that showed the new plaque flanked by my grandfather, my dad, my sister, and me.

Later, when I read newspapers printed in Roosevelt during 1904 and 1905, I discovered that a handful of people were born there and several marriages were performed. As an avid collector of historic images and other information about Roosevelt, I’ve assembled a picture of what life was like during the town’s heyday, and of the fate that befell it.

Gold was first discovered on Thunder Mountain in 1896 by the Caswell brothers, Lou, Dan, Ben, and Cort. They sold their claim to William E. Dewey, known as Col. Dewey, who in those days was a fixture in the Owyhee County mining town of Silver City, where he had made a fortune and built a hotel near Ruby City, now a ghost town. He died not long after his purchase of what he named the Dewey Mine, which sparked the gold rush to the Thunder Mountain District.

The Dewey Mine and the other gold operation on Thunder Mountain, the Sunnyside Mine, were responsible for Roosevelt, named after President Teddy Roosevelt. The town, which flourished from 1902 to 1908, was constructed at the bottom of a steeply sloped canyon. At the headwaters of Mule Creek, about one-and-three-quarters miles above the town, was the Dewey Mine.

About a mile from it was the Sunnyside Mine, which had been purchased by a group of men from Pittsburgh who had become virtually instant millionaires when they formed the United State millionaires when they formed the United State Steel Corp. The Sunnyside Mine had two miles of tunnels and an ore tramline, the latter of which was made possible when locally famous muleteer Jesus Urquides packed one-and-a-half miles of one-inch cable into the remote area. Up to three hundred men were employed at Sunnyside as underground miners, on the tramline, and at the thirty-stamp mill, which had a cyanide feature.

Residents of Roosevelt and its surrounds received their mail by hand-carriers from Warren, about seventy-five miles away. Later, mail arrived by way of Thunder City, two miles south of Cascade and ninety-five miles from Roosevelt. In both cases, the contract was very costly.

All commercial shipments were packed in by horse or mule, except in the case of cow trains. Cows were loaded with produce to make the trip and when they arrived, the animals were slaughtered for meat.

Roosevelt in 1902, from a roll of film found on site by the author’s father.

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Dewey Mill 1903

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In 1902-03, a telephone line was installed from Warren and in the next two years, a road was built. It was mostly used by wagons pulled by mules or horses but at least one car made the trip, driven from Thunder City by Col. Dewey’s son Con in 1905. A better dirt road was constructed by the Forest Service and the mine in 1932-33, and the first people to travel it by car were Con and his sister, Marie Dewey Davis, the woman who later partnered with my grandfather in ownership of the Sunnyside Mine.

I discovered a description of the town’s layout made by the recorder for all the area’s mining claims, a Mr. Neff. Among its buildings were cabins, a hotel, five saloons, a doctor’s clinic, an assay office, the post office, the recorder’s office, a blacksmith, a laundry, a restaurant, and six stores, including a second-hand shop and a general store that “has liquor and they drink it all, not sellin’ any.”

By 1907, the higher-grade ore near the surface had played out, and both of the major mines closed. By May 1909, the lone resident of the Sunnyside mining camp was a man named Julius Colmorgan. One of the first men to arrive during the gold rush, he had traveled from Spokane and crossed the Salmon River at Campbell’s Ferry. He worked for the Thunder Mountain Company, whose main project was the Sunnyside Mine.

The town of Roosevelt 1907

source: Idaho State Historical Society

The winter of 1908 and spring of 1909 were typical for the area, with very heavy snowfall from February through April. In May Roosevelt still had two feet of snow but late that month, temperatures rose as high as one hundred degrees. Monumental Creek and its tributaries flooded their banks, probably making the town’s pathways very soggy. The ancient volcanic activity had played a role in the later gold deposits but it also accounted for the high content of unstable mud in soil above the townsite. What’s more, much of the tree cover around the mines had been removed to fuel the millworks.

In late May, Julius Colmorgan walked the mile from Sunnyside to the Dewey Mine, where a few Dewey family friends had been given permission to placer the tailings and a few other people were hiding out from the law. Julius was amazed and concerned by what he saw west of the Dewey camp. The entire side of the mountain was beginning to slide down toward Roosevelt. Later, the amount of soil flowing down Mule Creek was estimated at one-quarter of a cubic mile. The slide moved slowly, churning up trees, boulders, and large pieces of equipment in its wide path near the Dewey Mill.

Recognizing that if the slide reached the bottom of the canyon, it might well spell the end of Roosevelt, Julius hurried the mile-and-a-half down the mountain to warn the forty residents who had wintered there. When he told a group of townspeople about the looming disaster, “he met only with laughter,” as reported by my mother Ruth Cook McRae, in an article she wrote for the Idaho Statesman in 1937. They thought Monumental Creek’s high waters would wash the mud downstream. But eventually, several men climbed up the mountain to inspect the situation. Recognizing the threat, they then concocted a plan to place six cases of dynamite in the path of the slide and set it off. They hoped the blast would create a channel in the mud, diverting the creek away from town. But when the dynamite was detonated underneath the slide, the result was a muffled pop, with no other effect.

The slide moved down Mule Creek, northwest of the town. Eventually, it reached a spot where Mule Creek merged with Monumental Creek, which flowed in a west-to-east direction through Roosevelt. At that place, on the westerly outskirts of town, a wall of mud sixty-five-feet arose, creating a dam. The creeks began backing up. Eight hours after the slide started to move, Roosevelt’s streets held three feet of water, through which the town soak was seen pushing a keg of whiskey. Residents attached telephone wires to the roofs of buildings, tied their names to the wires to establish ownership, and ran the wires up the canyon wall. Twenty-four hours into the slide, townspeople floated a piano out of the second floor of a saloon. A half-dozen of the most well-built structures came off their foundations and floated. Thirty-six hours after the slide began to move, it filled the canyon to a depth of sixty feet of mud and water.

Roosevelt in 1915, six years after the flood

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The piano that was saved from the flood still can be seen in Yellow Pine’s former schoolhouse, now a museum. The schoolhouse was salvaged and taken to a ranch five miles below town. Four buildings that were not in the floodplain were later disassembled and moved by John Oberbillig, owner of other mines in the area.

One year after the flooding, a man known only as “Bismark,” and thought to be related co the royal German family of that surname, was the sole Roosevelt resident. My grandparents and their two children became acquainted with him, and told me he was by any measure an oddity. He roamed around in his long johns, carrying a .30-30 rifle, and was unfriendly to anyone he came across, calling them murderers and thieves. He died in 1915 of a drug overdose.

During a very cold winter in 1933, my father measured ice on the lake two feet thick. This was still three years before a road into the place was finished, and my dad figured a biplane could land on the lake in winter. He intended to try it the following year, but for the first time in recorded history, neither Roosevelt Lake nor Payette Lake in McCall froze.

Air-Guard-1935-1-aThis c. 1935 Air Guard photo shows the aftermath of the mudslide on the right, mill building still standing.

Air-Guard-1935-1-zSame photo as above, zoomed in to show the Dewey

Air-Guard-1935-4-aRoosevelt Lake Air Guard c. 1935

Air-Guard-1935-5-aRoosevelt Lake Air Guard c. 1935

In 2014, sixty people gathered at Monumental Summit to dedicate a plaque that describes Roosevelt and its gold mines. Today the lake is twenty feet deep, with a lot of silt at the bottom. On a clear day, you might see shadows of ruins in its depths. But moose, otter, and fish are its only inhabitants.

source: Idaho Mag Roosevelt Apr 2017.pdf
Thank you Sandy McRae, shared by Jim Collord, (some of these photos have never been published before.)


Robert McRae (left) with daughter Lorie, son Robin, and the children’s grandfather, Daniel McRae, displaying a plaque dedicated by the citizens of Stibnite to people interred at the flooded town of Roosevelt.

Dedicated to Pioneers of Thunder Mountain

First were the American Indians that inhabited these mountains for generations. Then came the prospectors who discovered gold at Thunder Mountain in the 1860s. In the 1890s, the three Caswell brothers, Ben, Luman, and Dan, developed a profitable prospect that was sold to W.H. Dewey of Silver City. Dewey raised money and developed the claims. By 1902 a large population of fortune seekers had built the town of Roosevelt, which boasted a population of a thousand or more, with a post office and a variety of stores and services.

The Roosevelt town site was flooded in 1909 when a mudslide dammed Monumental Creek and formed Roosevelt Lake – remnants of the town’s buildings can still be seen below the water. Although the flood ended the gold rush boom, exploration and mining continued in the district until the early 21st century. Most notable were the Dewey Reef Mine and the Sunnyside Mine, the latter mined by Dan McRae and family in the 1920s and 1930s.

Large-scale modern mining in the district was done at the Dewey Mine in the 1970s and 1980s by Dewey Mining Company, and on the Sunnyside Mine by Coeur d’ Alene Mines and Thunder Mountain Gold in the 1980s and 1990s. It is estimated the District has produced over 300,000 ounces of gold.

The private land and mining claims were sold to The Trust for Public Land and the Forest Service in 2005, with the owners donating a significant amount of the value. The donation also preserved public access to the area forever.

“As along an old road one may find
A bit of memory where a cabin stood.
We may look back through crowded years
To quiet places where life was good.”

(From a poem by Marjorie McRae Collord, who first saw Thunder Mountain in 1914 at the age of 2.)

This plaque placed here in 2013 by The Trust for Public Land, Thunder Mountain Gold and the Payette National Forest.

see also:

Link to Roosevelt Cemetery

Link to Roosevelt part 1

Link to Packing In

Link to Jesus Urquides – Idaho’s Premier Muleteer

Link to The Yellow Pine School Piano

Link to Back County Post Offices

Link: Thunder Mountain / Roosevelt History index page

page updated November 4, 2020