Idaho History Sep 11, 2022

Wilbur Wiles

(Edwardsburg and Big Creek)
(part 3)


Picture of Wilbur taken by Hilda Hansen in the 1950s / 60s

In Search of the Perfect Prospector

by Bob Weldin, February 7, 2006 Mining History News

During my early field years, 1960s and 1970s, I frequently depended on prospectors to serve as guides, especially in mining districts that were not familiar to me. Most of those I became acquainted with were hard working, adamantly independent, rugged individualists, who loved the out-of-doors. A few were dishonest and nearly all exaggerated the size and worth of their “discoveries”. Characteristically, they were dedicated, one might even say ‘driven’, to explore for mineral deposits that they clairvoyantly knew were out there somewhere. I met very few young or married prospectors; most were middle-aged and possessed the physical endurance of a marathoner. Having been “stung” a few times by promoters, claim jumpers, and “officials” who administer the public lands, prospectors tended to be suspicious of all outsiders; I learned very quickly not to say things like, “I’m with the government and I’m here to help you.” In general, prospectors are an interesting and unique group and I would like to tell you about all of those I have known, but time and space will allow for just one.

Wilbur Wiles was unique; he had all the qualities but none of the vices of a typical prospector. Therefore, in my mind, he will always rank among the very best. It was probably the summer of 1967, or at least that was the year I started the mineral appraisal of the 1.5 million acre Idaho Primitive Area and Vicinity (IPA). When I inquired about local prospectors, Wilbur’s name always came up. along “with seemingly mythical tales about his prospecting and cougar hunting adventures. It was several weeks before I finally meet the legendary mountain man and it probably took even longer to gain his confidence. He was a raw-boned, six-footer, probably in his late 40’s and a man of few words, especially around women or strangers. He had a cabin near the Big Creek Ranger Station, just outside the west boundary of the IPA. His cabin, dog pens and horse coral were almost as clean and well kept as my mother’s kitchen. He had another cabin on Monumental Creek, near his opal mine, situated well inside the IPA boundary. His area of prospecting included Stibnite, Thunder Mountain, the old mining camps around Big Creek and Yellow Pine, as well as a lot of under-explored areas that stretched eastward to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. It is a region of favorable geology, impressive histories of past metal production (Sb, Hg, Au, Ag, W & Cu), and good potential for the discovery of new mineral deposits. Wilbur was a smart veteran prospector who was physically adept and familiar with most of the western half of my study area. What else could I ask for? I had found the “perfect prospector”, in a “perfect area” for the discovery of new ore deposits.

Wilbur and I had some similar interests and experiences that made for an amiable relationship. He was trustworthy and honest beyond modem concepts of those terms. As a guide, Wilbur would not take money for showing me his mining claims, nor did he think it proper to show me claims that belonged to someone else. His concept of a day’s pay was $20, and since the government required $100 worth of annual assessment work, Wilbur reasoned that was at least 5 days of hand-digging of test pits and trenches (5 days @ $20/day = $100) for each of his unpatented claims. He treated every other task and relationship with the same degree of integrity. I learned to accept whatever Wilbur told me as being the honest truth, as he knew it.

My project was not the only scientific study that needed Wilbur’s help. Maurice Hornocker, a zoologist, and Wilbur, the ex-cougar hunter, had a working relationship that lasted from 1964-1969. It was during the winters of those 5 years that Dr. Hornocker did his mountain lion study, which was patterned after the grizzly bear study pioneered by Drs. John and Frank Craidhead. Maurice’s study area was in a steep and rugged part of the IPA, that required the skills of a mountain man like Wilbur, plus the tracking instincts of his two redbone hounds. You can Imagine Maurice having similar thoughts to my own, “he had found the perfect man and the perfect location for his study.” Cougars are best hunted in the winter to allow for better tracking and easier treeing – a convenient circumstance that allowed Wilbur to have his summer free to prospect and work at his opal mine. Of course, the areas with the best cougar population are those that are remote and roadless, with steep granite crags and deep canyons – and that’s where Wilbur Wiles stumbled upon a “secret” mineral discovery.

Near the end my allotted time for the economic appraisal of mineral deposits in the IPA and vicinity, Wilbur showed me a piece of high-grade fluorspar (95% CaF2) he had chanced upon while tracking cougars. His description that followed indicated to me a deposit of potential economic size and grade. I asked him where he had found it and he said, “In a very rugged, isolated part of the IPA, and you will never find it.” This was an obvious challenge, but I didn’t take it as an insult because Wilbur knew we were facing an unrealistic deadline, and besides I had officially been told not to look for new deposits. Congress was adding new study units as a buffer zone around the original IPA, faster than we could appraise their mineral potential. Some thought this was a scheme to keep the Geological Survey and Bureau of Mines from adequately exploring the interior of the IPS for undiscovered mineral deposits. I asked Wilbur if he had staked his new discovery and he said, “No, I didn’t have time.” That is when I made Wilbur a proposition that no typical prospector would be able to refuse. I told him, “In the morning, at first light, you and I will take the helicopter into this remote site and you can help me map and sample the deposit, and I will help you can [sic] stake the necessary mineral claims. As the discoverer and sole valid claim owner you will have access to my maps, assay data and economic appraisal.” Wilbur thought for awhile and then said, “If you do all of that, won’t you have to publish your results?” I said, “Yes, of course.” Wilbur said, “In that case, I can’t do it.” Frustrated because, (1) the offer I had made to him was probably against several government regulations, (2) I had never made such an offer to any other prospector and (3) I was sticking my neck out for him, because I knew he would not lie and I trusted him. I asked, “Why?” Wilbur said, “Well, if you publish your results, someone will eventually want to build a road to the deposit and I don’t want that to happen.” I said, “But as the sole claim owner, you would have control over that, and besides Congress is almost certain to classify all this area as Wilderness, with no roads allowed.” To that, Wilbur said, “I can’t take that chance. The area is prime mountain sheep country – rugged and isolated – I can’t take the chance that someone might build a road to it.”

Wilbur was right, we have never found his secret mineral deposit. If it was because of lack of time or respect for Wilbur’s wishes that kept us from finding it, you will never know. I did, however, ask Wilbur for a description of the deposit which I published, without speculating on its location or its potential value. That was the first and only time I published “hearsay” information about a mineral deposit, but you don’t question the honesty and integrity of the “perfect prospector.”

source: Mining History News March 2006 with references
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Map of Study Area

Excerpted from: (link)
Mineral Resources of the Idaho Primitive Area and Vicinity, Idaho
By F. W. Cater, D. M. Pinckney, W. B. Hamilton, and R. L. Parker, U.S. Geological Survey, and by R. D. Weldin, T. J. Close, and N. T. Zilka, U.S. Bureau of Mines
With a section on the Thunder Mountain District
By B. F. Leonard, U.S. Geological Survey, and a Section on Aeromagnetic Interpretation by W. E. Davis, U.S. Geological Survey
Studies Related to Wilderness Primitive Areas
Geological Survey Bulletin 1304 : 1973
Library of Congress catalog card No. 73-600164
An evaluation of the mineral potential of the area
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Wilbur Wiles c. 1954

Left to Right: Ross Gieling, Harry Sargent, Wilbur Wiles C. 1954
source: Sandy McRae courtesy Scott Amos
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Big Creek Valley
New-Doc-2018-08-03_2-asource: Sandy McRae courtesy Scott Amos
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Further Reading

Link to Wilbur Wiles (part 1)
Link to Wilbur Wiles (part 2)
Link to more Big Creek / Edwardsburg stories
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