Yankee Fork State Park Has A Deep History Dating Back To A Massive Gold Dredge Between Two Ghost Towns.



Memories of Silver and Gold: Yankee Fork State Park 

Immerse Into The Deep, Abundant History Of The Land Exploring Three Ghost Towns, A Historic Gold Dredge And A Bison Kill Site

The Bayhorse Ghost Town Currently [Courtesy/Visit Idaho]

In the Salmon Challis National Forest in Idaho, among the tall pines and rugged cliffs along the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River drainage, there is an Idaho State Park that takes visitors back to a time when miners sought their fortunes in gold and silver.  “I love the stories of how hard these people worked when they came into the area, how they arrived with nothing and basically created a life for themselves in these ghost towns.  Some of them didn’t have a lot of means when they came and they certainly didn’t get rich before they left, but they were able to carve out a nice existence for themselves by the things they did”, stated Park Aid Loretta Sherrets for the Land of Yankee Fork State Park.  Visitors to the Land of Yankee Fork, have an abundance of history to explore, including three ghost towns, a historic gold dredge, and a bison kill site. 

The search for riches in the Land of Yankee Fork began in the 1800’s when prospectors mined for gold and silver.  The ghost towns of Bonanza and Custer were centered around gold mining and the massive Yankee Fork gold dredge is located between the two ghost towns.  “Custer was laid out in 1878 when they were prospecting in the General Custer Mine.  The mine was operating in 1879 and then in 1880 they built the General Custer mill.  That’s when the place was in full production”, explained Loretta.  “Bonanza was actually earlier than Custer, it was built in 1877 and it was considered a very modern town.  The streets were in a grid pattern with trees lining the streets, they even had a fire suppression system.  Unfortunately, there were still two major fires that caused the population to shift to Custer.  Custer lasted a bit longer, but Bonanza was considered quite elegant, they even had a croquet field and horse racing track.”  

The Town Of Bayhorse Now With History In Tact [Courtesy/Land of Yankee Fork State Park]
Ghost Town Trailhead Sign At The Land Of Yankee Fork State Park [Courtesy/Visit Idaho]

The gold dredge came along much later, after the towns had already been abandoned.  “The gold dredge ran from the 1940’s through 1952.  You can tour the gold dredge and the guys that give the tour are really good, a lot of them are either ones that worked the gold dredge or lived around the dredge”, said Loretta.  While there were other wooden dredges in the area, the Yankee Fork dredge was a more modern dredge made from metal.   The operation of the dredge was a losing proposition.  “It was projected that there would be $11 million in gold in the area, and by the time they got done, there were more costs going out, than coming in”, explained Loretta. 

To the east of Bonanza and Custer, lies Bayhorse which was built around silver mining.  “The Bayhorse ghost town site was a silver town in the late 1800s.  There are quite a few buildings left and old mine shafts, of course the mine shafts area all caged off so you can’t get in.  Some of those buildings are four stories high hanging off the mountain”, said Loretta. 

The original prospectors in the area didn’t lead glamourous lives.  “They were rough towns, they had a lot of ruff gruff guys working there.  They weren’t necessarily uneducated, the man who laid out Custer was Sammy Holman, and he was Harvard Educated.  He was a lawyer, and they would call him the judge, even though he was just a lawyer”, stated Loretta.  “They worked hard long hours in the mines.  They didn’t get rich, the average miner earned about three dollars per day.  When we looked through the ledgers to see what they were purchasing, they were meager purchases, maybe a can of sardines and whiskey, they bought a lot of whiskey”, Loretta chuckled.  “There were a lot of saloons, so they were able to have fun on what little time off they had.”

Historic Photo Of Miners On Tram Platform [Photo Credit: Idaho Dept. Of Parks & Recreation]
Vintage Photo of General Custer Mill [Photo Credit: Dodge Collection]
Bonanza City Back When It was A Modern Town [Photo Credit: US Forest Service Collection]

Prior to the miners staking their claim, native Americans inhabited the land of Yankee Fork.  The park includes a bison kill site which visitors can explore.  “The bison kill site, a lot of people think was a buffalo jump, but it really wasn’t”, explained Loretta.  “There’s not enough characteristics to prove that it was a jump.  We basically just think they herded the bison up against the base of the cliff and then shot them with arrows.”

As would be expected, there were tensions between the miners and the native Americans.  “They were called the sheep eaters and salmon eaters, they’re part of the Sho-Ban Tribe of the Lemhi Shoshoni.  From the newspaper clippings that we have from the Yankee Fork Herald, which was printed from 1879 to 1881, in Custer there was a lot of talk about chasing them down and getting rid of them, and a lot of Indian war talk in the newspaper.  They did have a hard time with the white people and they got blamed for a lot of things that went wrong”, said Loretta. 

The Land of Yankee Fork State Park, definitely has a lot of history to explore, but also offers ATV trails, hiking, and recreational gold panning among other activities.  “There’s a lot of different things you can do, depending on what you are interested in”, stated Loretta.  “There’s so much history to the area.  It’s so neat to just get out here and be in the town site.  The history is so tangible here, you can touch it, you can walk in the same doorways they walked in.  That’s what’s neat about the area is that as far as Custer and Bayhorse, it’s basically the way it was over 100 years ago.  So, you get a sense of where they lived, how they lived and just how overwhelming some of those areas could be.  There was a miner’s wife who wrote about Bayhorse and she said that the canyon and the rock that surrounded the mountains were like cold grey prison walls and she felt very trapped in Bayhorse.  So, you can get a sense of how some of the women felt in Bayhorse.”  

Jared Langenegger

A graduate of New Mexico State University with B.S. in wildlife and fisheries science, Jared spent 15 years working in fisheries and parks management. He enjoys camping, fishing, hunting, painting, and wood working. 

Yankee Fork State Park

Make Sure To Check Out:

Yankee Fork State Park, which has several interesting historical sites including the Challis Bison Kill site, the ghost towns of Custer, Bayhorse and Bonanza and the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge. Camping can be found at the Salmon-Challis National Forest nearby. 

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