Boise Basin Mining District

Miners near Idaho City

Gold was first discovered on August 2, 1862 on Boston Bar, near Centerville. It was found by the Grimes Party, comprised of the Moses Splawn party, the D. H. Fogus party, and the George Grimes party. Fogus was the first to find the gold. On August 9, Grimes was killed in an ambush.

By October, two towns sprung up, Pioneer City and Idaho City. News got out and the rush was on. On March 4, 1863, President Lincoln signed a bill creating Idaho Territory. By then, Idaho City was even larger than Portland, with 6,275 people. Placerville had 3,254, Centerville had 2,638, Pioneerville had 2,743, and Granite Creek had 1,500. For awhile, there were more Chinese citizens than there were Americans. There was quite a mix from European countries as well. There were only about two dozen black men in the area at any given time and most were employed as barbers.

In 1863, the area prospered. Most men and supplies came down the Columbia River to Wallula, Washington, or Umatilla, Oregon, then went overland from there. John Hailey and William Ish operated a pack train through the Blue Mountains of Oregon to take people on to the Boise Basin. During the winter, little mining was done and many people left. But in 1864, they were back by the thousands. By that time there new stage lines ready to take passengers and their supplies to the Boise Basin. There was also a new stage from Idaho City to Boise City. Several stations ere built on both routes for supplying fresh animals and food. There were also several bridges and ferries to be maintained. Many of these roads were toll roads and each wagon, horse, and stock animal was assessed a fee. Sleights were used in winter and were actually more comfortable than wagons.

After the transcontinental railroad was completed in May 1869, it was easier, cheaper, and quicker to get supplies and people to the Boise Basin. Goods went as far as Winnemucca, Nevada by train, then were freighted north by wagon. Sometimes goods came from the east via Kelton, Utah, and freighted over the Kelton Road. Packers were still used to get to isolated spots and occasionally when the weather was too bad for wagons.

The Chinese operated a number of laundries in Idaho City, Placerville, and Pioneerville, before they started mining. Most of these men were from the Canton district of China. They opened their own brothels and gambling dens. At first they were accepted peaceably, but when they started working claims for less money than white men, then hostility grew. The territory taxed them until influential white men got the tax repealed in 1869. They suffered beatings and murder by white men, none of whom were ever punished. They also had disputes among themselves. On one memorable occasion two groups battled each other with shovels and knives and anything else handy. The fight in September 1870 was over water rights on Elk Creek. Mostly they ere left alone in their own disputes. They did like the Chinese New Year Festivals however. By the 1880s, Chinese children attended school with their American friends.

Placer mining was the most productive with the least amount of expenditure. However, the water supply was not reliable, especially if the spring thaw was too quick. Floods would wash out some of the miners and little water would be left for the rest of the year. Soon hydraulic mining was implemented with a system of ditches, sluices, and hoses to force pressurized water through the gravel. Very little hard rock mining was done in the area because of the expense. But the Gold Hill, Gambrinus, and Elk Horn mines were fairly profitable quartz mines.

There was plenty of social activity in the area. There was a Masonic Temple and an Elks Lodge. There were Catholic and Protestant Churches and all of their activities. There was the Irish-American Fenian Circle. There were various ladies clubs. Holidays such as Christmas and Fourth of July were community events and were celebrated with much fanfare and style. Grand balls, parades, and feasts were the order of the day. It was also quite common for men to sponsor and wager on cock fights. Rivalries even grew between towns. They also engaged in dog fights, some of which were quite brutal.

The basin did have its share of prostitutes, mostly segregated in a red light district. Their lives were not easy and many died young, whether from health problems or violent death. There were a few Chinese prostitutes who had it even worse s they were typically girls who had been sold into slavery by their poor parents.

There was a significant German population. Some were miners, but many were tradesman such as jewelers, butchers, brewers, saloonkeepers, and a doctor. They also formed the Idaho City Brass Band. When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, German residents organized a fundraiser to help wounded soldiers and widowed families back home. All citizens were sympathetic and supportive. Most of the dance hall girls (hurdy-gurdy girls) were also German. One of the most noted citizens of the times was a German named Charles Ostner. He became famous in Idaho in 1868/69 when he unveiled a life-size statue of George Washington that he had carved out of Ponderosa pine. The statue was displayed in the state capital. He subsequently lived off his art, designing buildings and painting, among other things.

On May 18, 1865, Idaho City was nearly destroyed by a fire that started in a hurdy gurdy house. Only a couple of churches, the theater, a livery stable, one store, and a few shanties were left standing. More substantial buildings were quickly erected. But in May 1867, fire struck again. Though a volunteer fire fighting group had been organized by then, there was nothing they could do to battle the fire against such strong winds. 440 buildings were burned down. There were frequent forest fires too, one in 1870 and another in 1879 that threatened the town. Placerville was also nearly wiped out by fire, once in 1874 and again in 1899.

Gold dust was the usual currency. But it could easily be altered by adding brass filings, led, or other metals. Sometimes another metal was just covered with a thin coat of gold so it looked real. If a merchant suspected the dust wasn’t real he could dunk it in acid. Real gold would not be affected, but the fake stuff could be dissolved. It wasn’t practical to test all dust, so merchants just raised their prices to compensate for the bogus dust. The name Bogus Basin is a leftover from those counterfeiting times.

By 1890, the easy gold was gone and the populations settled down. Later when dredges were brought in the boom would resume.