History of the Gold Rush to the Boise Basin

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Miners near Idaho City

The Boise Basin gold rush yielded more gold than Alaska. Visitors can still walk through historic mining and ghost towns for a glimpse of western America’s rich history.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, 30,000 to 40,000 people lived in the Boise Basin in its heyday, in and around the fledgling mining towns of Centerville, Pioneerville, Placerville, Quartzburg, and Idaho City.

Gold is Discovered in the Boise Basin

The Idaho State Historical Society records that in 1862 George Grimes, Moses Splawn, and an accompanying party of men discovered gold in the Boise Basin, along Grimes Creek. The influx of miners quickly changed the area from a wilderness inhabited mainly by Native Americans to a booming mining community.

The vast basin is located 24 miles north of Boise, Idaho, in the Pacific Northwest, USA, covering over 300 square miles. It was one of the richest and most important discoveries of the gold rush days, and people moved to the area in droves. In “The History of Idaho,” author John Hailey writes that many miners traveled from Portland, Oregon, boating up the Columbia River, then moving overland to the Snake River and on through the Payette River, finally reaching Horseshoe Bend and the Boise River Basin. The journey usually took about two weeks.

Placer Mining in Central Idaho

Placer mining was the primary method used to extract gold from the Boise Basin, a process that involves washing gravel to separate it from the gold. Because deep snow made placer mining nearly impossible, many miners went home to Nevada, Washington, and Oregon for the winter. Placer mining quickly declined after the initial gold rush,and the population dwindled to 1,000 by 1869.

How Supplies Were Carried to the Boise Basin

At first supplies could be brought to the area in only a few ways; on the backs of prospectors, strapped to the saddles of miners’ horses, or carried by donkeys or horses in pack trains. Later, dirt roads were built and goods could be transported using freight wagons.

The Pony Express

In “History of Idaho, Volume 1,” author Hiram Taylor French reports that for the first two years of the gold rush, letters and documents were sent and received in the Boise Basin by Pony Express. Each piece of mail cost between fifty cents and one dollar.

More Gold Than Alaska

According to Richard M. Patterson’s book, “Historical Atlas of the Outlaw West,” more gold came out of the Boise Basin than Alaska. Because there was so much gold in the area, many buildings were raised up on pilings so that the ground underneath them could be mined. This explains why one of the stone buildings in Idaho City, which used to house a bank, also has its own mine shaft.

Tourism Replaces Mining as the Boise Basin’s Main Industry

Today tourism is the main industry in the Boise Basin. Idaho City, which is located 24 miles north of Boise on Idaho State Highway 21, is well worth a visit, with its rich history, Boise Basin Museum, and some of the most valued historic buildings in Idaho. Visitors can also take side trips through the nearby ghost towns of Placerville, Centerville, and Pioneerville, where they will discover more remnants of the wild west left by miners of long ago.