Sunday, June 3, 2012

Stagecoach and Freight Routes in South-Central Idaho

Before railroads entered Idaho, animal-drawn stagecoaches and wagons transported most people and freight. Main routes connected large settlements, while feeder lines came and went as events dictated. One of the more interesting side routes operated in South-Central Idaho in the early 1880s.
Wagons on the Oregon Trail. Utah State Historical Society.

When Congress created Idaho Territory in March 1863, many emigrant wagons, mostly drawn by ox teams, still crossed the region. They followed the Oregon Trail, but there was no stagecoach service along that route. Not until August of 1864 did scheduled stagecoach service arrive in Boise City. From there, the line continued more or less along the old Oregon Trail to The Dalles in Oregon.

That route across southern Idaho from northern Utah became the most traveled road in the Territory. The second most favored track ran across eastern Idaho into Montana. There, coaches and freight wagons took a path that was generally similar to the later railroad route.

Then, in 1869, crews completed the transcontinental railroad. A station at Kelton, Utah, near the northwest tip of the Great Salt Lake, became the preferred link for central Idaho and points west. Except in the winter, passengers and freight followed the so-called Kelton Road through City of Rocks. From there, they turned north and then west to the station at Rock Creek, about 12 miles southeast of today’s Twin Falls.
Stagecoach on Kelton Road. Idaho State Historical Society.

During part of the winter, passengers traversed the City of Rocks segment on horse-drawn sleighs. Meanwhile, freight wagons avoided that area, taking a track through Albion, then the seat of Cassia County, and on to Rock Creek. For nearly a decade, the route crossed the Snake River via a ferry 25-30 road miles from Rock Creek. (Over the years, at least two, and possibly three operators ran a ferry in this general area.) Coaches and wagons then followed the old Oregon Trail into Boise City.

About every twelve miles, stage lines of that day positioned stops where fresh teams replaced jaded ones. So-called “home stations” were located about fifty miles apart. Here, passengers could purchase a rough meal and perhaps accommodations for the night. The town of Rock Creek started as one such home station.

In 1878, John Hailey’s Utah, Idaho, and Oregon Stage Company (UI&O) improved the road along the south side and switched the route to cross via Glenns Ferry. They followed a different track onto the high ground, but rejoined the Oregon Trail further west before continuing into Boise.

The following year, the discovery of fabulous lodes of silver in the Wood River drainage set off a rush into that area. By 1881, the towns of Ketchum, Hailey, and Bellevue were booming. The Idaho Statesman headlined (February 22, 1881), “Stage Line to Wood River.”

The UI&O had work crews out stocking stage stops along two branches. One split off from the old Oregon Trail in an easterly direction, headed for the soon-to-be town of Shoshone. From there, it continued into Bellevue. Stages on this branch carried passengers to and from Boise City.

Stage Station Footprint. Landowner photo.*
The other new branch left the Kelton Road at Goose Creek, about twelve miles west of Albion. This route crossed the Snake via Starrh’s Ferry, which had been granted an operating license in July 1880. From the ferry, the track headed generally northwest. Traces of the first station north of the river on this branch can still be seen.

The track passed through some rugged country, including several miles where sand dunes impeded progress. It finally linked up with the Boise branch to continue into Bellevue. In the spring, the Idaho Statesman reported (April 23, 1881), “Two daily stages are to be run from Kelton to Wood River.”

Stagecoach (green) and Railroad (gray/black) Lines.
The UI&O did not have the field all to themselves, however. They has to contend with a stage line that linked with the Utah & Northern (U&N) Railway at Blackfoot. The competition was not always friendly. Blackfoot boosters claimed (Blackfoot Register, April 16, 1881) “that a report had been circulated in Ogden that the new iron bridge over Snake river had been washed away.” They blamed their competitor for circulating false rumors to scare customers away.

When the Wood River mines first opened up, operators had no way to process their complex lead-silver minerals locally. Thus, for the first few years, they hauled their best ore over the Starrh Ferry route to Kelton. Rails cars then carried the ore to smelters in Salt Lake City, Denver, and as far away as Omaha.

Wagon Ruts in the Lava.
Landowner photo.*
So far as is known, none of the ore went to the railroad station at Blackfoot … for a very good reason. The U&N tracks were then narrow gauge – they would not switch to standard gauge until July 1887. The transcontinental line was all standard gauge, so operators would have faced the added expense of transferring the ore or using special rail cars.

In any case, this lucrative freight business did not last very long. All through 1882, crews for the Oregon Short Line Railroad (OSL) laid tracks west from Pocatello. Early that year, the town of Shoshone came into being, and the tracks reached there in February 1883. Three months later, the OSL completed a branch line from Shoshone into Hailey. By then, long haul traffic – passengers and freight – had stopped using the Kelton Road and its branches.

Nonetheless, most segments continued in use for local traffic. Of course, the railroad caused some rerouting. The Idaho Statesman reported (July 1, 1884) that a new route was “contemplated from Goose Creek, via Starrh’s ferry to Kimama, on the O. S. L.” (Kimama is now a railroad siding a bit over 20 miles north of Burley.)

Starrh’s Ferry manipulated the power of the river current to move back and forth. It thus ceased operation in 1904, when Milner Dam stopped the free flow of the Snake. Even then, well-worn stage and freight tracks served local traffic, and some eventually became major highway routes.

Around 1910-1920, “auto stages” finally replaced horse- or mule-drawn stagecoaches on most passenger routes around the state. These usually employed gasoline-powered touring cars; what we call “buses” arrived a few years later. Although hard evidence is lacking, seasonal stagecoach traffic on some back-country roads may have continued well into the 1930s.

* I am being deliberately vague about specific locations along this route, which was brought to my attention by a landowner in the area. Much of the old line passes through private property. The station remnants are on public land, but need to be preserved for possible future study.
References: [B&W], [Hawley]
John Bertram, et al, Rock Creek Station and Stricker Homesite: Idaho Historical Site Master Plan, Idaho State Historical Society (2001).
“Ben Holladay’s Overland Stage Line in Idaho,” Reference Series No. 1002, Idaho State Historical Society (January 1993).
Larry R. Jones, “Snake River Ferries,” Reference Series No. 54, Idaho State Historical Society (October 1982).
"Site Report - Wood River," Reference Series No. 206, Idaho State Historical Society (1981).
“Stage Lines – Overland and Kelton,” Reference Series No. 146, Idaho State Historical Society


  1. Great story, It's hard to imagine making a living with oxen & horses as a means of cargo transportation after growing up with tractors, dozers, 18 wheelers, paved roads, etc. What well it be like the next hundred years? Love your stories. Regards Paul

  2. Thank you! Your comments make it all worthwhile.
    I grew up on a ranch in the 1950s, long before our current level of farm/ranch mechanization. As a teenager, I learned the knack of snagging a big wire-strapped bale of alfalfa with hooks, and swinging it up onto a flat-bed truck. Given my current state of physical decrepitude, I feel sure my memory has inflated my virtuoso(?) performance in that job.
    In my recently-published book about Boise River gold, I make the point that we today fail to truly appreciate how incredibly difficult life was before we had anything but animal/human (and sometimes steam) power, and (at-best) primitive medical help in case of accident or diesase.

  3. Great article. I'm looking for the location of the state stops along the Kelton Rd. Have you run across anything like that in your research? I can do a rough estimate of locations with the information that they changed horses every 12 miles, but if one already exists... Many thanks.

  4. The reference you are looking for is:
    “Kelton Road,” Reference Series No. 74, Idaho State Historical Society (January 1972).
    Here’s an excerpt – Hailey had nineteen stage stations on the 232 mile road between Boise and Kelton:
    Black’s Creek (15 miles from Boise); Baylock (13 miles); Canyon Creek (12 miles); Rattlesnake (8 miles); Cold Springs (12 miles); King Hill (10 miles); Clover Creek (11 miles); Maladõ (11miles); Clear Creek (12 miles); Sand Springs (11 miles); Crystal Springs (10 miles); Snake River at Clark’s Ferry (10 miles); Desert (12 miles); Rock Creek (13 miles); Mountain Meadows (14 miles); Oakley Meadows (12 miles); Goose Creek Summit (11 miles); City of Rocks (11 miles); Raft River (12 miles); Clear Creek (12 miles); Crystal Springs (10 miles); Snake River at Clark’s Ferry (10 miles); Kelton (12 miles).

    A few of these changed after about 1871.