Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Idaho City & Placerville Mines Thriving, Building Boom On

On May 7, 1863, The Oregonian reported (May 7, 1863), “The miners are doing well at Bannock City and Placerville. Gold and silver quartz have been discovered in the Boise mines.”

Of course, (West) Bannack City would later be renamed Idaho City, as it is called today. In this case, the reference to “miners” meant those who were taking placer gold from gravel beds in the streams and the closer bluffs. Ninety years later, giant dredges would still be making profits from placer gold. But the final sentence about “quartz” presaged a second boom for the area when lode mining took hold. (But the reference to silver was off base; the Basin never produced a lot of that metal.) However, returns from quartz had to wait until greater capital was available to pay for hard rock mining.

The Oregonian
went on, “There have been rich diggings discovered on Wood river, or the east fork of the Boise; these mines are said to be about fifty miles from Placerville. Grass and water in abundance.”

Here, the newspaper – or its reporters, anyway – garbled matters a bit. The Wood River is a completely different watershed, and (so far as is known) had not yet been explored. And there is no “East Fork” of the Boise … informants must have been referring to the South Fork, where gold had indeed been found.

The article continued, “Placerville and Bannock City are improving rapidly; the buildings now being put up are mostly frame, and of a substantial character. There are two saw-mills in operation … and lumber is selling at $200 per M. A great many whip-saws are also running, and the sawyers making as high as $40 per day to the saw.”
Early Idaho City. Idaho State Historical Society.

Clearly, builders were rapidly replacing the “old” log huts. Pennsylvanian Peter Pence [blog, Oct 12] was one of several pioneers who discovered he could make as much money, and more reliably, by whipsawing lumber to feed the building boom. Within a year or two, he became one of Idaho’s pioneer cattle ranchers, on his way to a considerable fortune.

Broadening their coverage, The Oregonian said, “The news from the bars on the Salmon is still very encouraging. Miners report that they are making $7 to an ounce per day.”

Gold differed somewhat in value from field to field, but typical prices were $15-16 per ounce, so “an ounce per day” would have been quite profitable. The papers also indicated that the northern camps still had some life in them: “A large number of mining laborers are in request at Oro Fino, at $5 a day and board.”

References: “Mining News,” The Oregonian, Portland (May 7, 1863).
Merle W. Wells, Gold Camps & Silver Cities: Nineteenth Century Mining in Central and Southern Idaho, 2nd Edition,  Bulletin 22, Idaho Department of Lands, Bureau of Mines and Geology, Moscow, Idaho (1983).

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