Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Poor Roads and Blistering Weather Hobble Traffic to the Idaho Gold Camps [otd 07/20]

On July 20, 1863, The Oregonian reported, “Increased facilities are offering daily for transportation to the Boise mines. We are informed that John Slavin & Co. have established a stage line to run from the Dalles to Bannock City.”

Mining around Bannock City, soon to be re-named Idaho City, was then on the upswing compared to placer fields over the ridge along Grimes Creek. Where Grimes had little water, streams around Idaho City still provided a good flow.

However, the stage line announcement was, at best, premature. Of course, emigrants on the Oregon Trail did get wagons across Idaho and then the Blue Mountains in Oregon. However, the trip took a horrific toll on their draft animals. Even freighters, who knew the road and its dangers, lost stock.
Stagecoach on Steep Grade. U. S. Forest Service photo.

The Oregonian published (August 8, 1863) a letter from the gold country that said, “There is a terrible mortality existing among the teams on the Boise road, and the dead cattle line the road from Burnt river to the Boise basin, so that more than two weeks since I was told by a gentleman returned from there that he was not out of sight of them the whole distance.”

Steep grades and the rutted track were not the worst problem, the correspondent went on: “The alkali dust on the Burnt and Snake rivers is deadly in its effects on the heated and toiling oxen, and sometimes they fall down dead when the yoke is taken off them.”

No transport company could afford to lose stock at those rates. So, for much of 1863, pack trains – horses and mules – carried substantial amounts of supplies to the Idaho mines. But when weather conditions were favorable, teamsters brought freight wagons from depots in Umatilla and Walla Walla. They were very careful, however, to husband the strength of their animals.

As one might expect, the slow pace of these freight trains did not suit eager prospectors. So-called “saddle trains” catered to that impatience. John Hailey, who would play a prominent role in Idaho history [blog,  August 29], is credited with the first saddle train operation, in 1863. Hailey later wrote, “On the 18th day of April, I left Walla Walla with a saddle train of sixteen passengers and four pack animals for Placerville in the Boise Basin. This was the beginning of the saddle train business in the Boise Basin mines.”

Hailey and his partner, William Ish, ran a profitable passenger operation through the summer, although they did have to reduce their fare as competitors appeared. And, he said, “By September, the travel to the Basin was almost over for the season, so we engaged in packing.”
John Hailey. Library of Congress.

Ish & Hailey did not attempt even a partial stagecoach run until spring of the following year. They first ran the stage about fifty miles, from Umatilla to the west side of the Blue Mountains. That early in the season, the road beyond that would not support the stage, so the company’s saddle trains took over. They did build (future) stage stations, which allowed saddle passengers to eat, rest, and change to fresh horses.

They had the stage route from Umatilla to Placerville “ready for passengers about the 1st of June, 1864.” It does not appear the Slavin & Company operation, mentioned above, ever materialized. The Ish-Hailey outfit did  have one competitor on routes over the Blues, but traffic over the next few years remained high enough to support both.
                                                                                 
References: John Hailey, History of Idaho, Syms-York Company, Boise, Idaho (1910).
“To the Mines,” The Oregonian, Portland (July 20, 1863).
Oscar O. Winther, The Old Oregon Country: a History of Frontier Trade, Transportation and Travel, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California (1950).

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