Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Major Lead-Silver Discoveries Spark Rush to Wood River Area [otd 04/26]

On April 26, 1879, Warren P. Callahan filed on a lead-silver claim at the base of the ridge a mile or so west of the present town of Bellevue, Idaho. This filing was a major milestone for what would quickly build into a rush into the Wood River mining districts.
Wood River Valley, looking south. Illustrated History, 1899.

The Boise Basin gold discoveries of 1862 [blog, Oct 7] drew thousands of hopeful miners to southern Idaho. Soon, all the best claims had been staked, so prospectors began to broaden their explorations. Various parties visited the Wood River area in 1863-1865, and a few found enough “color” to do some mining there. However, the finds offered only minor returns, so no one particularly wanted to risk the unfriendly Indian bands that frequented the area.

In 1864, Callahan himself reportedly found the galena lode he would later claim. (From there, he went on into Montana.) Some prospectors knew that galena, a lead sulfide ore, often contains small amounts of silver. An ounce in twenty pounds of galena would be among the highest known silver fractions.

Few in the West, however, knew how to process the ore. Moreover, even a lode rich in galena versus useless stone, and high in silver fraction, required a major investment to pay out, because of the processing cost. In 1864, with gold fever in the air, no one had much interest in looking for silver.

By around 1875, however, silver discoveries in Colorado and Nevada had made shrewd (or lucky) investors fabulously wealthy – the Comstock Lode being perhaps the most famous. People all over the West searched eagerly for the next big strike. However, in Idaho deadly clashes with indigenous Indians [Bannock War, blog, June 8] delayed serious exploration until 1879.

Numerous other filings followed Callahan's and triggered a substantial rush into the region in 1880. The towns of Bellevue and Ketchum soon followed, and then Hailey in 1881. An experienced miner from Silver City toured the area and noted (Owyhee Avalanche, Silver City, Idaho, February 26, 1881) that the prospects were “exceedingly rich.” He also wrote, “There are about five hundred people in Bellevue at present, and the town contains four saloons, seven stores, five hotels and restaurants, two livery stables, a Postoffice and jail … ”

Main Street, Hailey, 1888.
Hailey Historic Preservation Commission.
For awhile, all the ore had to be shipped out of state. Loads went first by freight wagon to the railroad station at Kelton, Utah. Trains carried it to smelters in Salt Lake, or even as far away as Denver. To offset the substantial expense, investors selected only the richest ores for shipment. One ore body, reportedly the richest ever found in the U. S. up to then, assayed out at “112 ounces of silver to the ton.”

As soon as possible, developers built smelters in Hailey and then Ketchum. Their initial capacities were limited and ore shipments continued until they could be upgraded.

Finally, in May 1883, the Oregon Short Line completed a branch line into Hailey and the production of the mines skyrocketed. The railroad extended its branch into Ketchum in August 1884.

As so often happened, the boom times passed rather quickly. There would be later discoveries, but the Wood River economy soon turned more to stock raising and farming.
References: [B&W], [Hawley]
"Site Report - Wood River," Reference Series No. 206, Idaho State Historical Society (1981).
Merle W. Wells, Gold Camps & Silver Cities, 2nd Edition, Bulletin 22, Idaho Department of Lands, Bureau of Mines and Geology, Moscow, Idaho (1983).
"Idaho Lead-Silver Mining Camps, 1879-1884," Reference Series No. 668, Idaho State Historical Society (1984).


  1. Evan, I found your wonderful photo of the Wood River Valley and used it in one of my blog posts. I linked to your site and gave attribution.

    Please let me know if this is a problem. Thanks!


  2. Not only not a problem ... but let me thank YOU for the attention. The photo you "borrowed" is from the Illustrated History of the State. That was published in 1899, so the photos and drawings have long been in the public domain.
    I visited your genealogy web site: VERY nice. Researching old records is like ... eating peanuts ... no one can eat just one.

  3. I was wondering if I could have your permission to use the old Hailey photo for our Idaho Genealogical Society magazine for our winter issue in 2013.

    Juvanne Martin, CG
    President of the Idaho Genealogical Society
    Nampa, ID

  4. I certainly have no problem with you using the photo, but you should probably contact the Idaho State Historical Society to put it in a print publication.