Friday, May 19, 2017

Skinner Toll Road Connects Silver City to California Supply Route [0td 05/19]

On May 19, 1866, with great fanfare in the Owyhee mining camps, the Skinner Toll Road opened for business. The new road vastly improved stagecoach and freight wagon traffic into Silver City and the other nearby mining towns.
Silas Skinner. Skinner Family Archives.

Silas Skinner, from the Isle of Man, followed the rush after the May, 1863 discovery of gold along Jordan Creek in the Owyhee Mountains [blog, May 18]. He prospected for a time, but the cost of supplies shocked him. Merchants sympathized, but pointed out that they paid huge shipping costs to stock their shelves.

Goods reached the area over two main routes. The older route started in Oregon and back-tracked the Old Oregon Trail as far as Boise City. Wagons then traversed thirty to forty miles of rough road to reach the Snake River. After paying the toll to cross the river by ferry, the freight road followed Reynolds Creek deep into the mountains. The final two miles leading to the pass over to Jordan Creek rises over a thousand feet … greater than a 10 percent grade.

By around 1865, more freight rolled directly out of northern California and cut across the southwest corner of Oregon. The track hit the Idaho border 70-80 miles north of Nevada. From there, travelers might head northeast over the high ground to drop onto the Snake River plain and then on into Boise. Traffic for Silver City turned east and then southeast. Before the Skinner Road, essentially random paths led up to the mining camps.

Skinner and his partners actually obtained two franchises, applicable to the two tracks into the high mountains. They made some improvements to the Reynolds Creek road, and even purchased an existing toll road to complete their holdings in that direction. However, that north-facing route suffered badly from winter storms.

To connect with the California traffic, Skinner’s workmen hacked a new road down the Jordan Creek ravine to Wagontown, near the base of the main grade. From there, the Creek wanders south for 10-15 miles before turning back to the north. Skinner basically shortcut across the loop to rejoin the Creek further west. Once they were out onto the more level terrain, builders encountered only one other place where they had to make a difficult cut with pick and shovel.
Freight wagons near Silver City. Commercial Directory.
Their route was not only shorter, it was better protected against weather from the north. The Owyhee Avalanche announcement on the 19th said, “The Ruby City and Jordan Valley toll-road is now in good order for teams, empty or loaded. … It is built on the north side of the creek, thus giving it the full benefit of the sun to keep it dry.”

The toll road made money for Skinner and his partners right from the start. Its presence also encouraged settlement in the lower plains along the Idaho-Oregon border. Over time, Skinner diversified his holdings, selling off parts of his road franchise. By 1878, Owyhee County had purchased all the Idaho portions and opened them as public roads.
                                                                                 
References: Mike Hanley, with Ellis Lucia, Owyhee Trails: The West's Forgotten Corner, Caxton Printers, CaIdwell, Idaho (1973).
A Historical, Descriptive and Commercial Directory of Owyhee County, Idaho, Owyhee Avalanche Press (January 1898).
Stacy Peterson, “Silas Skinner’s Owyhee Toll road,” Idaho Yesterdays, Idaho State Historical Society (Spring 1966).
David L. Shirk, Martin F. Schimdt (ed.), The Cattle Drives of David Shirk, Champoeg Press, Portland, Oregon (1956).
“The Skinner Road,” Reference Series No. 427, Idaho State Historical Society (May 1966).

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