The Yankee Fork, A Tale of Tailings


[music] Loretta: Believe it or not,
there are people that come from all over the
world to this area, and Europeans love
the history here. Billy: I can remember one couple
stopped and asked me, they said, “Did they have any idea how
all these always rocks got like this?” And I said, “Just drive on
up the road a ways,” and I says, “you’re going to see
this huge gold dredge sitting. And that piece of
machinery dug up all of these rocks and spit it out.” Dr. Rose: The tailings, I
think, are cool in the way that they’re historic. People take them as
a point of pride. And now we’re working with
them to preserve the tailings but also to bring the river
back to life again and make it a productive
fishery again. Diana: The miners and that,
they were seeking something that is more valuable to them. Our salmon are hurting
because of what was there. Lytle: Historically,
there were thousands of salmon in Yankee Fork. Early records, I
think, suggest maybe 2 to 10 thousand salmon returned
to the Yankee Fork annually. Narrator: The Yankee Fork Gold
Dredge operated periodically from 1940 to 1952. Gold mining provided economic
opportunity for westerners but had a dramatic
effect on this this small but important tributary of
the Salmon River located in south-central Idaho. Lytle: It’s pretty easy to
look at Yankee Fork and see that that’s not the natural
state of the environment. You know, it’s fascinating
that we had the power to tear up such beautiful country,
we need to also recognize that we got to be
cautious with that power. [music] Narrator: The rush for gold in the Yankee Fork took
some time to develop. Prospectors were busy seeking
their fortunes in California and Oregon in the 1850s while
the Yankee Fork remained out of reach for some. Lorretta: Gold was discovered in
Idaho in 1860 in Orofino Creek. That started the
gold rush into Idaho. Once in Idaho, they had to
venture out to other areas. That’s why this area was more or less discovered
a little bit later. It was not an easy
area to get into. It had brutal winters. It was very remote. Rich: There’s a lot
of different ways that gold is recovered
from the ground. Of course, the easiest and most
common way was with gold pans. That was called free gold. Through the thousands
and millions of years, these gold deposits up in
the mountains have migrated down into the valleys,
and they were deposited in the cracks and the
rifts of the bedrock. Narrator: Gold panning
transitioned quickly to hydraulic mining, which
used the force of water to wash gold from the hillsides. Matt: Where they would
build a reservoir, use what’s called a hydraulic
giant, which is a large nozzle that they would point
at the mountain side, and blast out all
the rock and soil, and use a sluice box
mechanism to gather the gold. Narrator: Miners’ thirst for gold drove them
underground to dig for ore. Often called hard rock
mining, they tunneled deep into the hillsides and
toiled in dark, damp, and dangerous conditions to cut
raw ore free from the earth. Loretta: It was very
difficult work. It was hard work. It was a lot of cold,
dark, dusty mine shafts. They were long days. They ended up working
from morning until night. Most of their day was
spent in that mine shaft and they didn’t come
out of the mine shaft until the end of the day. [music] Narrator: Mining development
also brought growth. As miners and machinery
arrived, businesses grew. In 1880, the tiny
towns of Custer and neighboring Bonanza
swelled to 600 residents, adding a post office,
school, blacksmith, dentist and dance hall. Rock-crushing stamp mills were
erected to crush ore and hauled by teams of oxen and
mules out of the valley. The General Custer Mine
extracted gold worth an estimated 8 million dollars
during its first decade of operation, the equivalent of nearly 200 million
dollars today. Dr. Rose: Mining was one
of the first big business, big capital kind of things that
occurred in this area, you know, that brought a lot of money in. Did that, the towns
developed around these mines, you know the stores, the
different support services, a lot of the roads were
built to support the mines like with Custer and Bonanza. Lorretta: There weren’t a lot
that were employed by the mines. There were more employed
in support businesses that basically supported
the mines, whether it’s be store owners,
shopkeepers, livery stables. Matt: One of the
biggest industries that supported the mining
boom was the timber industry. And there was extensive logging, which occurred throughout
this valley, to support not only the houses
and all of the shops in town, but the mills, and then also to
power the steam engines located at the General Custer Mill,
and to build support braces for tunnels and adits. Narrator: Just like in
any mining community, there were periods
of boom and bust. Matt: After the turn of the century there was
a short secondary boom of hard rock mining that lasted
until about 1910, and 1911. Dr. Rose: And then the gold
finally became so hard to reach and the payout wasn’t as much
as what it cost to develop it. Rich: Nothing much happened because there was no easy
gold to find any more. [music] Matt: After that period, both towns essentially
became ghost towns. There were two or three
families that lived in Bonanza, and that was it [music] until we reach the point
during the Great Depression in which gold dredging
had become very en vogue. And they began to look at
the Yankee Fork as an area to dredge the valley floor. [music] Matt: It was loud. It was very violent. It was shaky. They operated continuously, 24
hours a day, in three shifts. Jo Anne: They can hear it
from five miles on a good day, the wind in the right
direction, whatever. Most of the men who worked
on it had hearing loss in their old age, later years. My dad did. Most of the others did too. Rich: A lot of people
thought they lived on here. That’s one place you
wouldn’t want to live on. I mean, it was noisy. It was very noisy. Jo Anne: It was noise
you can’t believe! And it shook, rattled,
and rolled. I had no desire to
go on that thing. Narrator: The Yankee Fork
dredge was a colossal machine. Five-stories tall with 71
eight-cubic-foot metal buckets. It had a steel girder
frame, metal siding, twin marine diesel
engines, cables and pulleys and rock-sorting machinery that pushed the entire
dredge weight to 988 tons. At the time, it was one
of the largest dredges in the lower 48 states. With muscle power like this, the dredge owners were confident
gold was well within reach. Rich: They core drilled this
whole valley and estimated that there was $11 million
worth of gold here. The problem is the
gold was in bedrock, and bedrock in this
valley is somewhere between 30 and 35 feet. Matt: A dredge is a
large, typically floating, barge that uses a conveyor
belt of shovels to scoop up large amounts of material,
typically of lower ore grades, and collects the gold through
redepositing all of the rock and material along
a valley floor. Water had to constantly
be feeding into the dredge so it would continue to float. Then it would dig its own pond
out, and through the stacker which exited through the rear, would create a systematic
pattern of rock. And that pattern is
called dredge tailings. It creates a series of rows by, and as the shovels dug it would
work in a pattern sweeping back and forth off of a pivot point,
which was called the spud. It would rotate back and
forth in a sweeping motion, creating a semi crescentic arc
that would lay upon one another into these cornrow sort of
a pattern that we see today. [music] Narrator: Continuous
dredge operations required a three-person crew and
many support services. Outside of work, more than a dozen families
lived at the dredge camp. They became the backbone
of the community. Located just a few miles
away, they thrived year-round and shared a unique lifestyle
that is unmatched today. JoAnne: When living in
mining camps in general, it forges strong family bonds
that last your whole life. You’re really close as a family
because you go every place and do everything together. The mine owner, he
made all the rules. If you did not follow the
rules, you were unemployed. Billy: The dredge itself was
an employment opportunity for my dad and to
support his family. He came up from Kentucky
dead broke. When the dredge started
operating, dad applied for a job on the dredge and
eventually got a job as the stern oiler in late 1940. Then he got promoted
to bow oiler, which was another
five cents an hour. My dad was very good
with equipment, and eventually they
trained him as the winchman. As a boy, I just remember having
mostly an outdoor experience. In the summer, we were fishing
and hiking in the woods. In winter time, we
didn’t have a ski lift. We had toboggans that we
used to haul up to the top of the mountain and then come
whipping down on a toboggan. JoAnne: People generally
got along. When there was this remote, you have to be somewhat
dependent on each other. We went to Salmon every fall
and loaded up on canned goods and dry goods like that. He made arrangements with a
rancher down on the Salmon River for half a beef and
half a pork a year. They also hunted and
fished year round. Billy: We did a lot of
hunting and fishing. In fact, as a family, we
lived a lot on wild game. Everything we harvested we ate. We fished for salmon because
they were very plentiful in those days when
we grew up here. And my mother actually
canned the salmon herself. [music] Narrator: By the 1930s, Idaho had become the
fourth-largest gold-producer in the Unites States,
with dredges operating in several basins state-wide. Yet as gold prices rose, so
did voices opposed to dredging. Matt: Even during the time
of dredging in the ’40s, and into the early ’50s, some groups of the public
were raising concern about its effects
to the landscape. Narrator: In Boise,
irrigators complained that silted waters
could spoil crops and fill canals with residue. Anglers and fisheries managers
cited harmful effects to fish and muck-laden rivers,
drawing the attention of lawmakers in the region. [music] Indigenous people
objected to the destruction of natural ecological processes, and that the mining activity
limited their ability to exercise their treaty rights. Diana: When the gold mining
came in, it affected us and eventually took
us out of the area. Narrator: Public pressure
cited damage to the Yankee Fork and other areas of the state,
which brought the passage of the 1954 Dredge and
Placer Mining Protection Act to restrict dredging. Similar bills in the 1970s aimed
to regulate dredge activity to improve water
quality standards and restore disturbed lands. Dredges like these
were often described as tireless metal
monsters devouring tons of gravel each day. In riverbeds and basins
all over the state, dredge mining altered
not just the surface, but the deep-seated human
connections to the area. Lytle: I think I can put
myself in the miner’s shoes and understand that in order
to get the resources he needed, he needed gold or
some other resource. Conversely, in my shoes, we
needed the land to produce fish. So, that was the real
gold of Yankee Fork. [music] Narrator: The natural landscape of the Salmon River basin
yielded a rich bounty for the Shoshone and Bannock
Tribes, who made seasonal rounds to the Salmon River country,
including the Yankee Fork, to hunt and gather plants. Darrel: I mean, we have
a special tie to it because our people lived there
for thousands and thousands of years, you know
inhabited that area. Matt: Dating back
to at least 8,000 to 12,000 thousand years ago, we know that precontact
people came through. We can see that through their
archaeological evidence left behind on sites that are
still here to this day. Dr. Rose: We know that folks who lived here can
came in seasonally. They were in small kind
of extended family groups. It was a successful
way of living. People did it successful
out here for 10,000 years. Narrator: Indigenous people
traveled throughout the region, following foods as
they came into season. For example, some bands or small
family groups would harvest camas roots in late
spring and early summer, then travel from the Camas
Prairie to the Salmon Mountains. Diana: The Yankee Fork area
is for hunting of the salmon and the big horn sheep. That’s why our people are
called Tukudeka and Agaidika. My uncles and that,
they were all fishing up there a long, long time ago. My first time was there was
when I got married in the ’70s. One time this old
man, he’s gone now, he talked about when he was a
little boy of how they would go up to the salmon country and
they would go up on wagon. Lytle: Places like Yankee Fork
were really important fisheries for the Shoshone-Bannock
people, and upwards of 20,000 to 60,000 fish were
harvested annually in the Salmon basin alone. Unfortunately, that habitat where the dredge
occurred is probably some of the most important habitat
for salmon and steelhead. Narrator: These two
anadromous fish species are born in the fresh water of
tributaries, migrate out to sea to spend most of their life, then return to their
original headwaters to spawn and start the cycle over. Mining activities drastically
altered the river channel, reducing the complexity, water
quality, and hiding spots that fish need to thrive. Lytle: What I have heard
is people were surprised at the devastation and
what had happened there. If I recall correctly, it
was like a bomb had went off. It was completely
unnatural-looking to them and surprised a lot
of the folks. Diana: You know, it impacted us, impacted the salmon runs
in a very devastating way. Lytle: It disrupted the
ecosystem function and has had cascading impacts down
in the food web from the big salmon that return
to the little invertebrates that are grazing on the rocks. Lytle: My personal relationship with the Yankee Fork stems
back to the early 1980s. As a child, I camped there. I fished there. At the end of the ’80s, we
started fishing somewhere else. It broke my heart
because we had to pack up our camp in Yankee Fork. I didn’t realize it at the
time, but that was the last time that I fished salmon in the
Yankee Fork with my dad. So, I’ve lost a little bit of
a personal relationship, but I filled that with a professional
endeavor to really try to help recover salmon to Yankee Fork
so people could have an opportunity to hunt fish with
their fathers, and so I can have that connection
with my kids as well. But at this point, the
numbers are so low that we generally fish
somewhere else. [music] Narrator: The work to enhance
this critical fish habitat, begun by the Shoshone-Bannock
Tribes in the 1980s, is an ongoing process
that is closely coupled to recent habitat work to
help promote the recovery of ESA-listed Chinook
salmon and steelhead. This has resulted in the
removal of some tailing piles to reestablish more natural
river channels and flood plains. Matt: If we can do it in places
where there’s also places for spawning beds and juvenile
rearing for these fish species that also are a part of the
history and the past too. We’ve had a lot of success
working with all the partners, and despite the difference in
viewpoints, we’ve been able to make significant progress
for both perspectives of mining and for fish restoration. Narrator: The partnership between
tribal, federal, and state agencies, environmental groups, and landowner J.R. Simplot
Company domonstrates that
the tailings piles and ecosystem restoration
work can co-exist. A mining legacy can be preserved
while high-priority spawning and rearing habitat
can be improved for anadromous and
resident fish. Chad: Well, nature
will bound back. It will take this
over again someday. It’s going to take a time. It’s amazing, it only took them
roughly a hundred years or less to really destroy
the Yankee Fork. [music] Narrator: The Yankee Fork
Gold Dredge stands today as a silent witness to a
long-running mining legacy. The five and half-mile stretch
of tailings piles created by the dredge remind visitors
that values about mining and natural resources
have changed. The mounds of corn-row
style rock and cobble can inspire
controversy, preserve the past, and serve as an example
to future generations. Lytle: By leaving some of
those dredge tailings intact and by having a broader story
that includes the pioneers and the Shoshone-Bannock
people’s perspective, I think they can have
a better understanding for what we can learn from that. Matt: There’s a large
amount of tourists that come up to this valley, and they are
interested in mining history. And they need to see
those dredge piles to see what came
out of that machine. I think people are
passionate about history because it’s how they
identify who they are and where they’re going. And whether that’s an arrowhead,
a mining pick, or a dredge pile, people each identify
where they came from and where they’re headed. Loretta: Those tailings piles
are just a step back in time to see what these guys went through just to extract
the gold. Dr. Rose: The tailings
piles, I think, represent a lot of
different things. To the people in this community,
folks really take a lot of pride in the development and
the hard work that went into mining on the Yankee Fork. Billy: I view them as a part of
history, and as really a part of my own history of growing
up here in the valley, because I watched these
tailings coming out the back of that dredge as a young boy. It’s important that history
is not only documented but explained to
people, and actually, if we can show them history. Because years from now when
I’m long gone, there’s going to be people that’ll
talk about it. If you remove the evidence of history then future
generations won’t have a clue of what happened. Chad: Places like this where
you can see what occurred in the past, the
damage that was done. There are some people that appreciate these
piles like this. I am personally not one of them,
but there are people who do and want to see these
remain on the landscape. And I can agree to some extent
that if we were to remove all of this so that people
forgot what happened here, they would do it again. Darrell: To ignore
it is to repeat it. If you just forget about it
that means you could almost get to the point where, “Oh,
that never happened.” Then you’ll do it over again. But the teaching is
that you’re supposed to gain some knowledge
from your mistakes. Matt: I think the mining legacy in the Yankee Fork Valley
has had both pros and cons, and it still does to this day. I think it’s an ongoing
debate with mining or any resource extraction
industry that we continue to have. [music] Narrator: There is little
doubt that the tailings in the Yankee Fork have shaped
the area’s mining legacy. The diverse and wide-spread
cobbles remind visitors of the dredge’s glory days. The specialized machines
supported hard-working miners and their families,
local communities, ambitious developers, and related industries
following the Great Depression and post-World War Two eras. As ecosystem and stream
enhancement work helps to heal the river, the dredge
piles outside the restoration area will remain intact. Visitors and future
generations will be able to view our unique shared
history and landscape with greater understanding
of the past in the Yankee Fork valley. [music]

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