Yankee Fork Road – Bonanza, Custer

In July of 2008, we found ourselves traveling along Yankee Fork Road for an Idaho ghost town adventure.

Around 1866, a group of Montana prospectors led by Joel Richardson came to what would become known as the North Fork area searching for placer mining opportunities. When they came to a large tributary of the upper Salmon River, they set up camp and prospected for several weeks, but unfortunately did not find gold. However, before returning to Montana, they named the creek “Yankee Fork,” because everyone in the party was a Yankee.

Prospectors continued to comb the area and in 1870 gold was found on a tributary of the Yankee Fork near Jordon Creek.  Soon after the discovery, the Yankee Fork Mining District was organized. The first significant find was made by William Norton in July 1875, which produced as much as $20,000 in ore dug by hand by Norton and his partner, John Rohrer.

After the discovery of the General Custer Mine in August 1876 by James Baxter,  E. K. Dodge and Morton McKeim, the area really began to flood with miners.

The three founding members of the mine; however, realized they didn’t have the resources to develop the mine and soon sold out to an English firm.

Traveling up Yankee Fork Road, the sides of the trail are piled with rocks from the dredging operation, but, the river still provides numerous recreation opportunities. Kathy Weiser-Alexander, July 2008.

Bonanza

Bonanza today just has a few tumbling buildings, Kathy Weiser-Alexander, July 2008. Click for prints & products.

With prospectors camped out all over the area, the town of Bonanza City was laid out in 1877 by a man named Charles Franklin, some eight miles up the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River. Generally just called Bonanza, which is Spanish for “prosperity,” lots were first sold which ranged from $40 to $300. In the beginning, machinery and supplies had to be brought in by mule packers along a rugged 84-mile trail from Ketchum.

The settlements’ first buildings were crude log buildings that were gradually improved over time. The miners celebrated when the first saloon was built and soon sawmills were constructed, more miners poured into the area, and plans were made to build a toll road between Challis and Bonanza in 1879.

Once it was complete, freight haulers required 5-7 pairs of oxen, mules, or horses to pull their loads on trips that would take four days to cover the 35-mile wagon trail. The following year, a daily stage was running over the toll road which cost passengers $5.00 for the 8-9 hour one-way trip.

Though Bonanza never had a mine or a mill, it quickly became the hub of the area and by 1881 it boasted some 600 people and numerous businesses including Custer County’s first newspaper, The Yankee Fork Herald; a post office, a school, the Dodge Hotel, a blacksmith, a cafe and dance hall called the Charles Franklin House, a hardware store,  grocery and variety stores, a dentist, a watchmaker and several other businesses. The settlement also sported numerous entertainment venues including a croquet field, a baseball field, and a small racetrack. Bonanza’s wide main street was lined with trees and several two-story buildings fronted by boardwalks or wooden sidewalks so customers wouldn’t have to walk through the mud or the snow. The town also sported a public well and a water system, which provided water for its residents as well as fire protection.

In the meantime, Custer City had also sprung up about two miles upstream from Bonanza, though, at the time of Bonanza’s peak in 1881, the town outnumbered Custer City two-to-one in population and sported a greater number of businesses.

The old iron stoves always seem to sit outside these old miner's cabins, Kathy Weiser-Alexander, July 2008.

The old iron stoves always seem to sit outside these old miner’s cabins, Kathy Weiser-Alexander, July 2008.

Bonanza suffered its first setback when a fire raged through the town in 1889; however, it continued to survive until a second fire destroyed an entire block in May 1897, and most of the remaining merchants moved to nearby Custer instead of rebuilding. By this time, the waterworks had fallen into disrepair and firefighters were unable to save the buildings.

By the turn of the century, Bonanza’s only remaining businesses were a boarding house, a saloon, a slaughterhouse, a few stables, and several cabins, as most all its population had either moved out of the area or moved upstream to nearby Custer.

Today, Bonanza has only about seven tumbling structures, in various states of decay. A Forest Service Guard Station, built by the Work Progress Administration in the 1930s, is located on a hill above the old townsite, which is responsible for the care and maintenance of all the recreation facilities in the area.

Traveling westward up the hill and beyond the guard station are two cemeteries, the first of which served both the people of Bonanza and Custer and the other, a bit further down the road and referred to as Boothill, holds only three marked graves.

The story of these three unmarked graves remains a bit of a mystery, but what is known is that a couple by the name of Richard and Agnes Elizabeth “Lizzie” King, both natives of London, England, moved into Bonanza from BodieCalifornia in the summer of 1878. The pair soon set up businesses, with Richard selling real estate and Lizzie, who was described as a “golden-haired beauty” opening the Arcade Billiard Saloon and the Yankee Fork Dance Hall. The couple became good friends Bonanza’s founder, Charles Franklin, who owned The Franklin House. However, it was Lizzie that tended to spend the most time with Franklin, most often without her husband.

In the meantime, Richard and his real estate partner, by the name of William Dillon, weren’t getting along and dissolved the partnership. A short time later, when Dillon allegedly sold some land that belonged to King, an argument erupted and Dillon shot and killed him on July 14, 1879. Dillon wound up being sent to prison for 10 years, and Lizzie was picking out a burial plot for her husband.

Charles Franklin, who, by this time had become infatuated with Lizzie, was right at her side, helping her to pick out a site on the hillside that had been recently been designated as Bonanza’s new cemetery. Richard King was to be its first occupant.

Bonanza Boot Hill

Bonanza Boot Hill. Click for prints & products.

Franklin, who had hopes of winning Lizzie for himself, also bought two more plots, one for himself, and one for Lizzie. Almost immediately after her husband was buried, Franklin began to openly court Lizzie and rumors abounded that they would soon marry. However, Franklin’s plans were foiled when another man by the name of Robert Hawthorne came to town and went to work for Lizzie as a dealer in her saloon. Evidently, he swept the beautiful blonde off her feet, because the two married on August 11, 1880. Just six days later, Robert Hawthorne and Agnes Elizabeth “Lizzie” King Hawthorne were found dead in their home.

Charles Franklin buried the newlyweds next to Richard King, and interestingly, did not include her married name on her marker, and instead of putting the date she died on the marker, put on both her’s and Hawthorne’s grave markers, the date of their marriage. Though suspensions were high that Franklin had killed the pair, he was never arrested. A short time later, Franklin packed up his belongings and moved to a placer claim near Stanley. A few years later, he was found dead in his lonely cabin, clutching Lizzie’s photo in a gold locket. His body was buried next to his cabin, miles away from the tiny cemetery where his love, Lizzie, lay between her two husbands.

Bonanza is located about 8 miles north of Sunbeam on Idaho State Road 75 (Yankee Fork Road.)

Yankee Fork Gold Dredge

Yankee Fork, ID - Dredge

Yankee Fork, ID – Dredge. Click for prints & products.

Just about ½ mile on down the road from Bonanza is the Yankee Fork Dredge. Once placer mining was exhausted and the major mines ceased operations, the Yankee Fork claims owners knew that there was still “gold in them thar hills,” or river and tailings, in this case.  In the early 1930s a number of placer miners who knew that valuable gold still existed on the Yankee Fork, joined together to see if they could find a company that might be interested in dredging the river.

By 1938, they had interested the Silas Mason Company of Shreveport, Louisiana, whose initial tests indicated that as much as $16,000,000 worth of gold was recoverable.

They soon formed a subsidiary called the Snake River Mining Company and the following year, the dredge began operations in October 1939. The 988-ton dredge, which was 112 feet long, 54 feet wide, and 64 feet high went to work recovering the remaining gold. Requiring 11 feet of water to float, the dredge could dig to a depth of 35 feet and included 72 buckets, each of which was eight cubic feet in size to haul up the gravel ore.

Yankee Fork, ID – Gold Dredge Tailings. Click for prints & products.

Constantly dredging out rock and recovering the precious mineral by washing and separating the rock and dirt from the gold, the dredge operated continuously until 1942. Operations ceased briefly until 1944 when they were continued once again until the dredge reached a rock dike below Bonanza in 1949.

At that time, the Snake River Mining Company sold the dredge to J.R. Simplot and Mr. Baumhoff, who operated the dredge until 1951. Baumhoff then sold his interest to Simplot, who continued to operate the dredge for another year, at which time, he ran out of mining claims on which to work. In 1952, the dredge ceased production forever.  One of the most efficient dredges ever in production, it recovered about $11 in ore over the years.

J.R. Simplot, the last owner, donated the dredge to the U.S. Forest Service, but there were no funds to develop it as a museum. However, in 1979, the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge Association was formed by former employees and their families, who worked hard to restore the dredge and today it is open for tours during the summer.

Custer

Cabins in Custer, Idaho

Cabins in Custer, Idaho with mine peeking up in the background, Kathy Weiser-Alexander, July 2008. Click for prints & products.

Just two miles north of Bonanza is the more intact ghost town of Custer, which was founded in early 1879 right below the General Custer mill site. The settlement was first founded by a man named Sam Holman, who was a transplanted Harvard Law School graduate who had headed west and worked as a prospector rather than pursuing his law career. Coming to the area of Yankee Fork in 1878, he became to first justice of the peace in Bonanza. He also staked a large claim two miles north of Bonanza, but rather than working the claim, he divided and sold his property as lots, and for the building of a new mill. When the Custer Mill was completed in December 1880, Custer began to grow in importance. In the 1880s, both cities flourished, as Custer grew to a population of about 300.

By the 1890s the cities had virtually grown together, supported by the operations of the Lucky Boy and Black Mines, and were operated by common authorities. During this decade, Custer grew larger than Bonanza, especially after two fires wiped out some of Bonanza’s buildings, and the merchants moved to Custer. The town reached its peak population of 600 in 1896. In its heydays, the town boasted a post office, a general store, a boarding house, several restaurants, the Nevada House Hotel, a school, and the ever-popular numerous saloons. However, it never had a church.

It was also at this time that residents of the town passed a law forbidding any Chinese to live within the town limits, so a small Chinatown developed just southwest of Custer. The immigrants worked as launderers, cooks, and miners on low-grade properties.

But, by the turn of the century, the end was in sight for both communities and in 1904, the Lucky Boy Mine and General Custer Mill closed.  A few businesses continued to survive by supplying new mines near Sunbeam and in the Loon Creek district, but the vast majority of people began to leave. By 1910, there were only about 12 families living in Custer and when the Sunbeam Mine closed in April 1911, it spelled the end of the mining camp and Custer became a ghost town.

Today; however, the settlement has been restored and preserved by the Yankee Fork Historical Association, the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Salmon-Challis National Forest.

A walking tour begins at the historic schoolhouse which now serves as the Custer Museum. The tour provides for a peek at over a dozen buildings, including several cabins and homes, the Empire Saloon, the assay office, transportation building, mining equipment, and the sites of several long lost buildings.

More Information:

Challis – Yankee Fork Ranger District
HC 63 Box 1669
Challis, Idaho 83226
Phone: 208-879-4100

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated June 2020

See our Yankee Fork Mining District Photo Gallery HERE

Also See: 

Bayhorse, Idaho – Silver in the Yankee Fork Mining District

Idaho Legends

Treasure Hunting in Idaho