Yankee Fork Road – Bonanza, Custer

Yankee Fork Gold 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 who 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.


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 1890’s 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 January 2019.

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


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