Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Mining built and shaped region's early days

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By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

Like many of Idaho's mountainous regions, Boulder-White Cloud country was settled largely because of mining activities around the turn of the 19th century.

With only a handful of exceptions, however, large-scale mining has become a part of the region's history. Custer County, however, has ridden the surging waves associated with the boom-and-bust nature of the industry through to present day.

Minerals were first discovered in Custer County in 1873, with the discovery of gold, and a three-decade mining boom ensued. Mining and cattle ranching activity in the area soon warranted a supply base, and in 1876, Alvah P. Challis laid out the city of Challis as a supply depot.

And in more recent terms, for most of the 1980s and 1990s, the Thompson Creek Mining Co. near Clayton was Custer County's largest employer, but because of a recent decline in the market prices of molybdenum, the mine's workforce was scaled back from the 400 at its peak to 20 in 2001. With a slight increase in the world molybdenum market, the mine said it now employs approximately 100 and continues as Custer County's largest private employer.

Mineral claims at Thompson Creek were staked in 1967, and commercial production began in 1983. During peak operations, the mine's annual production of 15 million pounds represented 8 percent of the world molybdenum supply.

In April 1997, the short-lived Grouse Creek gold mine near Stanley was closed by its parent firm, Hecla Mining Co., after 3.5 years of operations. The 187-person workforce was scaled back to a skeleton crew of as many as 31 that continues to work on mine-site reclamation.

Mackay, roughly 60 miles south of Challis, was a copper mining and livestock center, and agriculture continues as the primary staple in Mackay's economy.

In 1901, Mackay was abuzz with expansion plans from the White Knob Mining Co.'s copper mine.

During the Great Depression, metals prices dropped dramatically, and the local impact forced a near shutdown of mining activity during most of the 1930s. The war years, however, were prosperous ones for Mackay, as war dictated increases in demand for copper.

The late-1940s marked the end of significant mining in Mackay, but limited activity continued until about 1975.

The towns of Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue in the Wood River Valley of Blaine County were also mining centers before sheep ranching and, later, tourism took over as the primary economic engines. In 1936, Sun Valley resort opened its doors and the seeds for present-day tourism were sewn.

The Wood River Mines were rich in lead and silver, and between 1880 and 1885, $12 million worth of the minerals were extracted from mines in the area.

The communities commemorate this heritage annually, with Ketchum's Wagon Days celebration, held each Labor Day weekend.

In between the modern-day communities that surround the Boulder and White Cloud Mountains, abandoned mines and ghost towns abound.

Custer and Bonanza are restored ghost towns and popular tourist destinations in Custer County. The ghost towns of Galena, Bullion City, Boulder City and Broadford lay dormant in the Wood River Valley. Vienna, Sawtooth City and Gladiator are some of the Sawtooth Valley's mining relics.




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