Twenty mules in two-by-two formation. Six wagons weighing a total 30,000 pounds, empty. Each wagon capable of carrying 18,000 pounds of material. Back wheels stand 7 feet tall. And the wagon train stretches 230 feet from back wheel to the lead mule’s snout. It’s known as the Big Hitch, the king of the ore wagons.
And one man, called the muleskinner, sits on the front wagon holding a pair of 100-foot-long reins, leading it all.
Such a behemoth was created for only one reason: to haul the silver-lead ore and the mining supplies during the brief boom of Wood River mining in the 1880s.
More than 100 years later, the wagons remain, spending the vast majority of their time in the museum built for them on the corner of East Avenue and Fifth Street in Ketchum. But for one afternoon a year, the asphalt streets seem to revert back to a mix of dirt and manure as the wagons make their way along Sun Valley Road to Main Street for the Wagon Days Parade on Saturday at 1 p.m.
The wagons make the era seem romantic, but life at the time was anything but.
Like most Western mining areas, those of the Wood River Valley were smelled and heard long before seen, according to Clark C. Spence’s book “Wood River or Bust.” Concentrating mills and smelters, which extract precious metal from raw ore through heat and melting, produced a strong odor. Underground blasts rumbled the earth. Rusting machinery and piles of tailings provided visual proof to mining’s unsightly side effects.
The towns weren’t much better off.
Housewives threw garbage in their backyards to rot. Ketchum sawmills dumped sawdust in the river, killing fish. Spring thaws revealed that the narrow streets were an accumulation of layers of manure, bringing clouds of bluebottle flies.
The eventual arrival of the ore wagons
provided one of the few lifelines out of the valley.
And in 1882, dogs outnumbered people 1.5-to-1.
The eventual arrival of the ore wagons, like the Big Hitch, provided one of the few lifelines out of the valley, hauling not only mined materials, but bringing in the essentials to survive from Pocatello, Ogden and other places. However, miners’ idea of necessity wasn’t predicated on reason.
Ketchum’s Community Library has possession of an original ledger for H.C. Lewis’ ore wagons. Lewis’ company owned 700 mules and had 30 muleskinners on the road at one time in the 1880s. The ledger’s sweeping, pencil-written cursive letters indicate that even though freighted-in supplies included flour, sugar, raisins and dry food, the book is dominated by entries such as the following: “brandy, 1 bx tobacco, 10 btles beer, liquor and cigars.”
Montana miner Isaac Lewis, nephew of H.C. Lewis, was one of the original settlers of the valley, coming here after talking with some miners in the winter of 1879-80.
“I felt in my bones that I must go there,” he wrote of the Wood River Valley.
Lewis was later elected justice of the peace and said, looking back, that “some desperate, murderous villains were tried.”
Palmer Lewis, Isaac’s grandson, eventually inherited the Big Hitch wagons and donated them to Ketchum after they had sat idle and worn by the weather for decades.
Sam Sanders was the last muleskinner to pilot this wagon train in 1909, when H.C. Lewis’ freightliner closed. He left it by the Big Wood River until 1925 when he hooked the wagons back up for Ketchum’s Fourth of July Parade.
Sanders had a decade-long career as a muleskinner, having piloted his first freight wagon at age 15, according to a 1940 story in the Idaho Evening Times. That trip, he piloted 14 mules and hauled 4 tons of supplies from Ketchum to the Salmon River country.
In 1884 came the creation of H.C. Lewis’ narrow Trail Creek Road, extending east out of the valley by cutting across the mountainside. It made trips shorter but not any safer, rising 1,282 feet in 1.5 miles, flanked on one side by a steep drop into Trail Creek canyon. Hairpin turns were also a concern for the wagon trains. And even though ascending the summit seemed hard, controlling the wagons on the descent into the valley was much worse.
The road still exists, though it’s now wider, straighter and not as steep.