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The Laura Moore Cunningham

Land of the Yankee Fork Park

They are glimpses of mining’s glory days, reminders of boom towns and the rush for riches that gave Idaho its start. These weathered remnants, located in central Idaho near the town of Challis, are now part of a state park that helps tell the story of Idaho’s frontier mining heritage.

“The Land of the Yankee Fork state park is a very diverse and multi-faceted area,” explains park manager Darrell Hopkins. “The footprint of the park itself is relatively small. That includes the interpretive center just south of the town of Challis and also the town of Bay Horse. With a cooperative agreement with the Forest Service, the BLM and others, park staff actually manage quite a large area.”

The park is part of the larger land of the Yankee Fork historic area, a region that witnessed decades of mining.  It started with prospectors panning in the streams; it then progressed to the construction of towns and huge mills. Years later it continued with the use of a sophisticated dredge. 

Yankee Fork dredge [Courtesy Chuck Cathcart]
Yankee Fork dredge [Courtesy Chuck Cathcart]

Today, park staff help manage a number of the historic sites, including the old mining towns of Bonanza and Custer.  They’ve worked closely with the forest service to put on a popular annual event.

 “Custer Days is basically just a celebration of some of the history of the area as well as some of the old skills that people used historically,” said Russ Camper, with the Forest Service. “It started about 15 years ago. The credit for it would actually have to go to the state, who we partner with in our management here. The park manager at that time thought, let’s do a little celebration. We started off just doing some really simple things for a couple of days. It took off from there, and every year it’s gotten a little better and a little better.”

Loretta Sherrets is an interpretive guide with the park. “I just love the history.  It’s a big part of Idaho. It’s why people came here; it’s why people settled here.  I love being able to touch and see things that people from the 1800’s touched and lived with every day. I’m always amazed at what they could build; they built some pretty amazing buildings and they’re still standing today. They are over 100 years old. 

“The Bay Horse mill is one of the last remaining mill buildings standing in Idaho; so it’s a treasure because so many of them have fallen down. And then we also have the Wells Fargo building, one of the only remaining stone buildings in town that was probably used as the assayer’s office and probably a bank.

Bayhorse Mill [Courtesy Chuck Cathcart]
Bayhorse Mill [Courtesy Chuck Cathcart]

“Ramshorn and Skylark were basically bunk houses with tram systems so they would do the mining and then the tram systems would head down the mountain, eventually ending up at the Bay Horse mill. They’re just massive buildings that are basically built on a hillside, and that in itself is amazing that they’re still there."

But there’s more to the park than buildings and artifacts in Bayhorse, Bonanza and Custer. The state park staff also helps with the management of hundreds of miles of back roads and ATV trails.

“The ATV trails tie in beautifully,” explains Darrell Hopkins. “There’s the Lombard trail which starts at the interpretive center itself. People can off-load their ATVs there and head up the hills behind the interpretive center and they can drop down into Bay Horse and other sites while still on their ATVs. And a lot of the trails that the ATVs can go on are old mining roads and old mining trails that the miners would have used in the 1800’s; and so it’s a really nice area where the ATVs and current recreational opportunities can tie into the historical nature of the park itself.”

Ernie Lombard at Bayhorse dedication [Courtesy IDPR]
Ernie Lombard at Bayhorse dedication [Courtesy IDPR]

History is one reason this park exists today.   Another is Ernie Lombard. The legislature liked his idea to make Bayhorse Idaho’s state Centennial Park.   But when the purchase of the town site fell through, the state instead built the interpretive center.   But Lombard never gave up on his original dream.  “Personally I hadn’t given up on the idea of Bayhorse being saved as a state park,” said Lombard; “the mining company had a change of mind a few years later. The problem is they spent the money that they had for the visitor’s center, and now we had no money to build Bayhorse; plus one of the original problems was that they were buying a contaminated mine site. I went to the Department of Environmental Quality and EPA and asked them for help on bended knee. They got on board.”

They helped him come up with a plan and grants that would make the site safe.  And with more than five hundred acres surrounding the town as part of the deal, Lombard also got the off-road vehicle group to literally buy into the Bayhorse concept.

“For funding we put together a package where we actually used off-road vehicle money to buy Bayhorse,” said Lombard. “The reason we were able to do that, Bayhorse is a very unique setting and a wonderful place to come and to ride your ATV’s and trail bikes. It’s a fantastic site. I couldn’t be more excited to have it actually turn out as a state park.

“It still gets me teared up to think about it, because, you see, it’s a lot of hard work, and never giving up I guess can pay off, if you just keep at it, and you really believe in what you’re doing. This is our history. They might look old and dilapidated and falling down but that’s part of the mystique and that’s part of the charm. And that’s why they are valuable; that’s why we had to save something. Not only does it have the history but it has fantastic scenery.

"I maintain this is one of the most beautiful parks we have in the entire state park system of 30 parks.”

Historic Bayhorse main street
Historic Bayhorse main street