Beginning in the 1860s, the gold rush brought large groups of white men and Chinese to settle in what is now present-day Idaho. Idaho developed as a mining territory, and its area and boundaries were greatly influenced by mining activity during the nineteenth century. Since then, mining has played an influential role in shaping Idaho communities and industry.
Five out of the six low-grade roads remaining in the Boulder-White Clouds previously provided access to mining operations. Mining claims in this area were primarily for zinc, lead, silver and tungsten. The first mining operation in the Boulder-White Clouds began in 1868 at Robinson’s Bar. Approximately $400,000 in gold was produced at Robinson’s Bar and its neighboring mines.
The first of many claims at the head of Washington Creek in Washington Basin were located in 1882. Over several years of production, the area’s two mills only produced $50,000 in lead and silver. A.S. and W.S. Livingston also located lead and silver deposits in 1882. Their discoveries along the East Fork of the Salmon River developed into what is known today as Livingston Mine. A road, 200-ton mill and three-mile tramway were built in 1922, and the original mine operated until 1930. Activity on patented claims continued throughout most of the twentieth century. Livingston Mine was the most successful mine in the Boulder-White Clouds, producing $2.3 million in lead and silver.
During an army campaign in June of 1879 lead and silver were discovered at Sheep Mountain in the White Clouds. Exploration work commenced in 1886, and the area was mined on many separate occasions during the twentieth century. However, mining in this area proved to be unsuccessful, yielding less than $400,000 in more than a century of production.
Lead and silver were also discovered in 1879 in Germania Basin, and mining activity continued for many years. The same year, the mining settlement of Galena was founded near present-day Galena Lodge. At its height, there were 800 people, four general stores, a stage line to Hailey, and the surrounding lead and silver mines supported a 20-ton smelter.
Jess Baker located claims at Baker Lake near the head of Little Boulder Creek in 1922, and 17 years later molybdenum was discovered there. In 1967, the New York based American Smelting and Refining Company acquired these claims and located 50 additional claims. A year later, ASARCO announced plans to mine and process molybdenum at the base of Castle Peak. They reported that there was a major ore deposit 400 to 600 feet below the surface of the northeast flank of Castle Peak. The ore was said to be about 2 percent molybdenum and the remaining 98 percent waste material.
ASARCO proposed building a ten-mile road from the East Fork of the Salmon River to the base of Castle Peak where there would be a 7,000-foot long, 700-foot wide and 600-foot deep open pit mine. The waste from the mine would be deposited into a two-mile long tailings pond in the Little Boulder watershed, held back by a 400-foot dam.
Molybdenum is an alloy element that hardens steel, making it tough and corrosion resistant, even at high temperatures. Such steel is used in high-temperature machines such as jet engines, and many industrial operations. During the time of this proposal and into the twenty-first century, the U.S. produces enough molybdenum to meet all of its needs and supply a significant portion of international demand.
The mining project had the potential to bring $750,000 in taxes per year of operation and 350 new jobs for local residents of Custer County where the mine would be located. Along with the majority of Custer County residents, then Idaho Governor Don Samuelson supported ASARCO’s proposed mine to enhance Idaho’s resource-based economy.
Conservationist and photographer Ernie Day, lawyer Bruce Bowler and politician Cecil Andrus led a four-year campaign in opposition to the proposed mine. “In my opinion and the opinion of a lot of other people, it would have destroyed the area and it could have contaminated the East Fork of the Salmon River. We opposed it,” said Andrus. “We were fortunate, and we stopped the mine.”
In 1972, Congress established the Sawtooth National Recreation Area,
withdrawing the right to patent a mining claim within its boundaries.
Mining at Castle Peak stopped, but its 51 existing mining claims remained
valid. Nine years later, ASARCO met with Sawtooth Forest and Sawtooth
National Recreation staff expressing an interest in expanding exploratory
activity at the base of Castle Peak, but an intensification of ASARCO’s
exploration did not occur. Currently, there are about 100 valid mining
claims in the Boulder-White Clouds, although mining activity has been
limited to assessment work because of low metal prices. Another limiting
factor are the rules governing the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
They specify that any mining that takes place there may not significantly
impact scenic or wildlife values.