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Mining on the Salmon River

Gold was discovered near today’s Orofino, Idaho in 1861.  The rush was on, and miners all ready working the 1849 gold extravaganza in California made their way back east into Idaho.  This massive migration made Idaho one of only two states in the nation to be settled from West to East versus East to West.  Idaho’s population soared from an estimated 6,200 in 1860 to 22,000 in 1870.  25% of the population in 1870 was Chinese.

Gold also brought the miners into Idaho brought them down onto the Salmon River.  An extensive amount of mining went on until the mid 1880s.  While mining did continue through the early 1900s, it was somewhat diminished when compared to the original rush.  Amazingly enough, there was a second wave of miners during the Depression years of the 1930s.   

Several different methods were used to extract the gold.  Idaho gold is unlike the gold that the miners were accustomed to finding in California and Alaska.  Rather than being found as nuggets, this gold was in a “flour” state; fine particles found in loose gravel and soil that was deposited by the river into varying terraces and bars.  The prominent method used for extracting this gold involved hydraulic pressure.   

The miners would transport water from a nearby stream into a reservoir or pressure box.  From there, they would funnel it into a large movable nozzle called a “hydraulic giant.” A stream of high pressure water was then used to break up the hillside.  They would transport the excavated material through a sluice box.  The sluice box looks like a large version of the historic wash board, with artificial riffles installed to catch the heavier gold.  Men would stand on each side of the sluice box, and as the excavated hillside traveled down they would throw the larger rocks of to the side and into tailing piles.  Today evidence of hydraulic mining – high vertical banks, extensive rock tailing piles, and remnants of ditches, canals, and reservoirs – can be seen along the Salmon River.  Schwartz Bar gives a very vivid depiction of such mining practices.  The total amount of gold removed from this area is unknown.   

Chinese immigrants, who were brought over to America as railroad laborers, worked the newly discovered gold fields along the Salmon River, forming an interesting part of the area’s history.  Most Chinese mining along the river occurred between 1870 and 1900 when emigrants were abandoned by the railroad and left with no means to return home.  There was a large famine in their home country and they had been sending much of their profit home for the survival of their families.  With no money to pay for transport they came to Idaho in attempts of earning their keep in gold.

Their ultimate goal was always to return home to their families and, thus, the Chinese maintained much of their native culture. They were quite frequently the victims of discrimination, often chased off their claims, robbed, and sometimes even murdered.  They had no right to vote or to own land.  As well, the laws of many mining districts prohibited the Chinese from mining.  However, since the mineral values along the Lower Salmon River were comparatively low, the Chinese were generally allowed to mine there without much interference.   

The Chinese who lived along the river usually built rock houses containing a fireplace, with a wooden framework over the top, most likely covered with canvas.  Many of these rock structures are still standing today.  In fact, there are only two places in all the world outside of China where one can observe these structures preserved.  One is along a few rivers in New Zealand and the other is along the Salmon River in Idaho.   Guides that work for local whitewater rafting companies usually know the locations of these houses and make a point of visiting them during the trip.

In 1986 the BLM withdrew the area from mineral entry which means that mining is no longer allowed on land within ¼ mile of the Salmon River Canyons.

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