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Rebuilding Our Past: BLM Partners with National Park Service and the Idaho State Preservation Office to Preserve Remnants of Historic Gilmore Mining Community

While driving south on Highway 28 from Salmon, Idaho visitors are always greeted with beautiful scenery. Sagebrush, green valleyTent Town (Photo courtesy of the Lemhi County Historical Society and Museum)s and snow-covered mountains expand across the horizon, without buildings, billboards or towers impeding the view. While it is not uncommon to pass a herd of cows, deer and or even foxes along the road, the presence of people is strangely absent. But, this was not always the case.

If you had traveled the same route over one hundred years ago, you would have discovered a bustling town just past Gilmore summit. Located 65 miles south of Salmon, Idaho, inconspicuously nestled against the mountainside, is the small town site of the once booming mining town of Gilmore. Gilmore was home to a prosperous community that supported a peak population of over 600 people, along with numerous shops and businesses. Like many other mining communities, the boom didn’t last long and by 1929, little remained of the town itself except for memories and empty buildings. But, the area’s impact on southern Idaho and the rich history it produced hasn’t been lost.

Recently, BLM partnered with historic preservationists from the National Park Service and the Idaho State Historic Preservation Office to stabilize and preserve the area to ensure that future generations will always be able to learn about this interesting piece of Idaho’s history. 

In 1882, discovery of lead and silver lode deposits (along with trace amounts of gold) at the head of Liberty Gulch lead to the establishment of a mining camp named Gilmore. By the 1920s, capital investment and technological advances facilitated considerable development in the Spring Mountain District. Gilmore became the largest lead-silver camp outside of the mines at Coeur d’Alene in northern Idaho, and at one point produced the richest silver ore in the United States.

Henry McCabe - 1912 (Photo courtesy of the Lemhi County Historical Society and Museum)Gilmore’s mining development totaled more than 20,000 feet of tunnels and shafts. In 1909-1910, investors met the need for a more economical method to transport ore with the construction of the Gilmore and Pittsburgh Railroad. This railroad carried the ore from Gilmore across the Continental Divide to Armstead, Montana.

Gilmore was not just another mining town. During its hey-day from about 1910 through the 1920s, the town supported a mercantile, hotels, a bank, two restaurants, livery barn, building contractor, post office, butcher shop/meat market, candy shop, barber shop and “lady” barber, the Gilmore Commercial Club, numerous fine homes, a city park, and a large school building. In 1928, 71 students were enrolled in the local school.

In 1929, Gilmore’s prosperity ended when the mining operations’ main power plant exploded and the associated problems became insurmountable. With the onset of the Great Depression, engineering challenges, and the increasing cost of reaching the remaining ore, full-scale mining could not be resumed, and most of the population moved out within months of the explosion. Gilmore was largely a ghost town by the end of the 1930s; however minor extraction activities by small parties persisted into the early 1940s. In the end, Gilmore mines had produced nearly $486 million dollars (present day value) worth of silver and trace gold.
The contributions of hard-working individuals helped to make this mine economically feasible. During the early 1900s, a group of these workers settled near the main town site to build platform tents, small framed shacks, and a few log cabins. This neighborhood, including miners and their families often “down on their luck,” comprised the community of “Tent Town” or “Ragtown.” The name Ragtown is thought to have come about as a condescending description of the manner in which some of the hastily constructed residences were insulated, using tightly rolled rags and cloth stuffed into wall cracks.

These small, simple frame buildings and log homes illustrate frugality and ingenuity in construction and design in the face of very limited access to materials and money for construction. Upon closer inspection, much of the building materials used for additions and patching were scavenged. Holes and cracks were patched against harsh winters with flattened tinned can metal, cardboard, and Tent Town family (Photo courtesy of the Lemhi County Historical Society and Museum)rolled lengths of rags and cloth.

Over the years of its existence, the population of Ragtown fluctuated with the rise and fall of the prosperity of adjacent Gilmore. By the 1940s, the last Ragtown occupants had departed the area, long after the boom town of Gilmore had faded.

Though the history of Gilmore and the Spring Mountain Mining District is fairly well documented, Ragtown’s story remains elusive. This semi-autonomous community was not located on deeded property, nor was it ever formally annexed by neighboring Gilmore. Remnants from the majority of this community are now located on privately owned land and about half are located on public land.

Today, the BLM Salmon Field Office manages approximately eight acres of the Ragtown community. This historic property consists of eight standing or partially fallen cabins and frame constructions, along with at least three more completely collapsed framed structures. The property also reveals a number of small shallow foundations or tent platform depressions, and several large, mixed concentrations of metal, glass, and ceramic artifacts dating from the beginning of the twentieth century. These remains have survived many decades of harsh alpine mountain environment and episodes of on-going vandalism.

In 2004, Ragtown was recorded by archaeologists and BLM determined that it was eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

BLM, Partners Stabilization Efforts at Tent Town (Photo courtesy of the Lemhi County Historical Society and Museum)In March 2006, historic architect Hank Florence and preservationist Craig Holmquist from the National Park Service, along with Suzy Pengilly Neitzel of the Idaho State Historic Preservation Office, joined with staff from the BLM Salmon Field Office to visit and perform a condition assessment for stabilization needs at Ragtown.

Through an interagency agreement with the BLM, historic preservationists from the National Park Service returned in August of 2010 to conduct emergency stabilization on the eight remaining intact historic log and framed structures. The preservation work accomplished from August 4-11 was designed to be a “first phase” stabilization effort.

This stabilization project has effectively halted instability and natural degradation until additional skilled preservation work can be implemented. In the future, BLM would like to provide public interpretation signage on-site to teach more individuals about this historical treasure.

Photos in this story are courtesy of the Lemhi County Historical Society and Museum, E. R. Benedict Collection; 210 Main Street Salmon, Idaho.

Website for Lemhi County Historical Society and Museum

Website for the Idaho State Historical Society