Cultural History Phases
HISTORIC PHASE-MINING along the Lower Salmon River
The first mining along the Salmon River occurred in 1860when fine (flour) gold was found. Intensive mining took place from the 1860s through the 1880s. Mining activity continued through the early 1900s, with another large influx of miners during the Depression of the 1930s.
What follows is a description of some of the mining techniques used throughout this time period. The areas mined were typically river terraces. Several methods were used to obtain gold from the placer deposits. Placer deposits are loose gravels and soil deposited by the river that may contain gold and other minerals.
Most of these gold deposits were initially located by using a gold pan. The gold pan was about 10 to 18 inches in diameter and between 2 to 4 inches deep. Sand and gravel were placed in the pan, which was then submerged in the water to saturate the sand and gravel. The pan was then swirled in a circular motion while keeping it level. This permitted the lighter material to be suspended and the heavier material (gold is very heavy) to settle to the bottom. The pan was occasionally tipped to remove the lighter suspended material. This process was repeated until only the gold and other heavy material remained on the bottom. The gold pan is very portable and good for prospecting, but was not efficient or economical for the development of a mine.
The rocker was a piece of equipment that was often used along the Lower Salmon River. The rocker was constructed of wood, about four feet long, one and one-half feet wide and one and one-half feet in height. A hopper was placed in the top of the rocker with a piece of perforated (usually about one-quarter inch holes) sheet iron which was used for the bottom of the hopper. Suspended below the hopper was an apron of canvas or some other material placed at about a 45 degree angle. A series of riffles (blocks of wood to catch the gold) were placed on the bottom board. The bottom of the rocker base had a "rocker" in the front and back. This was a curved piece of board on which the equipment rocks.
A rocker could be used by an individual, but was more productive when used by two people. The operation of the rocker was simple. Sand and gravel were placed in the hopper. The rocker was given a rocking motion while water was poured through the material in the hopper. Only the finer material was permitted to go through. Some of the gold and other heavy material was caught in the apron. As the water and gold-bearing solution passed over the riffles, the heavier gold and other minerals settled toward the bottom and were caught behind the riffles. In 1862, it was reported that there were 75 to 100 miners utilizing rockers and sluices and were obtaining gold at an average of $10.00 a day per person in the Rice Creek area.
Many areas were mined on a much larger scale using hydraulic mining methods. Hydraulic mining involved the excavation of a gold-bearing deposit by the use of water under pressure. Dislodged material was then carried in the water, down a series of sluices where the gold was caught behind the riffles in the sluices.
To break down the gold-bearing deposits, there had to be a sufficient supply of water. Water was usually transported to the mine via ditches and flumes from nearby permanent water sources. A ditch was dug down into the soil on the contour of the slope. In those areas where this was not possible, wooden flumes were constructed. The water was carried directly into a reservoir or pressure box above the mine. When the water was carried directly to the mine, it entered a pressure box. The pressure box was a large wooden box constructed of heavy timbers that trapped sand and dirt carried in the ditch.
Metal grates caught the floating debris. Usually a metal pipe was connected to the other end of the box which carried the water straight down the hill, under pressure, to the mine. Reservoirs served the same purpose.
The water was carried from a pressure box or reservoir, through a heavy metal pipe, which led into a hydraulic giant. A hydraulic giant is a large, movable nozzle that could be rotated horizontally and vertically. A jet of water was shot from the nozzle onto the gold-bearing deposits, breaking up the deposits. The smallest hydraulic giants had 7-inch intakes and only a 2-inch nozzle, creating extreme pressures (up to 200 pounds per square inch).
The excavated gold-bearing material and water were carried away from the working area via sluices. A sluice was a wooden box with no top, about 16 inches wide and about 8 inches high. Sluices were often made in sections, allowing miners to string them together, sometimes for more than100 feet. Riffles were located along the sluice to catch the gold and other heavy material. The larger rocks were pitched out into tailing piles. Sluices and hydraulic giants were periodically moved about on the claim as gold-bearing deposits were depleted.
Today, evidence of hydraulic mining can be seen in the high vertical banks and extensive tailings piles. Also, ditches and reservoirs can occasionally be seen. The total amount of gold removed from the Salmon River area is unknown.
Lode (hard rock) mining was limited in the canyon. Some attempts were made to mine copper north of White Bird and near the confluence of the Salmon and Snake Rivers.
The Chinese along the Lower Salmon River
The Chinese presence along the Lower Salmon River has formed an interesting part of the area's history. The Chinese first arrived in north Idaho in the 1860s to work in the newly discovered gold fields. Most of the Chinese mining along the Lower Salmon River probably occurred between the 1870s and 1900. Many of the Chinese immigrants came to America intending to work and save enough money to enable them to return to China wealthy individuals. The money they earned in America would make them wealthy in China because of the extreme poverty in China at that time. However, many decided to stay in America and never returned to their homeland.
The Chinese maintained much of their native culture, since most initially planned to return to China. They continued to prepare and consume traditional foods, and speak their native language. Their clothing, medicines, past-times, and even some traditional Chinese architecture endured.
The Chinese were often victims of discrimination because of their differing customs and appearance. There were numerous cases in Idaho of Chinese being chased from their mining claims, robbed and sometimes murdered. Many of the major mining districts had laws prohibiting Chinese from mining. Mineral values were low along the Lower Salmon River compared to the major mining districts in the surrounding area. Because of this, the Chinese were generally allowed to mine without too much interference, although there are some reported cases of harassment.
Some of the places where past residents lived are still visible. These habitations were typically rock structures. The structure foundations average about 3 feet high, 6 feet wide, and 10 feet long. A wooden framework was constructed over the top of the rock walls. A variety of roofing materials were used. Most roofs were probably of canvas attached to a framework of milled lumber or driftwood. The wood was undoubtedly scavenged when the structure was abandoned.
Many of these structures had a fireplace. Generally, structures built by Euro-Americans had the fireplace in the wall opposite the entrance. Some rock structures built by the Chinese have the fireplace adjacent to the entrance. This architectural feature is unique to some structures built by the Chinese. The only other known standing structures with this unique architectural style are Chinese structures in some of the old mining areas located in New Zealand.