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Ghost Town Trails – Mackay’s Mine Hill, Mackay, Idaho

Mackay’s Mine Hill is the featured ghosted place in this month’s installment of Ghost Town Trails. If you missed last month’s installment, you can read it here.

Sign Welcome to MacKay’s Mine Hill
Welcome Sign

Mackay’s Mine Hill is more than just a ghost town or an abandoned mining camp. It is a collection of abandoned places including two townsites, a sawmill, miners’ cabins, numerous mining sites, ruins of a smelter and the transportation systems (narrow gauge railroad and aerial tram) that connected them. Through the efforts of local citizens, landowners and federal agencies, you and I are able to enjoy these places via the Mackay’s Mine Hill Tour.

The tour offers mining buffs, historians, and those with an interest in archaeology, a great opportunity to experience the hard-rock mining history of the White Knob Range as they drive and hike among the ruins of a mining operation that ceased decades ago. Interpretive panels along the route explain the history and function of featured structures and equipment.

So much to explore!

Historical reminders of mining days include weathered buildings, heavy equipment and mining tools that were abandoned when the mines shut down. The driving tour was opened to visitors in 2004 and includes more than 13 historical stops along 24 miles of route. The tour is open to ATVs, motorcycles, high clearance and passenger vehicles. The tour is divided into three vehicle classification routes designated by colors on the map (pdf). One portion (red) follows the old narrow gauge mining railway open to vehicles up to 50″ wide. High clearance vehicles are recommended on another portion (blue). The largest and most interesting portion (green) of the tour is open to regular two-wheel drive passenger vehicles.

Residences in White Knob

Mackay’s Mine Hill – History

Mackay’s Mine Hill was active from 1879 to 1949 and supported the towns of Mackay, White Knob, Cliff City and Houston. The mines produced primarily copper ore to the tune of nearly $4 million (1914). More tha 62 million pounds of copper is not all the mines produced. Other valuable minerals mined on the hill include 15 million pounds of lead, 5 million pounds of zinc, 2 million ounces of silver and 42,000 ounces of gold. Through the years of mining, men using pneumatic drills, pickaxes and tons of dynamite dug more than 20 miles of tunnel through the mountain in search of precious metals.

One of many remaining tram towers

Mackay’s Mine Hill – Our visit

My wife and I “took the tour” several years ago during late summer. Since we often travel with an ATV (under 50” wide) and dual motorcycle, we employed those. They allowed us to travel all three routes and see all the sites on the tour map. Following were some of our favorite sites along the tour route.

The old Maintenance Shop has been turned into a museum, of sorts

Interpretive Site #1: Smelter site ruins and buildings

The smelter site was the location of a smelter complex designed for 600 tons of ore per day to produce “blister” copper using two huge blast furnaces and a 120-foot stack. It was built in 1901-02 and had trouble from the start due to the lack of metallurgical knowledge and the need to augment processing with ore shipped from afar. By 1908 it was shut down, although it served as a concentrator until the 1940s. The Shay engine house, machine shop, an 8-hole outhouse and early masonry remain along with many of the hand tools that were used. The old maintenance shop has been turned into a museum, of sorts, featuring many interpretive signs, tools, and old mining artifacts.

Interpretive Site #3: Cossack Tunnel and compressor building

The mostly intact compressor building is located at the Cossack Tunnel, which is at the 1600-foot level of the mine above. Similar to the idea behind the tunnel at Tunnel Camp, NV, the tunnel was designed to help drain the mine workings and provide improved access for miners and utilities. The air compressor station was constructed in 1917-1918. In the 1940s, the compressor building was converted to an electricity plant, but major mining ended shortly thereafter.

The massive and impressive headhouse

Interpretive Site #8: Aerial tramway headhouse

The headhouse was my favorite attraction on the tour. It is standing tall on a precarious slope amid spectacular views of the Big Lost River Valley and the soaring Lost River Range beyond. This structure, located at the 700-foot level of the mine, was the upper terminal and loading station for the gravity-powered aerial tramway system that connected the mines with the smelter below. Placed in operation in 1918, the system replaced the Shay mining railroad, in operation since 1905. This aerial tramway consisted of ore buckets traveling on a six-mile-long loop of 1 1/4″ steel cable supported on 36 wooden towers. Today what remains of the headhouse loading station is still a formidable sight. Look closely to see examples of expert timber joinery and craftsmanship done more than a century ago.

The above sites are just three of the dozen-plus interpretive stops along the tour route. They are also three of the easiest vehicle-accessible sites on the tour. By keeping an eye out, I was able to see many more unmarked points of interest along the way for the route.

Mackay’s Mine Hill: Getting There

Take U.S. Hwy. 93 to Main St. in Mackay. Turn southwest on Main St., which becomes Smelter Ave. after four blocks, and follow the signs. You will encounter the “Welcome to Mackay’s Mine Hill Tour” sign (pictured above) at N43° 53.872  N113° 37.835

You will find a current pdf copy of the Mackay’s Mine Hill tour map here. Be sure to obtain a current copy of the map as mining activity recently resumed on Mackay Hill eliminating a couple of the previous stops and altering the tour route. Note: Trip Advisor rates the tour as the #2 of 6 things to do in Mackay.

Current Map from BLM

Mackay’s Mine Hill: Camping

The closest campgrounds / RV parks to the start of the tour route in Mackay:

Wagon Wheel Motel & RV Park
809 West Custer Mackay, ID 83251
208-588-3331

City Tourist Park
Vadan Street Mackay, ID 83251
Free for the first 2 nights!
208-588-2274

River Park Golf Course & Campground
717 Capitol Ave Mackay, ID 83251
208-588-2296

Boondocking on Mackay Hill

Dispersed camping (aka Boondocking): Once the pavement ends and the gravel starts, boondocking is available all along the route. The views can’t be beat when camping on the mine hill.

##RVT1054

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Steve H
1 month ago

Thanks for this article, Dave. I may propose Mackay as a future site for an Annual Meeting of the Mining History Association. Last year, we had a virtual meeting on Zoom for Elko, NV, and this year’s in-person meeting is in Birmingham, AL, in three weeks. Before Covid, the 2019 meeting was in Marquette, MI. Past meetings have been all over the West, including AK and BC. If you are not a member, just go to the MiningHistoryAssociation.org website for more info.

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