Ghosts of the Yankee Fork include the remains of Custer and Bonanza, Idaho, along with the historical Yankee Fork Dredge. All three await your visit and are easily reached. Camping abounds, making the area perfect for adventurous RVers.
Discovery of the rich placer and lode deposits of the Yankee Fork region began in 1870. In the spring of 1871, claims were discovered that produced $8 per day. In 1873, placer mining began along Jordan Creek, a tributary to the Yankee Fork, located between the future sites of Bonanza and Custer, Idaho. Still, the Yankee Fork discoveries created little excitement and only modest placer mining took place in the area from 1871 to 1874.
In 1875, a lode deposit was discovered which was the likely source of the Jordan Creek placer deposits. One 2-to-3-inch-wide seam within a gold-quartz vein from this property yielded $11,500 by hand-mortar separation methods in a single month. From 1876 to 1879, the mine produced approximately $133,000, mostly through hand-mortaring.
Bonanza sprang up in 1877
The town of Bonanza sprang up in 1877 and Custer was founded a year or two later. In the spring of 1879, the gold rush to the Yankee Fork finally began in earnest. By the summer of 1879, the settlement of Bonanza had grown to a population of some 2,000 persons. Gold mining in the Yankee Fork district lasted for some twenty years, and as the more easily mined placer and lode deposits were exhausted, mining activity and population slowly decreased. By 1911, Bonanza and Custer were ghost towns.
Dredging brings revival to the Yankee Fork
During the 1930s, State Senator R. E. Whitten assembled options on a group of inactive placer claims along the Yankee Fork. These claims covered a strip of river bottom approximately five miles long. In 1932, the Yankee Fork Placer Mining Company acquired these options, brought in a small dredge and began mining. The operations ceased before there was any significant production because of unexpectedly large boulders and the tightly cemented gravels in the Yankee Fork riverbed.
A few years later, in 1939, the Silas Mason Company began a program of systematic rotary drilling on 100-foot centers to test the dredging potential of the Yankee Fork. Successful drilling results led to the formation of the Snake River Mining Company. Early in 1940, a contract was signed with the Bucyrus-Erie Company to construct the Yankee Fork dredge. Assembly of the dredge took place in the Yankee Fork valley near the present-day Polecamp Flat Campground. The assembly of the dredge was completed in just under four months during the summer of 1940. Dredge operations began in late August 1940 and continued until October 12, 1942, when production was halted by the War Production Board Act that regulated nonessential mining activities during World War II.
Dredging began again in 1946
Dredging of the Yankee Fork by the Snake River Mining Company began again in March 1946 and continued until the fall of 1947. During its pre- and post-war operations, the Yankee Fork dredge worked the stream gravels from Polecamp Flat northward to a point just above West Fork Creek, where significantly lower gold values caused the cessation of dredging.
Subsequently, the Warren Mining Company, owned by Fred Baumhoff and J.R. Simplot, bought both the Yankee Fork dredge and the placer claims owned by the Snake River Mining Company. Dredging began again in 1950, and the dredge slowly worked its way northward until it encountered a prominent bedrock bar across the Yankee Fork about a quarter of a mile below Bonanza. A temporary earthen dam was built to the south of the dredge, and the dredge was successfully floated across the bedrock obstacle.
More gold found
High gold values were again found in the gravels on the north side of this bar, and dredging operations continued northward, past Bonanza, to the northern end of the property at the mouth of Jordan Creek. The dredge ceased operation for the last time in 1952, although it ran once more in 1953, when it was returned to its present site on the claims of the Warren Mining Company.
Today the dredge, Custer and Bonanza are the three ghosts of the Yankee Fork.
Source: A History of Gold Mining on the Yankee Fork River, Custer County, Idaho, by George C. Stephens. This report was originally published in Guidebook to the Geology of Central and Southern Idaho: Idaho Geological Survey Bulletin 27, p. 223-226. Reprint 11 April 1991 Idaho Geological Survey University of Idaho Moscow, Idaho 83843
We visited the ghosts of the Yankee Fork several summers ago while RVing with friends. We boondocked in one of the many areas where you can pull off among the huge piles of gravel tailings left from the dredging operation. While Bonanza, Custer and the dredge can all be easily reached via RV, tow vehicle or dinghy, we also planned on visiting some of the remote abandoned mining camps hidden in the surrounding mountains. Therefore, we brought our ATVs and motorcycles with us, offloading them at our campsite. The entire Yankee Fork is off-road friendly, so if this is also one of the passions you enjoy while RVing, be sure to bring your toys with you.
I chose our campsite as it was near a ford where others cross the Yankee Fork to access the west side of the river. Not far on the other side were two old mining cabins I wanted to explore at N44°19.021 W114° 43.211. Our campsite also provided us with a front row seat to the rows and rows of gravel deposited out of the back edge of the dredge as it clawed its way upstream. It leaves one pondering the amount of time and energy that was expended in the search for gold. We enjoyed several days venturing out on our ATVs and motorcycles to visit Bonanza, Custer and the Yankee Fork dredge.
Lots to see in Bonanza today
Today Bonanza features numerous old buildings from the mining glory days. Some are abandoned and some serve as summer homes. There is a forest service group campground behind town for those that want to camp with the ghosts. Just west of the campground is the Bonanza Cemetery, which makes for an interesting stop.
A short jaunt up the road from Bonanza is the Yankee Fork dredge. The dredge is cared for by the Yankee Fork Dredge Association and staffed by volunteers during the summer months. We paid the nominal admission fee and enjoyed touring the dredge at our leisure. From the dredge we explored Jordan Creek to the north where there is a modern mining operation along with ruins of the past hiding in the shadows.
Northeast from the dredge we stopped at the town of Custer, where some restoration has taken place. A variety of buildings are open to the touring public. In Custer there is a small museum, the sometimes-open Empire Saloon, the old schoolhouse, and assorted cabins. We also ventured into the mountains north and south of Custer to explore other ruins left from the mining days.
Ghosts of the Yankee Fork – Getting there
The easiest way to visit the three ghosts of the Yankee Fork is from the small hamlet of Sunbeam, Idaho, at the junction of Hwy 75 and Yankee Fork Road. From the intersection head north on Yankee Fork Road approximately 8 miles to Bonanza which will be on your left. To reach the dredge, continue another half-mile north on Yankee Fork Road. From the dredge head northeast approximately 1.5 miles on Yankee Fork Road to reach Custer.
Note: Bonanza and Custer are part of the Land of the Yankee Fork State Park, which also includes the ghost town of Bayhorse, Idaho, and other points of interest in the area in addition to a great trail system for off-road enthusiasts. Bayhorse was not part of the Yankee Fork Gold Rush and will be covered in a future installment of Ghost Town Trails.
Yankee Fork Dredge tours and visiting hours: Click here for complete information on visiting the Yankee Fork Dredge.
Forest Service Campgrounds
There are four U.S. Forest Service Campgrounds located along Yankee Fork Road between Sunbeam and Bonanza. They are (from south to north):
Many other Forest Service and BLM campgrounds are located along Hwy 75 east and west of Sunbeam.
The closest thing to an RV park in the area is the Valley Creek Lodge & RV Park in Stanley.
Boondocking sites abound on both sides of the Yankee Fork Road as you head towards Bonanza. The site we stayed at was just off the road to the west as you are heading towards Bonanza at N44° 19.126 W114° 43.026 Others can be easily found using Google Earth, as I demonstrate here.
Past installments of Ghost Town Trails you may enjoy:
- Ruby, AZ – Southern Arizona’s ‘best-preserved’ ghost town
- Eureka, Utah – Visit easily accessible old mining town
- Silver City, Utah – Heartbreak and thanksgiving
- Castle Dome City, Arizona – perfect for nearby snowbirds
- Fort Selkirk, Yukon Territory
- Coolidge, MT – ‘Montana’s Mystery Camp‘
- Ballarat, California
- Greenhorn, OR – Oregon’s smallest incorporated city
- Elkhorn, Montana – The cover photo of popular “Ghost Towns of the West” book
- Tunnel Camp, Nevada
- Bonnie Claire, Nevada
- Tumco, California
- Mackay’s Mine Hill, Mackay, Idaho
- Does picturesque Civil War-era Fort Macomb, LA, look familiar?
Nice!! Great info, thanks Dave!