When gold in California began to peter out, miners sought gold in other places, including Colorado, Nevada, Montana … and Idaho. Idaho’s rugged mountains presented a real challenge to prospectors and travelers alike. Still, by 1860, a man named Elias Davidson Pierce asked the Nez Perce natives if he could prospect on their lands. They said no, so in true prospector tradition, Pierce did it anyway.
In early October, Pierce and his team built a mining camp in the north fork of the Clearwater River, and they quickly found gold on Orofino Creek near what would soon become the town of Pierce, the first gold rush town in Idaho. Piece said, “I never saw a party of men so much excited. They made the hills and mountains ring with shouts of joy.”
Idaho Mining History
Here is a look at the history of mining in Idaho, which has shaped the state’s political boundaries, built cities, and supplied the nation with minerals necessary for today’s modern lifestyle:
1860: Ten prospectors led by Captain E.D. Pierce enter the Nez Perce Reservation in search of gold. After a month of no luck, one of the men, Wilbur Bassett, strikes gold along Canal Gulch. This discovery sets off one of the largest migrations in American history.
Within 6 months: Prospectors from all over the west stake another 1,600 claims in Canal Gulch. They come by way of the Columbia and Snake Rivers, making Idaho one of only two states settled from west to east.
1862: Ten thousand miners pour into the Florence Basin, and the district is producing more than $600,000 worth of gold a day based on modern prices.
1862: Prospectors discover the most significant gold mining district in Idaho - the Boise Basin.
1863: Idaho City’s population is 6,200, surpassing Portland as the largest city in the Northwest. Latecomers, finding all the good ground taken, fan out in all directions. One party finds gold along Jordan Creek in the Owyhee Mountains. There, Silver City becomes a boomtown.
1863: Creation of the Idaho Territory, and the tent city of Lewiston became the capital.
1863: Boise City is founded as a supply center for the Boise and Owyhee mining districts.
1865: Boise becomes the territorial capital.
1881: Andrew Prichard strikes gold along the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River creating a northward migration of miners. Fueling the rush is the Northern Pacific Railroad, which promises free gold in North Idaho for the price of a ticket on the railroad.
1882: 180,000 bushels of charcoal are produced in primitive kilns to operate the smelters.
1885: Noah Kellogg locates the Bunker Hill Mine in the Coeur d’Alene area and finds silver.
1887: A narrow gauge railroad from the mines to the old mission at Cataldo is completed. Paddle wheel riverboats take the ore from Mission Landing downstream, across Lake Coeur d’Alene to the railhead at Rathdrum, making the Coeur d’Alene River the highest navigable river in the world.
1890: The town of Burke gains worldwide attention in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” as the town so narrow that merchants closed storefront awnings for trains to pass. The Tiger Hotel straddled the tracks, and lodgers are smoked out of their rooms when wood-burning locomotives passed underneath.
1903: Phosphate discovered in Idaho.
1908: Waterloo Mine is state's first phosphate mine (underground mine).
1940: Bennington Canyon Mine is state's first phosphate surface mine.
1946: J.R. Simplot develops the Gay Mine on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation.
1968: Last underground phosphate mine closes in Idaho.
1985: Coeur d’Alene mining district produces their one billionth ounce of silver. The district has also produced vast amounts of lead, zinc, and copper. Other notable mines in the Silver Valley include the Morning Star, one of the deepest mines in America; Bunker Hill, America's largest underground mine; and the Sunshine Mine, which has produced more than 300 million ounces of silver.
1990: J.R. Simplot Company opens Smoky Canyon.
1990: FMC assumes control of the Gay Mine.
1993: Production at the Gay Mine ceases and reclamation begins.
2008: Three phosphate mines (Dry Valley, Smoky Canyon, Rasmussen Ridge) operate in Idaho.
Idaho's nickname is the "Gem State", because nearly every known type of gemstone has been found here. In addition, Idaho is one of only two places in the world where star garnets can be found in any significant quantities, the other being India.