Part 4: Historic Custer, Idaho

Part of our two week motorcycle adventure in Idaho (mostly)
September 2016


Introduction and Part 1: Hell's Canyon drive from Oxbow Bridge along the Snake River to the Hell's Canyon dam and then back over Oxbow dam to Cambridge, Idaho, and everything up to Part 2

Part 2: Historic Silver City, Idaho

Part 3: Bruneau Dunes State Park, City of Rocks National Reserve, Sawtooth Scenic Byway, Sun Valley and Ketchum

Thursday, Day 6

We were now in the Salmon-Challis National Forest in Idaho, headed to Sunbeam and the turnoff for historic Custer ghost town. The turnoff for Custer is about 13 miles North of Stanley on state road 75. We passed the historic Sunbeam bathhouse, next to the Salmon river. We didn't stop, but we did slow down, just so I could point out that, mensch, it was stinky! Apparently, there are user-built hot spring pools down by the river that are exposed in Summer and submerged in the river at other times. Then we came to Sunbeam and the sudden turnoff onto Yankee Fork Road in a road curve. It is a HUGE mistake on the part of the state that there is no sign on the highway for Custer. It deserves such. Are you listening, Idaho State Historical Society or Visit Idaho? We never would have known it was there had it not been for meeting that other biker earlier.

on our way to Custer ghost town in Idaho After the turnoff for Custer, there are two or three national forest campgrounds on the way to the historic mining town, and they looked mostly empty. It's just 10 miles from state road 75 to Custer, and while most of it is gravel, it's the easiest gravel you will ever do. The wide, well-packed road is atop the rocks dredged out of and along the Yankee Fork river by gold mining companies and is quite straight. There were a lot of people camping rough just off the road - we guessed the campers we saw, all in large RVs, were hunters and fishermen. We passed a sign for Bonanza City and passed the Historic Yankee Fort Gold Dredge, intending to visit both the next day. It was nearing 5 p.m., and we wanted to get to Custer before then, in case the information office there closed at 5.

We pulled into Custer and I was immediately delighted. It has far fewer buildings than Bodie, California or Silver City, Idaho, but still has lots to see. We parked and walked into the little one-room museum, which used to be the town's school house. It was still open, and the man working the front desk was enthusiastic to answer any questions we might have. We had a look at the items on display. I was pleased to see the Chinese contributions to the area so well acknowledged in the museum.

There was a national forest ranger leaving the Empire Saloon across the street - it's no longer a saloon but, rather, a gift shop and place to buy soft drinks. She confirmed what Brian had told us, that there was a campground beyond the town, Custer #1. "And the bathroom is clean, because I cleaned it this morning!" We pushed on, and the road was a little more complicated, then a little more complicated: not as well packed, narrower, and some elevation changes, but still manageable. We passed the Custer graveyard, intending to visit the next day. Right after the sign for Slaughterhouse Gulch, on a curve, on the left, was the entry for Custer #1 campsite, and it, the road got significantly steeper, so I whipped into the campground, making the complicated left turn on a hill better than I would have if I'd been able to think about it. Turning into an actual camp site proved more complicated, so I stopped on the campsite road and waited for Stefan to pick a site, park, and then come back and park my bike for me. Yeah, I know, some of you are rolling your eyes. You know what? Screw you. Years ago, when I was just getting started with motorcycle travel, a woman motorcyclist in a parking lot in Jordan Valley told me never to be ashamed of asking someone to help me park, get started, etc., because sometimes, some people need help, and that's that. And 30 minutes later, in that very same parking lot, Stefan and I were helping a guy on his way to Alaska put his way-too-over-packed bike upright from the kickstand, because he couldn't do it himself.

Of course, I found out later the campsite road is a loop, and I could have just continued on, turned around, and slipped right into our campsite... and our campsite was, we think, the very same one Brian stayed in the night before - it still had a booking slip on the campsite sign. I thought I smelled smoke, but we didn't see anything. What we did see: bees. They were everywhere. They were all over our motorcycles, and all around us because we were eating - eating some of the delicious homegrown tomatoes we'd brought from home. We had to hang our trash up on a nail (already in a tree!) well away from the picnic table, because the bees just would not go away. I proposed we stay at the campsite two nights, and see all that there was to see in the area, but after studying the maps and what we wanted to do, we realized it wasn't possible. I realized that we were never going to get to stay two nights somewhere, and that was disappointing, because that one day off of riding, of just being in one place and not having to put the tent up and set up camp, is awesome, like a vacation from our vacation.

Bear warning sign It cooled off, the bees disappeared at last, and we realized we were probably going to be alone in the campground that night. We put all food, the trash and my toiletry bag in our panniers, and the big food and fuel bag in the pit toilet, because there was a bears-in-the-area sign on a message board in the campground. I went to bed and Stefan stood outside smoking after nightfall, and he said, "I see three sets of glowing eyes staring at me down by the bathroom." Gulp. He'd heard the critters up on a hill next to the road, and now they were looking back at him - he had a headlamp on. He said all were low to the ground. Coyotes? Racoons? I said, "Talk loudly and tell them to go away. Make a big strong move towards them." He did. They didn't move. Gulp. Then they finally padded off. Yeah, going to the bathroom in the middle of the night that night was a TERRIFIC experience...

Friday, Day 7

We got up super early the next day - to a very smokey landscape. Remember how I smelled smoke the night before? We were nervous - was the fire just on the other side of the hill? We ate breakfast, enjoying more of our delicious homegrown tomatoes, but nervously watching all the high horizons. The forest ranger knew we were there, so if we needed to evacuate, we expected someone would have already been there to tell us to get out. The smoke never got worse, so while we didn't dawdle, we didn't rush.

There was no signs of coyotes or raccoons, that we could find, but a dear or elk definitely came through and checked out the picnic table. We were out of the campsite by 9:30 a.m. Mountain time, the earliest we'd ever pushed off. We stopped at the Custer cemetery. Cemeteries don't make me sad, just introspective. I ponder... it's not a very big cemetery, because most people were buried in Bonanza City. The most interesting grave is Colonel Sprague's. Further down the road is a ranch that seems to have buildings from the Custer era, but we surmised that it was private property, so we didn't trespass. A shame the smoke ruined any chance of getting a good photo of the old mining structure on the side of the a hill on the way down.

Historic mining artifacts We arrived in Custer and weren't the first tourists there for the day, which was a shock. All of the buildings were already open and ready for visitors. There were far more buildings open for tours than I expected. Like Bodie, Custer has lots of items scattered around the site, inside buildings and outside, rusting. Plenty of stoves - always my favorite. Lots of mining equipment, fire fighting equipment, old sewing machines (like this one that looks like the one my great-grandmother, Mama Susie, had), an old bathtub, and on and on. There are also information boards all around, providing some interesting stories about the former residents.

Some of the photos we took have a mystical feel because of the smoke in the air, which we learned was from a fire quite far away.

Custer was founded in early 1879 by gold speculators. Custer's Chinatown, with about thirty residents, was situated right below the lower end of Custer. The town reached its peak population of 600 in 1896. In its heyday, the town boasted a post office, a school, a general store, a boarding house, the Nevada House Hotel, restaurants and saloons. However, it never had a church, something I find amazing. Another park ranger told us that there was a secret speakeasy behind one of the buildings. In a town like this, isn't that a shed with some crates to sit on and a still? By 1910, there were only about 12 families living in Custer, and when the Sunbeam Mine closed in April 1911, Custer quickly became a ghost town. It's been lovingly restored by the Yankee Fork Historical Association, the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation and the Salmon-Challis National Forest.

One of my favorite stories about Custer is about Louise Treloar Short, who grew up in North Carolina from a well-to-do-family. At age 30, unmarried, she traveled to join her brothers who worked in Bayhorse, Idaho. There, she met a man and moved with him to Custer. He left her in poverty, and she lived along in a tiny, one-room stone house on a hill above the city - the remains of the house are still there. Another story is the most famous story from the town, about three little girls killed in an avalanche in their home. The three are buried in the town instead of Bonanza, right behind the school house. There's another story, about a woman married multiple times, who was murdered in the town - the storyboard is in the saloon/gift shop, but I forgot to take a photo of it.

By the way: here's my favorite stove. I love old stoves.

Jayne in the parlor I wasn't dressed appropriately for the parlor in the nicest house in town. And note that, indeed, there is a STOVE in this photo. I think I took photos of six stoves in the town.

It was a terrific visit. Why do I love visiting historic towns in the American West? It's hard to say. Sure, they aren't as old or historic as historic towns in, say, Europe. But there is something about being a little closer to the past history of my country, seeing cans and bottles and tools I saw in my great-grandparents' houses, thinking about the massive changes in human lives in just 100 - 150 years... it  really moves me. I also love the simplicity and practicality in architecture and tools. I like the thought of valuing live music and good food and visits with friends that people had then - and rarely have now. I don't romanticize the lives or the people: they lived hard, most people died young, many were riddled with physical problems their entire lives, and they were as cruel as they were noble. And, yet... it makes me just a little dreamy. 

Where would I put this in the ranks of "ghost towns"/historic mining towns/pre-1900s towns in the USA I've visited? Bodie, Calfornia remains number 1 - there's just SO much to see, its history is oh-so-interesting, and the landscape is incredible. Silver City, Idaho is now in the number 2 spot. Custer, Idaho is tied with Garnet, Montana for me at number 3 - and interesting note, the volunteers we met staffing things in Custer are related to the family that used to own Garnet. If I could explore Nevada City, Montana more, it might move up in the rankings. I think Berlin, Nevada is worth visiting - there's not a great deal there, but there's enough to be interesting, the surroundings give you a real feeling of the loneliness of a Gold Rush miner's life, and the Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park exhibit of Ichthyosaur bones is right next door. Columbia, California is worth visiting, but it's just a bit too touristy for me - though all the restaurants and services and shops and kitsch is just what other tourists are looking for, so, no criticism on that count - and I did enjoy my visit there.

On the way out of Custer, the same way we came in, we stopped at the Historic Yankee Fort Gold Dredge, for photos outside. We'd decided not to stop inside after all. Here's the official web site for the historic dredge. We headed on to Bonanza City, but at the cemetery, the ground turned to powder dirt, something I cannot ride on. I parked and toured the cemetery while Stefan pushed on to see if there was much to see in Bonanza City. If there was, he never found it, just a nice view from the road.

However, we could have left and headed to Challis by going back on the road we took to Custer #1 campground, past the Custer cematery: this is the 46-mile dirt and gravel Custer Motorway that follows the route of the original 1879 toll road that lead to Custer from Challis. You can call the Land of the Yankee Fork Visitor Center for current status of the road (snow, or no?). It is not recommended for low clearance vehicles or trailers. I refused to go on it because the incline just past the campground was SUPER steep, and I couldn't imagine going on a a 46 mile road like that on a fully loaded-down bike, even a KLR, at least not at my skill level.

We headed back out to paved State Road 75, heading to Challis.

More in Part 5:

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