By Kent Friel, Regional History Summer Intern
As autumn arrives in the Wood River Valley, the trees begin to take on shades of gold, while the valley’s silver, or what remains of it, will be hidden from view far below ground.
One could note more than a hint of irony in this arrangement, for although golden aspens draw sightseers today, it was precious silver ore that brought year-round settlement to the Wood River Valley over a century ago.
During the 1880s, between 20 and 30 mines operated in the Wood River Region, and from mining camps were born the towns of Bellevue, Hailey, and Ketchum. By the time silver prices crashed in 1893, however, most of those early mines were on the verge of closure, their ore veins having neared the point of exhaustion. Nonetheless, even as communities pivoted away from mining, the drive to extract precious metals continued to reach further into the mountains and valleys surrounding the Wood River, extending well into the twentieth century.
Southeast of Ketchum, for example, lies Triumph Gulch, where a mine which operated until the 1980s produced over $20 million dollars in silver, zinc, and lead, more than the combined total of all other mines in the Wood River Region. As the mines shuttered in the Wood River Valley, production continued in Triumph, where mining extended 1.5 miles into the mountainside.
Ore was processed in mills such as the North Star Stamp Mill, pictured above in 1917, and at the mine’s height nearly two hundred men labored around the clock. In the decades following World War II, during which the mine reached its peak output, mining sputtered but continued sporadically until 1985.
Today, although physical evidence of the mine has mostly disappeared, the past continues to linger on here and there. Late on an October day, perhaps, one could look east toward the sun-dappled hillside and listen for the faint echo of a mine at work, caught up in the heart of the mountain itself.