AIC Shines Its Community Spotlight on McCammon
Friday, March 11, 2016
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
McCammon is a historic railroad town located at the upper end of Marsh Valley. The Caribou-Targhee National Forest borders the city on the east and west. Immediately east of the city, across the Portneuf River, is the Portneuf Mountain Range. A few miles across the valley to the west is the Bannock Range.
Pocatello is 17 miles northwest, and Lava Hot Springs is 12 miles east.
Until around 1810 when the first European and American explorers/trappers came into the region, American Indians—primarily of the Shoshone and Bannock Tribes—hunted and fished in the Marsh Valley area.
From 1825 to 1826 Peter Skeen Ogden led a beaver trapping expedition along the Snake River and its tributaries. Indians killed one of the trappers, a French-Canadian named Portneuf. The river, valley and mountain range now bear his name.
In 1834 the British Hudson’s Bay Company established its Fort Hall trading post near what is now Pocatello.
In 1841 the first immigrants to Oregon’s Willamette Valley passed through Idaho. They and many that followed stopped to rest and resupply at Fort Hall.
In 1843 Captain John C. Fremont, a topographical engineer, led a surveying expedition that mapped much of the West. Oregon Trail immigrants used Fremont’s maps in establishing the Oregon Trail and evaluating certain cutoffs from the main trail.
In 1849 a party of 250 immigrants led by Benoni M. Hudspeth, a former member of Fremont’s expedition, blazed a shortcut off the Oregon Trail to connect with the California Trail at the City of Rocks, located 15 miles southeast of what are now Oakley, the City of Rocks National Reserve and Idaho’s Castle Rocks State Park.
Rather than proceeding north on the main trail from Soda Springs to Fort Hall, Hudspeth led his party southwest through what is now Lava Hot Springs, skirted the south side of what is now McCammon and continued southwest to the City of Rocks. Hudspeth’s Cutoff shaved 25 miles off the northern route and gave travelers an opportunity to bathe and relax at the hot springs. Soon, most immigrants traveling overland to California were using the Hudspeth Cutoff.
In 1863 prospectors discovered placer gold in what is now western Montana, then part of Idaho Territory. To accommodate the stagecoach and freight wagon traffic coming from northern Utah to the Montana gold fields, the Idaho Legislature approved private construction of a toll road and set the toll rates on a road then called the "Idaho Gold Road." The road was essentially a dirt path with major obstructions removed or filled to make it passable.
The road generally paralleled what is now I-15 to Idaho Falls where it turned north, crossing the Continental Divide at Monida Pass then on to the Montana boomtowns of Virginia City, Butte and Garrison, a distance of 466 miles between Ogden, Utah, and Garrison.
Hauling freight to the Montana gold mines was often more profitable than prospecting. Freighters sold food and goods delivered to the minefields for several times their original cost.
Ben Holladay opened a stagecoach service in 1864 with stagecoach stations spaced about a day’s journey apart to provide passengers and freight wagon crews with a safe place to get food and rest for the night.
The faster moving stagecoaches hauled passengers and mail. The ponderous freight wagons were about 16 feet long; 14 feet tall, including the low canvas covering; and about four feet wide. The heavy wooden spoke wheels that stood up to seven feet tall in back had a half-inch thick and four-inch wide iron band around their perimeters. Two or more of these freight wagons were often connected one behind the other.
From 14 to 24 mules pulled the heavy wagons whose pull-weight was generally equivalent to the aggregate weight of the mules—origin of the axiom "pull your own weight." Replicas of these wagons are featured at the "Wagon Days Festival" held each Labor Day in Ketchum.
One freighter, "Fast Freight Bill," hauled salt from Corrine, Utah, to Virginia City, Montana. When he passed through the valley, he sold saltlicks—blocks of salt—to the ranchers for their livestock.
In 1864 William Murphy built a toll bridge across the Portneuf River at what is now McCammon—then called Port Neuf—and, later, bought the rights to the toll road on which the stagecoaches and wagons ran. In 1870 Murphy was involved in a brawl outside a bar in Malad and was shot and killed. After his death, Murphy’s wife, Catherine, married Murphy’s manager, Henry O. Harkness.
In 1868 the Shoshone Bannock Indians signed the Fort Bridger Treaty. The agreement created the then 1.8 million-acre Fort Hall Indian Reservation. Under the terms of the treaty, the Shoshone-Bannock agreed to live on the reservation, and the U.S. Government agreed to provide food and supplies to supplement their loss of food sources.
The U.S. Government failed to keep its part of the agreement by not providing food and supplies. The hungry Indians returned to their historic fall Camas root gathering grounds on the Camas Prairie near what is now Fairfield. They harvested and stored the Camas roots for winter food—generally prepared by crushing them and making a cake that they baked. However, when they arrived, they found settlers living on the Prairie. Many of the settlers had hogs, which fed on the Camas roots, digging them from the ground with their snouts.
The desperate Indians were incensed, and in 1878 about 200 warriors left the reservation, killing settlers, destroying property and taking provisions. The U.S. Army persued the breakaway Indians into Oregon and back to Idaho in a series of running skirmishes termed the Bannock War. Following the war, the defeated Shoshone-Bannock Indians ceded the southern part of the reservation, including McCammon, to the federal government.
Following business failures and mergers of predecessor railroads, the successor railroad—the Utah and Northern Railroad Company (UNR), owned primarily by certain principals of the Union Pacific Railroad—built a narrow-gauge rail line from Franklin, Idaho. The line, completed in 1878, generally paralleled the Gold Road. However, UNR had to bypass Port Neuf—now McCammon—because railroad officials could not make a deal with Harkness for needed land.
The narrow gauge railroad—3 feet wide—made the long-haul stagecoach and freight wagon business to the gold fields obsolete. However, the narrow gauge railroad also became obsolete a few years later when standard gauge railroad tracks—4 feet 8 ½ inches—became required by law for new construction.
In 1881 the Oregon Short Line Railroad (OSL) began construction of a standard-gauge rail line that began at Granger, Wyoming; angled in a northwesterly direction through Pocatello, Shoshone and Nampa; and connected with the rail line in Huntington, Oregon. The rail line—completed November 17, 1884—provided the necessary link to connect the commerce centers of Omaha, Nebraska, with Portland, Oregon.
In 1882 the OSL built a standard gauge rail line from Pocatello to Port Neuf. This line laid new rail bed, shortening the old route and establishing a depot at Port Neuf, which they renamed McCammon after J.H. McCammon, a railroad official.
On January 15, 1908, McCammon became an incorporated village. In 1910 the U.S. Census reported a population of 321.
Danger on the Gold Road
In 1865 a deadly stage hold up occurred on the Gold Road about seven miles north of what is now McCammon. Four thieves held up the Ben Holladay Overland Stage. When the stage stopped at a line of boulders placed across the road by the thieves, the bandits shot and killed the stagecoach’s two lead horses to prevent escape. The robbery turned more deadly when one of the thieves panicked, firing several shots through the stagecoach. He killed four of the passengers and wounded another, the stage driver and a passenger escaped by fleeing into the nearby brush and trees. The bandits, who the survivors recognized, got away with over two strongboxes of gold valued then at $86,000.
Vigilantes later captured and executed three of the felons but did not recover the gold. Robbers Roost Creek is located in a canyon five miles north of McCammon—a testament to the early dangers of traveling the Gold Road.
Amenities and Attractions Today
Lava Hot Springs Resort, located 11 miles east in the city of Lava Hot Springs, is a historic hot springs frequented by Native Americans and Oregon Trail pioneers. Today, it is a year-round destination resort community built around artesian flows of odor-free, 102 to 140 degree Fahrenheit geothermal mineral water. Each day over three million gallons of water bubble up in the 178-acre state-owned resort complex before flowing into the Portneuf River. The Lava Hot Springs Foundation of the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation manages the complex, which includes an Olympic-size swimming pool, water slides, hot baths and smaller pools. Privately owned hospitality and other businesses are located nearby.
The nearby national forest and public lands offer a wide variety of outdoor recreation including hunting, fishing, camping, ATV riding in the summer and snowmobiling in the winter. Downhill skiing is available 10 miles north at Pebble Creek Ski Resort at the 9,271-foot-high Mount Bonneville.
Perhaps the most significant amenity enjoyed by McCammon residents is living in a quiet rural environment while being within a half hour drive from the regional commerce center of Pocatello with its shopping malls, hospital, airport and Idaho State University.