AIC Shines Its Spotlight on Challis
Wednesday, July 6, 2016
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
Aerial view of the City of Challis
Challis is located on the western edge of the fertile 30-square-mile Round Valley. The Salmon River flows about a mile east of the city as it passes through irrigated farm and ranch land, sagebrush covered foothills and Black Cottonwood forests lining the riverbank. Garden Creek flows through the historic center of Challis as it makes its way to the Salmon River. Sun Valley is 14 miles due south; however, traveling on paved highways, it is 60 miles away.
The city is in the Challis National Forest in one of the most sparsely populated parts of Idaho and near some of the most rugged and scenic parts of the state. The 12,662-foot Borah Peak, Idaho’s highest mountain, is 30 miles southeast. The 11,820-foot Castle Peak of the White Cloud Mountains is 30 miles south. The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area begins a few miles west of the city.
Challis is the Custer County seat. Federal agencies manage 93 percent of the county’s 3.2 million acres. The diversity of the terrain is striking. Some high mountains are shafts of bare rock jutting into the sky. Lower elevations grow native plants including pine, juniper, sagebrush and a variety of grasses and woody and flowering plants.
The valley, mountains, rivers and streams are home to many species of wildlife including mule deer, white tail deer, elk, bighorn sheep, hawks, bald eagles, osprey, migratory waterfowl, trout and migratory steelhead and salmon. Wildlife watching is an everyday activity in Challis.
Mining and ranching were Challis’ first industries and continue to influence the life and character of the city and its residents.
The first non-Indians to enter Round Valley came in 1822 when Michael Bourdon, a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trapper, led a party into the valley to trap beaver.
In 1824 Alexander Ross led a party of 144 men, women and children through the area.
In 1830 John Work entered Round Valley trapping beaver and hunting buffalo. He wrote that "Banack Snake" Indians had recently camped in the valley and that buffalo had grazed the grass short.
In the early 1870s prospectors discovered placer gold in the Yankee Fork River. A gold rush ensued with numerous mining claims filed throughout the region.
One of these claims belonged to three prospectors working the Yankee Fork. In 1876 they discovered a major gold ore body. They named their find the General Custer Mine after General George Custer who had died two months earlier in the Battle of the Little Big Horn in Montana. In 1881 the Idaho Legislature created Custer County. They chose to name the county Custer because of the General Custer Mine and the prospering mining community of the same name.
After working their claim, the three prospectors concluded that they would not or could not develop the mine by themselves. They sold their mine to an English firm named Hagen and Grayson (H&G). In 1878 H&G developed the town of Bonanza near the mine site and an ore-processing mill and town north of the mine that they called Custer. By 1911 the mines played out and Custer and Bonanza became ghost towns.
The mine owners needed large quantities of supplies and heavy mining equipment to develop the mines and support the miners. Alex Toponce, a freighter and entrepreneur, obtained a charter from the Idaho Legislature to build a toll road between Challis and Bonanza. He completed his toll road in 1879. In 1933 as part of the federal effort to put people to work during the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) reconstructed the old toll road.
Most freight came to the mines from Corrine, Utah, over a wagon trail to the Montana gold fields known as the Gold Road. At Blackfoot, freighters turned north off the Gold Road to what is now the city of Challis.
In 1869 railroad interests completed the transcontinental railroad at Promontory, Utah.
A decade later, the Utah and Northern Railroad Company began building a railroad line that generally paralleled the Gold Road. In 1878 the railroad reached Blackfoot, which greatly speeded travel time to Challis. From Blackfoot, supplies and passengers to Challis and the mines still came on mule and horse-drawn freight wagons and stagecoaches.
The 1870s was a hectic period. Homesteaders came into Round Valley to raise cattle and crops for sale to the miners. Freighters brought their goods to a trailhead staging station where they prepared their loads for crossing the mountains into the land of the Yankee Fork.
In 1876 Alvah P. Challis and his associates saw a need to build a community that could serve the freighters, miners and homesteaders. They laid out a townsite and named it Challis. In 1881 Richard H. Browne prepared the formal plat for the town.
By 1880 the population of Challis exceeded 600 and had several buildings including three hotels and four saloons. The next year when the Legislature created Custer County, the county voters elected Challis as the county seat.
The economy remained strong for over a decade; however, after that the mines began to play out and employee layoffs ensued. In 1894 fire destroyed much of the Challis business district. Owners rebuilt many of the buildings but the decline in the mining industry was taking its toll on the community. By1900 Challis’s population had fallen to 398.
In 1907 Congress created the Challis National Forest and made its headquarters in Challis. Today the Salmon-Challis National Forest headquarters are in Salmon. Challis is currently the headquarters to the Middle Fork Ranger District, one of six ranger districts in the national forest.
This event proved helpful to the city’s economy as the Forest Service hired local men and women to help build roads, ranger stations and campgrounds and control forest fires.
On October 16, 1907, Challis became an incorporated city.
Mining and Ranching to Tourism
The discovery of gold on the Yankee Fork River in the early 1870s and Challis’s strategic location as a transportation center were the primary factors that led to the city’s founding.
Since its founding, the city’s economic stability has experienced dramatic swings that parallel the boom and bust cycles of the area’s mining communities. The decline in mine production at the Bonanza, Custer and Bayhorse Mines during the late 1800s and early 1900s was a major economic blow to Challis. The city’s economy avoided collapse because of the economic strength of the cattle ranching, tourism and outdoor recreation industries.
Subsequent mining discoveries have also produced boom and bust turning points. For example, in 1967 prospectors discovered a large ore body of molybdenum—a hardening agent used in the production of steel—near Clayton, about 20 miles south of Challis. Mine production began in 1983, and the mine soon reached a peak employment of 400. Many of these families moved into new residential subdivisions built in Challis. However, by 2001 molybdenum prices had collapsed and the mine personnel had declined to just 20 employees. Many of their new Challis homes were sold and trucked to other towns.
While mining and cattle ranching were the city’s economic drivers of the past, businesses catering to tourism and outdoor sports and recreation are taking the economic lead in the city today.
Most of the people who now use the land in this beautiful region come for relatively brief periods to camp, hike, hunt, fish, ski, ride snowmobiles or ATVs and re-live the region’s rich history. As a result, an entire body of businesses has started to promote and serve this growing market.
Amenities and Attractions Today
The 10-acre Challis Centennial Park lies adjacent to the high school. The park has a pavilion, picnic facilities, playground, amphitheater, tennis courts and ball fields. The city also has a nine-hole golf course.
Challis’s cultural venues include the North Custer Historical Society Museum, Land of the Yankee Fork Interpretive Center, Mad Dog Art Gallery and events sponsored by the Challis Arts Council. Many of Challis’ historic log buildings survive in the downtown business and residential district. Challis has 23 historic buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Two miles south of town at the junction of State Highway 75 and U.S. Highway 93 is the interpretative center of the Land of the Yankee Fork State Park. The interpretative enter has historic exhibits of the mining history of the region, a gold panning station and audiovisual programs.
The interpretative center in located on a 21-acre site that includes campgrounds and the Challis Bison Jump—a location where mounted American Indians chased unsuspecting herds of Bison off a 59-foot cliff to be slaughtered for food, pelts and tools.
The Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, the Salmon-Challis National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management manage the greater park area that lies within a 90-mile loop called the Custer Motorway scenic drive.
The loop extends 46 miles southwest over a former toll road built in 1879 to the mining ghost towns of Custer and Bonanza. This section of the loop crosses over an 8,800-foot-high pass and has many sections that are unimproved and unsuitable for low-clearance vehicles and trailers. The loop then continues south past the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge to Sunbeam on State Highway 75, past the mining town of Clayton, and then returns north to Challis.
Today the U.S. Forest Service and Friends of Custer Society have restored many of the old buildings still standing at Custer and the few buildings left in Bonanza. Fires swept through Bonanza in the late 1800s and destroyed most of that town’s buildings. Both guided and self-guided tours are available in Custer.
The Yankee Fork Gold Dredge is located on the Yankee Fork River, two miles south of Bonanza. Beginning in 1940 this 112-foot-long by 54-foot-wide and 64-foot-high dredge dug temporary dams on the river on which it floated, removing eight-yard buckets of gravel at a time as it moved across the valley floor digging and washing the gold from the gravels. By 1952 after producing about $1.1 million of gold and silver, an amount slightly under the cost of production, the dredge shut down. The owner then donated the dredge to the U.S. Forest Service leaving behind over five miles of dredge tailing mounds.
Annual events in Challis include the Lilac Festival, the Steelheader’s Ball, Challis Rodeo, the Choral Rendezvous and the Braun Brother’s Reunion outdoor concert.
Challis Hot Springs, located five miles north of the city, is a camping resort with an outdoor geothermal mineral water swimming pool with camping and RV hook-up facilities near the Salmon River.
Downhill and cross-country skiing are available at the nearby Chipmunk Ski Hill—a single surface lift facility.
In addition, the area around Challis has hundreds of miles of dirt roads and trails. In the summer anglers fish for steelhead trout and salmon in the Salmon River and its tributaries. Many others hike into one of the high-mountain lakes, such as Bayhorse and Buster. Other activities include camping, hiking, hunting, riding snowmobiles or ATVs and floating the Salmon River.