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News & Press: Community Spotlights

AIC Shines Its Community Spotlight on Ketchum

Friday, July 14, 2017  
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
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Trailing of the Sheep Festival. Sheep parade through Ketchum, 2014. Courtesy of trailing of the sheep.org. Photo Credit: Carol Waller.

Ketchum lies in the Sawtooth National Forest at the base of the beautiful and imposing 9,150-foot-high Mount Baldy. With its 3,400-foot vertical drop ski runs, Baldy is the principal attraction of the famed Sun Valley Ski Resort, located a mile northeast in the city of Sun Valley.

The Big Wood River flows through the city. The headwaters of the river are 15 miles north in the Boulder Mountains of the rugged 756,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA). The city of Hailey is 12 miles south.

Historical Tidbits

The Wood River Valley is a historic summer encampment site of nomadic American Indians—principally of the Shoshone and Bannock Tribes. They had exclusive use of the valley until trappers/explorers came into the area to trap beaver and trade in the early 1800s.

The area was largely devoid of white settlers until prospectors discovered gold in the Boise Basin in the mountains 80 miles west in 1862. The ensuing gold rush attracted 16,000 prospectors and fortune seekers who spread out for hundreds of miles scouring the mountains and streams in search of gold.

In 1864 a prospector named Warren Callahan passed through the valley en route to the gold fields in what is now Montana. Callahan discovered deposits of galena, silver-lead ore. However, he had no means of processing the ore and the risk of hostilities with the Indians was high, so Callahan moved on.

By 1879 circumstances had changed. The U.S. Army had compelled the Shoshone and Bannock Tribes to live on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation, technology for processing lead-silver ore had improved and expectations were high that rail service was coming to the area.

With those changed conditions, large numbers of prospectors and settlers began pouring into the Wood River Valley. They found galena deposits lying in veins up to two feet thick. The veins contained 40 to 60 percent lead and up to 100 ounces of silver per ton. In 1880 lead sold for $.05 a pound and silver for $1.50 an ounce.

One of these fortune seekers was David Ketchum. He built the first house in what is now Ketchum. Others followed and a new town named Leadville soon emerged. In 1880 community leaders unsuccessfully applied for a new post office with the name of Leadville—the name Leadville was already in use. However, postal authorities quickly approved the resubmitted application naming the post office Ketchum, in honor of the town’s first settler.

By the end of 1880 prospectors had filed approximately 2,000 mining claims in the Wood River Mining District. Boomtowns soon dotted the valley and surrounding mountains. However, they all eventually become ghost towns except for Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue.

Smelting was a critical process in extracting the silver and lead from the ore. In 1880 the closest smelters were in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Denver, Colorado.

In order to get the ore to the smelters, freight companies loaded the ore on wagons 16 feet long, 14 feet tall to the top of the canvas covering and four feet wide. The heavy wooden spoke wheels had a half-inch thick and four-inch wide iron band around each wheel. 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."

Freighters moved the ore 170 miles to the railhead at Kelton, Utah. The ore was then loaded on railcars and shipped to the smelters. The freighters then loaded the wagon with food and supplies for the two-week trip back to the Wood River Valley.

In 1881 the Oregon Short Line (OSL) Railroad began construction of a rail line between Granger, Wyoming, and Huntington, Oregon. The line—completed November 17, 1884—angled in a northwesterly direction through what are now Pocatello, Soda Springs, Caldwell and Weiser before crossing the Snake River one final time near Huntington. The railroad connected the commercial centers of Omaha, Nebraska, and Portland, Oregon, and created another transcontinental railroad. Railroad interests completed the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 at Promontory Summit in northern Utah.

In 1882 the Philadelphia Mining and Smelting Company began the region’s largest smelter operations on a high bluff on the west side of Ketchum. The site included construction of a hydroelectric power plant on the Wood River producing the first electric lights in Idaho.

As smelters in the Wood River Valley came on line, the use of freight wagons to Kelton stopped. However, mine owners still used the wagons for hauling ore from mines as far away as Challis.

In February 1883 the main OSL railroad track reached Shoshone. There they suspended work long enough to build a branch line to Ketchum. OSL then resumed construction of its main line to Huntington.

Telegraph service came to the Wood River Valley with the railroad. In 1883 community entrepreneurs also built a telephone system connecting the towns in the Wood River Valley.

In 1893 a major economic depression and financial panic struck. The market prices for silver and lead declined precipitously. By 1894 the price of silver had dropped 60 percent and lead 40 percent. Mine owners sought to reduce wages, labor conflicts ensued, albeit much less violent than that experienced in the Silver Valley. Many of the mines shut down, and communities become ghost towns. However, when prices improved, certain mines resumed production. For example, the Triumph Mine, six miles due southeast of Ketchum, produced until the late 1950s. The Minnie Moore Mine near Bellevue was productive until 1970.

In 1895 the Legislature created Blaine County with Hailey as the county seat.

On February 10, 1947, Ketchum became an incorporated village.

Trailing of the Sheep

Concurrent with the discovery of ore deposits and development of the mines and smelters, sheep owners began the cycle of grazing their sheep on the region’s high brush and grass-covered mountain slopes in the spring and summer, then herding them south to the lower and warmer Snake River Plain pastures for winter lambing and wool-shearing.

As the mining economy declined, the sheep industry continued to grow. By 1890 upwards of a million sheep were trailing through the valley each year.

As a result, the railroad shifted its primary emphasis from mining to providing the critical service of transporting sheep to their winter and summer ranges and fat lambs and wool to market.

Now each October, the annual three-day "Trailing of the Sheep Festival" is held. The last major event of the Festival is driving a herd of over a thousand head of sheep down Ketchum’s main street. This historic annual event commemorates the time when sheepherders moved their livestock from the summer pastures in the mountains to the warmer winter pastures on the Snake River Plain.

Amenities and Attractions Today

The city has 10 parks.

Ketchum’s close proximity to the Sun Valley Resort and the Mt. Baldy downhill ski area that overlooks the city is perhaps its most prominent amenity. In addition to numerous ski runs, the mountain has 13 chairlifts—seven of which are high-speed quads—and three handsome day lodges. The resort offers year-round sporting activities as well as an open-air concert pavilion that can accommodate up to 4,000 patrons. There are two 18-hole golf courses nearby—one in Sun Valley and another at Elkhorn. There is also a 9-hole course at the Sun Valley Resort.

Each Labor Day weekend, the cities of Ketchum and Sun Valley host the historic "Wagon Days" celebration commemorating the bygone mining days when huge freight wagons carried ore to the smelters and supplies to the miners. The main event of the celebration is the "Big Hitch Parade," the largest non-motorized parade in the West. Parade entries feature a string of authentic freight wagons pulled by a 20-draft mule team jerkline with museum-quality buggies, carriages, tacks, carts, buckboards and wagons.

In October, the cities of Ketchum, Hailey and Sun Valley promote the annual three-day "Trailing of the Sheep Festival."

The SNRA has the rugged Sawtooth Mountain Range with over 20 peaks rising to between 10,000 and 10,751 feet. At the eastern base of these mountains is Red Fish Lake, the historic destination of spawning red Sockeye Salmon. The SNRA’s pine and aspen forests have over 300 alpine lakes, rivers and streams. Many species of wildlife, including pronghorn antelope, deer, elk, bear and wolves inhabit the area.

There are also excellent alpine and cross-country skiing and snowmobiling trails in the area as well as 30 miles of paved bike trails and extensive mountain bike and hiking trails. Tennis, horseback riding, ice-skating and swimming in natural hot springs are available in the valley,

Many anglers enjoy fly-fishing in the renowned Silver Creek Trout Fly Fishery. The Nature Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve and Visitor’s Center is located about 20 miles south near the unincorporated town of Picabo.


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