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News & Press: Community Spotlights

AIC Shines Its Community Spotlight on Clayton

Friday, January 12, 2018  
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
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Aerial view of Clayton. Courtesy of Clayton Historical Association & Museum.

Clayton is a historic silver-lead ore-smelting town located in the Salmon-Challis National Forest. The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area begins a few miles north of the city. The 11,820-foot-high Castle Peak of the White Cloud Mountains is about 20 miles south.

The city consists of about two dozen homes and a bar set on a relatively flat bench of land near the mouth of Kinnikinnic Creek as it flows into the Salmon River. Kinnikinnic is the name of a mixture of leaves and bark, sometimes mixed with tobacco, first used by American Indians for smoking. Challis is located 25 miles north and Ketchum is 95 miles south.

Historic Tidbits

In the early 1870s prospectors discovered placer gold about 20 miles due west of what is now Clayton on the Yankee Fork River. A gold rush ensued with numerous mining claims filed throughout the region.

In the late 1870s prospectors discovered numerous deposits of silver-lead ore up Kinnikinnic Creek in the mountains of the Bayhorse Mining District. However, they had no means to process the ore and extract the metals.

In 1879 J.E. Clayton and a group of Omaha investors formed the Idaho Mining and Smelting Company (IMS&C) and began plans to build a mill, smelter and general store at a townsite they named after Clayton. The company bridged the East Fork of the Salmon River and built a road east to the north-south wagon road used by freighters bringing supplies from the rail depot at Blackfoot to Challis.

The July 17, 1880, issue of Yankee Fork Herald reported conditions at that time, "…we reached the mouth of Kinnikinnic [creek], distant from Bonanza [gold mining town on the Yankee Fork River] 30 miles. Here we found a streak of business. Everything was bustle and stir.…Men were coming on every trail to get employment or to locate. Wages were $2.50 (a day) with board and $3.50 without. A town will be built fast as materials can be had.…The company [IMS&C] will have a road completed to East Fork in time for the machinery....All the idle men in Challis have been put to work at East Fork [road and bridge] and Kinnikinnic and fifty more were needed at last account."

On September 15, 1880, the mill started operations with a capacity of processing 30 tons of ore per day. Freighters hauled the ore from the mines in the mountains to the smelter on heavy wagons. For the first two years the smelter ran on coke shipped in from Pennsylvania. Subsequently, the company employed 48 men to harvest timber and produce 180 tons of charcoal annually to feed the smelter furnaces.

The mill closed during the winter because of the heavy snows. Clayton’s population fluctuated with the annual opening and closing of the mill. Those who remained in town purchased their supplies from the IMS&C store.

Clayton was first incorporated as a village, and then on September 26, 1960, Clayton became an incorporated city.

A Mining Legacy

Clayton is located at the confluence of Kinnikinnic Creek and the Salmon River and was founded by the IMS&C around 1879 as the site for its silver-lead ore smelter and company store. The town’s mining-based economy has endured decades of boom and bust business cycles.

In 1910 the IMS&C store closed and other stores opened. In 1921 a group of investors leased and refurbished the old company store including the addition of hardwood floors and a stage to make it suitable for a dance hall and school functions.

In the early 1920s as a means to secure a captive source of lead for manufacturing of auto batteries, Ford Motor Company began acquiring silver-lead mining claims throughout the Bayhorse Mining District. They built homes in Clayton for some of their mine employees. By 1926 Ford had acquired all of the IMS&C holdings, including the smelter and store.

A few years later, Ford closed the smelter and shipped its concentrated ore to a more efficient smelter in Tooele, Utah. During the 1930s Ford dismantled the smelter and sold metal for scrap. Around 1946 Ford sold the mine to H.F. Magnuson Company. The old company store remained open and served as the post office until 1950. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is now home to the city’s museum.

In 1967 prospectors discovered a large ore body of molybdenum, a hardening agent used in the production of steel, on Thompson Creek about six miles west of Clayton. However, mine production did not begin until 1983 and soon reached a peak employment of 400. While many of the mineworker families lived in new residential subdivisions in Challis, the mine had a significant positive effect on Clayton’s economy until 2001, when molybdenum prices reached a low point and mine operations largely ceased. However, by the end of the decade prices improved and mine operations resumed.

Amenities and Attractions Today

The Clayton Museum is located in the old company store and is operated by the Clayton Area Historical Association. In 2008 the museum received the Preservation Society of Idaho’s Orchid Award.

Clayton’s most prominent attraction is its setting near areas of exceptional natural beauty. There are hundreds of miles of dirt roads and trails near the city. In the fall and spring, anglers come to the Salmon River to fish for steelhead trout. Salmon and trout season is in the summer. Whitefish are in season year round. Many outdoor enthusiasts hike in to one of the high-mountain lakes. Other activities include camping, hiking, hunting, riding snowmobiles or ATVs and floating the Salmon River.

Today, the U.S. Forest Service and Friends of Custer have restored many of the old buildings at the mining ghost town of Custer located up Yankee Fork River about 28 miles northwest of Clayton. Both guided and self-guided tours are available. The EPA has also given the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation (IDPR) a Brownfield Cleanup Grant for the historic Bayhorse Mining District. IDPR will clean up hazardous substances and create a 574-acre interpretative historic state park.

Also on the Yankee Fork is the Gold Dredge. Beginning in 1940 this 112-foot-long by 54-foot-wide and 64-foot-high dredge dug temporary dams on the river to create a reservoir upon 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, an amount slightly under the cost of production, the dredge shut down. The then current owner donated the dredge to the U.S. Forest Service, leaving behind over five miles of dredge tailing mounds.

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