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News & Press: Community Spotlights

AIC Shines Its Community Spotlight on Stanley

Friday, October 12, 2018  
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
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Stanley Post Office

Stanley is situated in one of the most spectacular near pristine regions of Idaho. The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and the Salmon River Mountains lie to the north. To the south and west is the Sawtooth Wilderness. To the southeast is the White Cloud Mountain Range. The nearly 800,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area that encompasses parts of three national forests—Boise, Salmon-Challis and Sawtooth—surrounds the city.

The city lies at the northeast base of the Sawtooth Mountain Range, sometimes referred to as America’s Alps. The range includes over 33 distinctive peaks—the tallest, Thompson Peak, towers over Stanley at 10,751 feet.

There are hundreds of alpine lakes in the mountains surrounding Stanley. Redfish Lake, the most famous, lies five miles south of the city in a picturesque setting near the base of the 10,299-foot-high Mt. Heyburn.

The White Cloud Mountain Range, so named because of its many cream-colored limestone peaks, is about 10 miles southeast of Stanley. Castle Peak, the highest peak in the range, rises to 11,815 feet and is one of the most notable mountain peaks in Idaho.

The Salmon River, the "River of No Return" and longest undammed and free-flowing river in the lower 48 states, flows through Stanley. The river’s headwaters are about 30 miles south of Stanley in the Smoky Mountains and continue 425 miles through wilderness areas and deep canyon gorges before emptying into the Snake River about 50 miles south of Lewiston.

Stanley is about 60 road miles north of Ketchum and Sun Valley and about 130 road miles northeast of Boise. Stanley is renowned to be the coldest city in Idaho and the only city in the nation where three National Scenic Byways intersect.

Historic Tidbits

Beginning in 1810 European trappers/explorers first came into Southern Idaho in search of beaver along the Snake River and its tributaries and to trade with the American Indians.

In 1824 Alexander Ross of the British Hudson’s Bay Company led a party of trappers over Lemhi Pass, trapped the Lemhi and Salmon Rivers and eventually moved over to trap beaver in what is now the Treasure Valley.

Following a skirmish with the Blackfoot Indians in 1831 where he lost several men, John Work, then manager of the Hudson’s Bay operation in the area, retreated to the Salmon River to continue trapping. Finding few beaver, he left the area and never returned.

Prospectors discovered placer gold in the Boise Basin in 1862. The year following, 16,000 fortune hunters flooded the area, starting boomtowns wherever they made significant discoveries and branching out for hundreds of miles from the basin in their search for the precious metal.

John Stanley, for whom the city of Stanley was named, was the oldest member of a party of 23 prospectors who had been working the gold fields of Warren, 50 miles northeast of McCall, and were leaving in search of better prospects in the streams to the southeast.

They worked their way through Bear Valley, Cape Horn and into the Stanley Basin panning for gold. They found gold on two dry gulches, but in order to effectively work the discovery, they would have to bring water from a long distance. Because of Stanley Basin’s remote location from any supplies and concern about armed conflict with Indians that were in the area, they decided to leave.

Thirteen wanted to return to Warren, and the others wanted to go on to the Boise Basin. They divided their provisions and separated. Those working their way back to Warren suffered extreme hardship in the rugged river gorges, losing one man and many horses.

John Stanley and his nine companions headed southwest to Bannock—now Idaho City. They had only traveled 15 miles on an Indian trail when they came upon a band of 60 Indians who quickly dispersed into the trees. The men were fearful that the Indians had dispersed only to have a council of war before attacking them. However, they were relieved when seven of the Indians rode out in plain sight. A young man dismounted, removed his blanket and laid his rifle on the ground, a sign he wanted one of the white men to come unarmed to parley. Frank Coffin, who was accomplished in the Chinook language, was selected to go. After Coffin explained that they were just a band of gold prospectors headed to Boise country, the Indians let them go.

A few years later, Coffin again met the young chief on the Wood River near what is now Bellevue. The chief recognized Coffin who had since grown a moustache and reminded his white friend that he had also changed—he was no longer a papoose chief.

For the next several years small groups of prospectors continued to come into the Stanley Basin looking for gold with limited success. Warren Callahan, a gold prospector on the way to the Montana gold fields, discovered galena outcroppings—lead and silver ore—in the Wood River Valley in 1864. However, at that time, development of hard rock mines in remote areas was problematic. Transportation alternatives and ore refining technology were limited and there were still hostilities with American Indians.

By 1879 circumstances had changed. There was general peace in the area as the military had suppressed incursions by members of the Shoshone and Bannock Tribes the year before. In addition, technology for refining lead-silver ore had improved and expectations were high that the Oregon Short Line would soon be available.

With that news, about 3,000 prospectors converged on the Wood River Valley and the Stanley Basin. In the Wood River Valley, they found numerous deposits of galena ore, often 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 $1.50 an ounce. During this time, prospectors established the mining towns of Bellevue, Hailey and Ketchum.

A few years later, other prospectors found gold and galena in areas they called Seafoam and Greyhound around 30 miles north of Stanley. A like distance to the east, others made major discoveries of gold on the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River, so named by a group of prospectors who called themselves Yankees and who had come and left empty handed over a decade earlier.

Stanley’s location on a thoroughfare to the mines allowed it to become a supply center for many of the prospectors and miners working in these areas and a place where ranchers and farmers could sell their livestock and commodities.

Obtaining food and other supplies to supplement the wild game bagged by the prospectors and miners was problematic. Supplies were shipped long distances by freight wagon or packhorse. The goods were expensive. A mineworker who earned $3 a day had to pay $1.50 a dozen for eggs, $8 and $7, respectively, for a hundred pounds of potatoes and flour. Cats, used to control mice, cost $5 each.

In the spring of 1880 one of the Wood River Valley miners defied the conventional wisdom that asserted that the elevations were too high for farming. He successfully planted a garden of mostly potatoes.

Many settlers filed homestead claims in the Wood River Valley and the Stanley Basin, planting wheat and other crops that grew well in the short growing season to sell to the miners. Cattle and sheep ranchers brought in their herds to graze and sold meat and dairy products. These agricultural businesses became important additions to the Stanley Basin economy, and by 1880 the trail over Galena Summit to Ketchum had become a toll road.

In the late 1880s Arthur and Della McGowan filed a homestead claim in what is now Stanley. They raised cattle, opened a store and butcher shop and began supplying the miners. A few years later, the McGowan’s successfully applied for a post office they named Stanley. In 1919 Bartlett Falls acquired the land and platted the Stanley townsite.

After several years, the panning method of extracting placer gold became unproductive. Confident that there was a lot more gold in the district’s gravels, miners began dredging the previously worked streambeds for placer gold in 1889. The most famous dredge, the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge built in 1940, still stands as an artifact and museum about 30 miles northeast of Stanley, 12 miles north of the hamlet of Sunbeam.

Two major events contributed to Stanley’s June 9, 1947, incorporation as a village. Early that year, the Idaho Legislature passed law governing the sale of liquor by the drink and the licensure of establishments offering those beverages. A provision of the law required businesses selling spirits to be located within incorporated cities or villages.

In that same year, Bill Harrah, the Nevada gaming industry magnate and founder of the Harrah Hotel and Casino complexes, began buying property in Stanley with plans to build hospitality and retail facilities, adding to those already operating in the town. As an incorporated village, Stanley was able to issue licenses to sell liquor by the drink.

Bill Harrah

Bill Harrah’s acquisition of Stanley property increased until his organization owned about half of the city. Bill Harrah’s biographer wrote, "… [He took] up fishing, which took him to Idaho and the Salmon River. He discovered real pleasure in fishing for steelhead, and riding horseback to his favorite fishing hole."

Bill Harrah died in 1978 at age 66. In recent years, the Harrah Trust has sold off most of its Stanley properties. Harrah’s efforts to build Stanley’s hospitality businesses had a major positive effect on the city’s economy. By divesting itself of its properties, Harrah Trust has benefitted the city by allowing today’s entrepreneurs an opportunity to buy property and grow their businesses in Stanley.

Amenities and Attractions Today

Stanley’s Pioneer Park is located seemingly at the base of the majestic Sawtooth Mountains and is available for private reservations. It features a covered picnic shelter; bathrooms; picnic tables; a baseball diamond and bleachers; rustic log soccer goals; children’s playgrounds; and, during the winter, a lighted outdoor ice rink.

Recurring events that draw tourists are the Sawtooth Mountain Mama’s Arts and Crafts Fair, which takes place the 3rd weekend in July; the Sawtooth Music Festival, which takes place the last weekend in July; the Sawtooth Salmon Festival, which is always the end of August, the last weekend, usually; the Stanley Fireman’s Ball in September; fireworks and a parade over the 4th of July; the Sawtooth Ski Festival, the first weekend in March; the Sawtooth Valley Winterfest in February; and the Stanley Sled Dog Rendezvous in March. More information can be found at

The Stanley Museum, operated by the all volunteer Historical Museum and Interpretive Association, is located between Stanley and Lower Stanley at the mouth of Valley Creek. It is open Memorial Day to Labor Day, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Museum features artifacts of the Stanley/Sawtooth Country including history of the U.S. Forest Service and the histories of trapping, mining, ranching and mountaineering in this rugged place. The museum also has an oral history collection and Museum Store that features books, maps and other historical and natural history items for sale.

The nearly five-mile-long Redfish Lake is named for the now endangered sockeye salmon that once returned from the Pacific Ocean in massive numbers. Turning red as they neared their spawning grounds, the shimmering fish near the surface gave the lake a red cast.

The north end of the lake has many developed cabins, campsites, a boat ramp, a lodge and restaurants. The Redfish Lake Lodge sponsors the "Music from Stanley" each Sunday during the summer.

The three National Byways that intersect at Stanley are the Sawtooth, the Ponderosa Pine and the Salmon River. The Sawtooth begins in Shoshone and proceeds north through the cities of the Wood River Valley—Belleview, Hailey and Ketchum—before ending at Stanley. The Ponderosa Pine begins in Boise and passes through Idaho City before ending in Stanley. The Salmon River starts on the Continental Divide at Lost Trail Pass—where Lewis and Clark’s Indian guide lost the trail west to the Pacific Ocean—and passes through the cities of Salmon and Challis before ending at Stanley.

Stanley is a summer Mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Hikers and bikers can enjoy hundreds of miles of backcountry trails and Forest Service roads. Many of the trails are open to ATVs.

In the winter, the extensive trails offer a variety of options for snowshoeing, skiing and snowmobiling. For those who choose to spend time in the snowy mountains, yurts can be rented from the Forest Service.

Anglers come from all over the nation to enjoy outstanding fishing on the numerous rivers and creeks and hundreds of alpine lakes. Others make part of their visit a raft trip down the Salmon River, camping and hiking in the mountains or climbing some of the area’s high mountains.

About 12 road miles east is the unincorporated community of Sunbeam. Proceeding north of Sunbeam on an improved road are the gold mining ghost towns of Custer and Bonanza and the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge. Those who want to proceed further, with a high-clearance vehicle, can cross the 8,800-foot-high pass to Challis and drive the former toll road built in 1879 between Challis and the mines.

The Yankee Fork Gold Dredge is a relic of bygone days. In 1940 entrepreneurs built the 112-foot-long, 54-foot-wide and 64-foot-high Gold Dredge to pick up any gold not recovered using less sophisticated methods. The dredge dug temporary dams on the Yankee Fork River, creating the reservoir on which it floated. Using a massive conveyer type belt of several eight-yard buckets, it dug up the gravels and washed the gold from them in a built-in sluice as it floated across the valley floor. By 1952 after producing about $1.1 million of gold, 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 tailing mounds produced by the dredge. Under current law, if allowed at all, the land would have to be restored to its original condition.

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