I’ve wandered over hill and dale
Through rain and snow and cold
Prospecting for a fissured vein
That carries a lot of gold.
Bill Zogg; from “The Prospector’s Song”
In spring of 1940, news drifted across work-starved Idaho and the world’s gold-mining community that the Silas Mason Company of New York was building a gold dredge on the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River in Custer County, Idaho. Dorothy McKenzie traveled to the construction site with her husband Ken, “because there were no jobs anywhere else.” Ken was hired to help with construction and eventually he became a wenchman on the dredge. Dorothy and Ken began a lifetime of association with a curious part of Idaho’s golden history – The Yankee Fork Gold Dredge.
A gold dredge is a barge with a digging apparatus on the front, internal motors, sorting devices to separate gold from placer deposits, and a stacker on the rear to disgorge unwanted material. Designed by the Bucyrus-Erie Company for the specific and difficult placer geology of the Yankee Fork, the Yankee Fork dredge had smaller-than-normal buckets and greater-than-normal strength for its size and tonnage. Parts were trucked over Galena Summit to build the dredge in place. The 988-ton dredge floated in a pond of its own making while digging along the rocky riverbed to digest gold from deposition. Use of the dredge was discontinued in 1952 when the five and a half-mile claim lease had been mined and the abandoned dredge fell to ruinous decay wrought by rust, time and vandalism. In 1966, the last owner, J.R. Simplot, donated the dredge to the Forest Service.
Thousands of people came to the Yankee Fork since gold was discovered in 1870’s. The lure of wealth brought the dredge owners to Idaho’s gold-rich batholith. Employment brought Ken McKenzie and his wife. But what kept Ken and others like him working on the dredge? Dollar–an–hour wages? Gold fever?
“Ken really liked to salmon fish,” Dorothy teases. “He was always fishing when he wasn’t working. But he had a fascination for the dredge.”
Mike Cheel is current president of the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge Association (YFGDA). When he first volunteered to help at the dredge he hardly knew what a dredge was. He does now.
“The Yankee Fork Dredge is the only dredge people can tour that is complete. It still has both diesel engines, the pumps, the sluices, the trammel, the bull gear – everything. The dredge at Sumpter, Oregon, is a ten cubic yard dredge and because it’s a state park hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on restoration. But it’s gutted. The engines and machinery were sold to be used somewhere else. You can’t see much about how a dredge works because Sumpter’s just a shell.”
Almost all of the Yankee Fork dredge’s parts are intact.
“Most of the parts of a dredge are too big to carry off,” Mike says, “so the curio hunters and vandals couldn’t take the big stuff.”
Driven by two Ingersoll-Rand 450-hp diesel motors, the insatiable mechanical troll chewed its gold-hungry way upriver from above Polecamp Creek to Jordan Creek where it collapsed and died, abandoned in its own self-made dredgepond, surrounded by the regurgitated piles of its rocky diet. Seventy-one one-ton eight-cubic yard buckets turned by a twelve-foot bull gear powered by a 200-hp electric motor gobbled up the material to be sorted and washed in the hopper and sluices. Eighty-four hundred gallons of water ran through the dredge every minute. The process of operating the dredge, twenty-four hours a day as it digested the guts of the Yankee Fork, took the combined efforts of ten men. In the intermittent years of its operation the homely machine transformed the rugged river country into a cobbled moonscape, yet possessed irresistible charisma. It still does.
In 1977, the McKenzies along with other former dredgemen and their families had a reunion at the dredge. Over a hundred interested people showed up for a tour. In 1979 the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge Association was formed, with Ken McKenzie as chairman and former shoreman, Art Browning as president. Thus began a new life for a rusting relic of Idaho’s mining past. Members of the YFGDA have donated thousands of hours to ongoing restoration while sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm with the public. The Forest Service helped the YFGDA install a wheel-chair ramp, Heckla helped with restoration, and the association has put over $50,000 into dredge—money generated through tours and donations.
Dorothy no longer has to order supplies to be brought over Galena Summit for her family or buy milk from the rancher in Torrey. She no longer endures long, cruel winters of -55° along a river the Indians referred to as the “valley of deep snows,” heating creek water on a woodstove in a cabin lighted by kerosene lanterns. In a tree-shaded Boise home near Hill Road, Dorothy serves pie made of rhubarb from the garden and explains the YFGDA plans to put a new roof on the dredge. Though Dorothy has retired from active duty as a volunteer at the dredge, others, like Mike Cheel and present YFGDA treasurer, Wayne Kirk, are waiting to share the dredge with visitors.
Relics of a bygone era—weird tools and bits and pieces of mining equipment—line Dorothy’s driveway. Ken, who passed away in December of 1998, never lost his enthusiasm for the hulking, man-made rockeater of the Yankee Fork. In 1996, Ken McKenzie gave this author and her family a wonderful tour of the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge, replete with first-hand knowledge of the machinery which only someone who worked there could acquire.
According to the various industry, capacity, good fortune, and desires of men, they obtain greater or smaller share of, and claim upon, the wealth of the world.
John Ruskin, from Munera Pulveris
Deep in the granite heart of Custer County floats a remnant of man’s industry – the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge. For a short time, Ken and Dorothy McKenzie shared in man’s unique effort to lay a “claim upon the wealth of the world.”
To reach the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge from Boise, Idaho, take State Highway 55 north to Banks (35 miles). Travel east along the Southfork of the Payette River on State Highway 17 through Garden Valley to Lowman (approximately 40 miles). When Highway 17 ends, turn left on Highway 21 and travel northeast to Stanley (50 miles). Pick up Highway 75/26 in Stanley and travel east-north-east toward Sunbeam and Challis along the main Salmon River to Sunbeam where you will take a left and travel north on the Yankee Fork Road. The Yankee Fork Gold Dredge is eight miles. Two more miles will bring you to the town of Custer, a mining town presently under restoration. This coming August 19 & 20 will be the second annual Custer Days – an event featuring craftsmen demonstrations of lost arts and crafts from bygone days, Dutch oven cooking and cowboy poetry. The trip takes 3 to 3 ½ hours to reach the Yankee Fork from Boise.
A weekend tramped into Custer County history can be a full one. Learn to pan for gold with a volunteer at the dredge, walk through old mining towns, check out the fish Hatchery at Redfish Lake, and camp by the Yankee Fork or main Salmon. Also available in Stanley are cabin and guest ranch facilities, an historic hotel, and a new lodge. The Old Sawtooth Hotel serves breakfasts—huckleberry muffins and real sourdough pancakes; the Lodge has a fine family restaurant.
The road to the dredge is often closed by snow in October and opens to the brave sometime in May. Tours of the dredge begin late in June and end after Labor Day. Tours, given by volunteers of YFGDA. For information contact the Land of the Yankee Fork Interpretive Center or the Stanley Chamber of Commerce.