My son and I working a productive high-bar in Wide West Gulch.
A goodly portion of my mining experience has been in and around Rock Bar, Idaho, and over the years I have had many wonderful expierences there. I have had some great finds, met some great people, and camped in some the prettiest places on earth—all right there around Rocky Bar.
While it is mostly gone now, Rocky Bar was once a thriving town of some 2,500 inhabitants that supported the load gold mines in the surrounding hills. It was a real boom town and was even reportedly a candidate to be the territorial capital of Idaho, ultimately losing out to Boise. [i]
While it was predominantly the load mines that supported the town, Rocky Bar got its start in 1863 with the discovery of widespread placer gold in the area creeks. This gold came in the form of small granules, similar to salt or sugar grains, with the occasional nugget. While early production numbers are unavailable, the placer mines of the area produced 58,447 ounce between 1889 and 1942 (remember, most of the placering was done in the 1860’s and 70’s).[ii] Not bad. I have seen nuggets up to about 1/3rd of an ounce come out of Bear Creek.
Rocky Bar sits on the north slope of Horse Ranch Mountain, and while the most productive placers were found in Bear Creek, below Rocky Bar, most of the creeks on the south, east and north sides of the mountain contain placer gold—and were worked commercially in the past. Specifically, it was Wide West Gulch on the south, fed by Chinaman’s Creek; with Red Warrior Creek on the east side (Wide West flows into Red Warrior Creek)—and several side gulches coming off of Horse Ranch Mountain also enrich Red Warrior Creek with gold. To the north, in addition to Bear Creek, the Steele Creek/Blakes Gulch area have rich placers, as does Elk Creek, with its own mining camp of Spanish Town.
Red Warrior Creek empties into Bear Creek, which then flows north through a narrow rocky canyon. This river canyon then takes a hard turn back to the south, merges with Elk Creek and forms the Feather River. Due to the large number of gold bearing creeks that flow into the Feather River in the Rock Bar area, the Feather River is rich in gold, and has had a rich mining history of its own. Near the town of Featherville (about 5 miles south of Rocky Bar, where the paved road ends), the Feather river has been dredged commercially buy a large bucket line dredge. The river here is deep and wide, with abundant water—especially after it merges with the S. Fork of the Boise—and there was a large, low-grade placer deposited here that was perfectly suited for the dredges. The piles of gravel remain as proof of the riches produced in the area.
Dredging on Bear Creek.
The placer mines in and around Rocky Bar also have a long and varied history. The first miners came in and worked the easily accessible placers—working both the creek bottoms and the numerous high bar deposits found along the creek. A high bar deposit is formed when a creek or river cuts a river valley, depositing its gold bearing materials on the bottom of the valley. The river then cuts a new, more narrow river valley, leaving remnants of the old river valley high and dry. On large river systems, high-bar deposits can be found hundreds to as much as a thousand feet above the current river elevation. Often as not though, the high bars are found tens to a hundred feet above the current river elevation. This is especially true on small river/creek systems. I don’t have production numbers on what these early placer miners found, but given the extensiveness of the workings, what they found was substantial. When the Anglo miners finished up, the Chinese came in and re-worked many of the areas. Some neatly stacked rows of rocks indicate their workings.
This stone wall was likely the result of Chinese miners. They were generally neat and orderly.
To work the high bar deposits, a canal was built along the slopes above the high-bars, then the water was channeled down and across the high-bar, where it would wash away the mud, soil, and lighter materials, leaving the gold and other heavies behind. Workers would sift through the mud, pulling out the rocks and large boulders by hand—usually putting them in large stacks at the side of the workings. These sacks of rocks were often used to guide or channel the flowing water to the areas that they needed to work. Large piles of well washed and sorted rocks (there is little or no sand or gravel in the pile) are indicative of ground sluicing—especially if they are on relatively flat lying rock.
Often when these miners would start their ground sluicing operations, they did not have well cleaned bedrock to start on, so they would make their rock pile on top of un-worked material. This is also true when they changed the direction in which they were working. When this happened, it was generally unproductive to go back and move the rock pile for the limited amount of ore that was found beneath it. Mining is a numbers game—they needed to move large amounts of material, and it just wasn’t cost effective to work an area that small—especially as the water was probably being diverted to a different location by the time it was feasible to move the rocks.
What this means is that by sampling beneath rock piles, it is possible to find small pockets of very rich, virgin dirt that was missed by the old timers. While this principle applies to virtually all mining areas, it seems to be especially productive in the high-bars in the Rocky Bar area. One of the identifiers of the rich virgin dirt would be a rusty red, very fine grained sand/clay that is often found on bedrock in un-worked areas.
Another thing to look for in the Rocky Bar area is un-worked high-bars. The GPAA once had a claim in the area, just below Rocky Bar, and it was known for a high-bar deposit that producing very large amounts of gold, including nuggets. This claim was high above the river, to the south side, and had apparently never been worked. It was, of course, a very popular claim. People were working the heck out of it—they were loading buckets from a very large hole, and packing the material down to the creek to work. In the end, the Forest Service revoked the claim in order to prevent further damage to the forest. One lesson to learn from this is FILL IN YOUR HOLES. Clean up and restore your work area when you are done. This was a good claim that was open for a lot of people to work—and a few careless people ruined it for every one. This is not isolated to the large clubs either—if you leave big holes on your claim or favorite work site, the Forest Service may come in and close you down too.
This is my camp on Red Warrior Creek.
After the placers were worked, the attention of the miners turned to the load mines of Rocky Bar. The ore around Rocky Bar originates in quartz veins that trend generally east-west. While these veins are predominantly quartz with some gold, they do also contain a small amount of sphalerite, galena, chalcopyrite and pyrite. And, while most of the gold was free-milling, there was also some bound with the sulfides. The load mines in the Rocky Bar area were very profitable, and continued producing through the 1900’s. Again, early production numbers are not known, but between 1889 and 1942, the area load mines produced 381,396 ounces of gold.ii They were good enough, in fact, that after the town burned to the ground in 1892, it was rebuilt—though the towns slow decline followed the fire
By the 1930’s, most of the areas load mines were closed—but Great Depression kept interest in the area high. The placers in the area were re-visited—and the smaller streams and creeks were “doodlebugged.” A gentleman name Floyd, one of the owners of Rocky Bar, mentioned that a small dredge, know as a doodlebug, worked the area streams in the 1930’s. As best as I can tell, it was something like a small bucket-line dredge—though I haven’t been able to find pictures or much detail on the dredge.
I don’t know how many doodlebugs were at work, but apparently Red Warrior Creek was worked up to Wide West Gulch. Wide West Gulch was then doodle-bugged up to Chinaman Creek. To the north, Bear Creek was doodle-bugged from the confluence with Red Warrior Creek up to what was then the city limit at Rocky Bar. While, for the most part, you don’t see the large rock piles common of the large dredges, there are a few. More commonly, many of the doodle-bugged areas can be identified by swampy conditions. Thick willows and other wet vegetation growing in low-lying areas. In the case of Wide West Gulch, much of the area is actually a low-lying, overgrown swamp. No production numbers are known for these doodlebugs.
While the doodlebugs have worked the area hard, the area creeks can still be productive when dredged. In the past, the area was open to dredging with the states recreational dredging permit—however, in the early 2000’s, the area was taken off the states recreations dredging list due to the endangered “Bull Trout”. While the area creeks are closed on the recreational dredge list, it is possible to get a stream alteration permit that will allow you to dredge by filing individually with the state. This permit will take 1-2 years to approve, with the new Forest Service rules, also requires that you submit a Plan of Operations with it. It is a real pain, but could be worth your time. In most of Bear Creek and Red Warrior Creek, bedrock is relatively shallow—particularly where it has been doodlebugged—with one to two feet of overburden. This makes dredging fairly easy and efficient. There are spots, however, where it does get deeper—I once spent a week working through about five feet of overburden. The gold was OK, but it was all on bedrock and it took a long time to move five feet of overburden with a 3” dredge. Up near Rocky Bar, in areas where the doodlebug didn’t go, bedrock is much deeper. I punched a whole some 7’ straight down through ‘hard as cement’ clay, literally picking my way down with a 6’ bar. It took two days, my hole was only 2-3 feet wide, and I never hit bedrock. And I only got one piece of gold (a small nugget)—which I accidentally dropped in the dirt and lost while doing a clean up. Floyd, the guy who owns half of Rocky Bar, told me that he had used an excavator to work the bedrock just up stream of where I was dredging, and that bedrock was 14’ down. From what I have seen, the gold on bedrock where the doodlebug didn’t go is very good, but it is a lot of work getting down to it.
Some of the GOLD recovered. The vial has one gram of sugar grain sized fines. Another 1/2 ounce went to the refinery.
Rocky Bar is a truly beautiful area, and one with a lot of history. While it is a great place to visit, you must remember that most of the area is under claim. If you wish to work in the Rocky Bar area, there are several clubs that have claims in this area. Otherwise, contact claim owners and get written permission before working the area creeks.
[ii] W.W. Stanley, 1968, Gold in Idaho, Pamphlet No. 68, Idaho Bureau of Mines p. 26-28.
Rocky Bar, Idaho. A right turn at the intersection will take you to Atlanta, another old mining town.