Day 1-2: Kootenai & Coeur d’Alene National Forest

Experience has shown that old gold strikes are often flush with trails, interesting relics to explore and remote wilderness camp sites. Looking at old USGS maps and historic records, I was able to find two turn-of-the century gold strikes to explore in the region.

Kootenai River

Having crossed the Canadian border, I followed a sleepy highway along the shore of Lake Koocanusa, making my way to West Fisher 1899 Gold Rush and a forgotten stage coach road over Silver Butte Pass. Koocanusa Lake, is reservoir that runs 90 miles/145 km in Montana and British Columbia, and turns back into Kootenai River below Libby Dam.

The first of four expedition stages was in Montana that included a toe-dip into Idaho Panhandle. The MT/ upper ID stage had the least percentage of dirt roads, 54%, compared to 77% in central-lower Idaho/Oregon, 75% in Nevada and 83% in California. 

I stopped long enough in Libby, Montana to pick up some wine, cold chicken and fire wood. It had been raining, it was near dusk and I wanted a fire for my first night on my border-to-border expedition. 

I recalled passing a “Gold Panning” recreational area on a previous scouting trip that was perfect for dispersed camping. The best part of starting my expedition in off-peak (Sept. 7) is that I could choose the best of many rustic campfire rings.

No one was around, despite it being a Saturday. I could crank my music and not disturb anyone, having the peace-of-mind to just gaze into my fire, knowing massive Grizzly bears that inhabit Kootenai National Park would be put off by the strange noise and not be lured in by the aroma of my fried chicken and smoked oysters. Nice!

I love waking up to an outstanding cup of coffee while Boondocking. A Calgary overlander, Chris Meginbir, owns Devils Head Coffee, and he roasted a couple of pounds of his outstanding Nicaraguan bean for my trek.

The historical sign confirmed that I was on the Cabinet Stage line road and provided some background on the West Fisher/ Libby Creek gold rush I was passing through.
Cabinet Stage Line Road
Libby Creek
Silver Butte Pass Stage Road
Ranchlands above Clark Fork

In 1884, the Murray Gold Rush, was promoted as the “Americas Last Stampede” a year after Andrew J. Prichard made the discover while traveling along the Mullan Military Road, the first wagon road, blazed in 1860, to cross the Rocky Mountains. The strike did turn out to be one of the last major strikes in the Lower 48. Ads abroad of “Free Gold”, “Nuggets of $50 to $200 being found” drew 10,000 to the Coeur d’Alene area of Idaho Panhandle and to the mine camps of Murray, Prichard, Eagle City, Burke and Wallace. 

Map found in Sprag Pole Inn, Saloon & Museum.

The strike actually started a few miles downstream from Murray, where a cluster of tents was given the optomistic name of Eagle City. The promise of instant riches was a magnet for prospectors, entrepreneurs, lady’s of the night, gamblers, bottom-feeders and seasoned boomtown veterans who knew opportunities would abound. Wyatt Earp a gunfighter and lawman, famous for his role in the shootout at OK Corral in Tombstone, AZ three years earlier, was chasing the latest bonanza. 

When Wyatt arrived in the Coeur d’Alene’s, he showed his dark side, by trying to jump a series of claims. When it all got tied up in court, he, his wife Sadie, brother Jim, opened a dance hall in an old round Circus tent in Eagle City.

Later they advertised the opening of  the White Elephant Saloon, “The largest and finest saloon in the Coeur d’Alenes.” Trading on his reputation as a lawman, Wyatt also accepted an offer to work, part time, as the deputy sheriff for Kootenai County. Within months Murray would become the hub for the strike and Shoshone County seat by 1886.

The stagecoach stop in Murray was built in 1886. It became the Sprag Pole Inn when Walt Almquist renovated it in the 1930’s . His brother Harry, continued to operate it after Walt passed away. Most boomtown survivors have done so because of a select few, that stay behind and protect the town, its’ relics and history. 

Sprag Pole was named after the poles needed to support walls during heavy-snow winters.

Walt’s Inn soon became a private museum that celebrates the regions roots. It has grown into a 10,000 square foot collection spread over five linked structures, chock full artifacts.

I found old maps, articles and ads used to lure the masses to the region, that helped me explore and appreciate the regions old west past.

After hauling his printing press on the backs of 45 mules, Adam Aulbach published the first issue of the Idaho Sun on July 8, 1884.

Aulbach must of done well because two years later he donated the Masonic Lodge building to the Masons Association (left),  the oldest in Idaho that is still active today. Next door, is the still operating Bedroom Gold Mine Bar, named after a bedroom that was built at the back, which had a mine under it. Both can be seen in the historical photo, fourth and fifth building on Main Street.

A young prostitute by the name of Molly Burdan, nee Maggie Hall, was on her way to the next boomtown that would sustain the lavish lifestyle she had earned in other gold stampedes, loaded with lonely men.

On her way she recalled encountering what she first thought was a man, only to discover she was actually sharing a train with Calamity Jane, already a Wild West legend; a self proclaimed frontierswomen, scout, known for her sharp-shooting, whiskey swilling, and cross-dressing ways. Calamity was also heading to Coeur d’Alene strike.

After leaving the train Molly bought a horse and joined a pack train. On the way to Murray, they encountered a fierce blizzard in Thompson Pass. Taking pity on a woman and child who were walking in the blizzard without proper clothing, she stayed behind in a makeshift shelter where they all huddle under her furs for the night. Word of her kind deed spread in Murray where she was greeted with a heroes welcome. 

Molly would become a successful madam in town, and the most beloved who was always willing to help the down and out. When a smallpox epidemic hit town, Molly and her girls worked tirelessly taking care of anyone who needed it, until the epidemic passed. But Molly herself soon fell sick and passed away from Consumption. 

Murray town-folk continue to celebrate the young madame, with the Molly b-Damm Gold Rush Days.

Riches gleaned from Pritchard Creek dredging near Murray, were used to help pay for the construction of the Empire State Building in New York City.

Imagine what is going through this fellows mind, while looking into the mine adit. “Free Gold” required a lot of sweat equity. Once all the placer gold was reaped off the surface, prospectors had to turn to hard rock mines.

Most came with just what they could carry on their backs. Sprag Pole Inn, Saloon & Museum collection.

Murray Post Office

Kings Pass Stage Road out of Murray, ID.
Part of the old stage road is now paved, but it’s a far cry from hectic interstate alternatives.
Near Delta ghost town site.
While looking to avoid as much pavement as possible in my 2019 border-to-border expedition, I choose to bypass Murray discovered in previous scouting expeditions in favour of taking Glidden Pass, a dirt backdoor to the ghost town of Burke.
I learned about Glidden Pass and Burke from this old map posted in Murray’s Sprag Pole museum.
Burke, a 1884 silver, lead and zinc discovery was the only boomtown where two railroads ran through the lobby of the Tiger Hotel, as valley to mines and town was so narrow.
Burke
Two railroads competing for Burkes mine business had to built up the towns Main Street. It was said that the some stores had to pull up their awnings for passing trains.
Tiger-Poorman (left) and Hecla (right) mine shafts.
Burke’s old Main Street was savaged by avalanches and fires.
Little remains of the old town.
Star Mine Shaft
Poorman Mine
Hecla Mine Building
Retracing 1860’s Mullan Military Road, the first wagon road, blazed in 1860, to cross the Rocky Mountains.
The US government was anxious to build an overland road for Immigrants to settle in the Pacific North West for fear that Russia, England and France would try to claim the region.

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