Garden Valley: Yellow Gold and Golden Grain
1818, fur trappers working for the Hudson’s Bay Company named the Payette River in honor of their comrade, Francois Payette. Payette was a French-Canadian fur trapper who explored much of southwestern Idaho. In 1837, Payette took charge of Fort Boise, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s fur-trading post on the Boise River near present-day Parma.
In 1862, prospectors found gold in Boise Basin, located on the other side of the mountains south of the river. Their discovery led to one of Idaho’s largest gold rushes. A year later, the basin’s population, which included the Idaho City, Placerville, Pioneerville, and Centerville gold camps, swelled to between twelve and fourteen thousand miners.
Some of these miners, men like Thomas Scanlon, Patrick Glennon, and Donald McBride, immediately recognized the potential profits from supplying the basin’s gold camps with fresh meat, produce and dairy products. They settled along the lush, fertile river terraces of the South Fork, where several fur trappers, relics of Idaho’s fur trade era, had already established squatter’s claims. One of those trappers, Charley “Yank” Ladd, built the first fish trap on the Middle Fork Payette River near its confluence with the South Fork.
The valley’s population was culturally and ethnically diverse. Although most of the immigrants hailed from Ireland and Scotland, they also came from Bavaria, Denmark, England, Prussia, Norway, and Switzerland. Mid-westerners from Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio were skilled farmers; still others were merchants. By the turn of the century, the valley’s population had grown from seventy-nine people in 1870, the year of Idaho’s first census, to three hundred people. Most of the men were engaged in farming, the rest were miners. Garden Valley developed into a close-knit community. Today, the descendents of many of these old families still live in the area.
In the late 1890s, commercial dredges began to replace the independent miners who used pans, rocker boxes, and sluices in Boise Basin. These dredges, which resembled huge floating earthmovers, scooped gold-bearing sand and gravel from the basin’s streambeds.
Steam engines, which required tremendous amounts of fuel wood, powered the first dredges in Boise Basin. Grimes and Mores Creeks were too small to generate enough electricity for a hydroelectric power plant. In 1904, a Centerville miner, Norman Gratz, built an earthen filled dam and powerhouse on the South Fork of the Payette River. He planned to sell electricity to the dredges in Boise Basin, but the dam broke before Gratz could complete his power line. Gratz sold the enterprise to W.H. Estabrook’s Boston and Idaho gold Dredging Company.
Estabrook built a 50-foot wooden dam and a power line to serve the dredges at Idaho City, Centerville, Placerville, and Quartzburg. The electricity provided to the mines helped Boise Basin recover from a slump in gold production. In 1911, Boise County regained its lead over Owhyhee County as Idaho’s largest gold producer.
In 1928, Estabrook sold the dam to the Grimes Pass Power Company. The new owners added a diesel engine to run the generator during low water periods. The powerful Payette washed out the dam in 1943. The dam was never rebuilt. Today, the South Fork flows free from its headwaters in the Sawtooth Mountains to its confluence with the North Fork at Banks.
Although early sawmills existed along the South Fork, extensive commercial export logging really began in the 1930s when the Boise Payette Lumber Company installed a portable sawmill in Garden Valley. Portable sawmills continued to operate along the river until the early 1950s.
Present day residents and visitors flock to the “Silver Bridge” crossing the South Fork of the Payette for numerous water sports opportunities — swimming, rafting and general water play, but over 140 years ago an artist by the name of Charles Ostner purchased an interest in what had been a toll bridge spanning the river. Some of his most important works of art were made while living along the South Fork.
Charles Ostner was born in Austria, and studied art in Germany, where he was involved in student uprisings during the German revolution of 1848. When the revolution failed, Ostner fled to America, eventually landing in San Francisco, where the gold bug overtook him. Ostner spent a decade moving northward from one gold rush to another. He was on the Fraser River in Canada when he learned of the gold strikes in Idaho. He finally made his way Garden Valley and his silver toll bridge, where he lived for five years.
Ostner devoted four of those years to carving a statue of George Washington from a ponderosa pine tree felled on Alder Creek, a tributary of the South Fork of the Payette River. He carved mainly at night with an ordinary carpenter’s saw and chisel, the light provided by pine-pitch torches held by his children. In 1869, Mr. Ostner presented the statue as a gift to the Idaho Territorial Legislature. Today, the gilded, equestrian statue of General George Washington, depicted at the Battle of Monmouth, is on permanent exhibit at the Idaho State Capitol.