History and Current Facts of Elmore County
One hundred and fifty years before the appearance of white explorers this majestic land belonged to the American Indians. The Shoshoni and Bannock Indians roamed Elmore County, winter camping on the bank of the Snake River, returning to the Camas Prairies in late spring. They lived in small extended families surviving on small game, fish, roots, berries, and whatever else they could obtain by using their primitive tools, snares and weapons,. A dietary staple for the tribes was the sugar-producing blue flower “camas”. The flower grows wild and abundantly in the high desert. Indian women would harvest the camas root and then prepare it into thin dry cakes. Indian culture was based upon the procurement of food and changed little from generation to generation as they followed their food supply in Elmore County. But, with the arrival of white men this simple nomadic lifestyle ended abruptly.
In 1803 Thomas Jefferson arranged for the United States to buy the Oregon Country from Napoleon Bonaparte. The Oregon Country comprised those states now generally referred to as “The Northwest”, inclusive of Idaho. President Jefferson paid three and three-fifths cents an acre for the land. In 1804 he dispatched two men, Meriweather Lewis and William Clark, to explore the Oregon Country and its’ neighbor the Louisiana Territory. Their tales of a wealth in furs enticed trappers into the area.
The first trappers in Southern Idaho were with John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company. They made a treacherous journey down the Snake River trying to navigate it in canoes. They were the first white men to make contact with the Shoshoni and Bannock Indians. Soon, other trappers in search of beaver followed. They trapped the waterways extensively until the beaver population was almost extinct by the 1840’s.
The relationship between the Indians and the white men during the fur trapping era was generally peaceful. The trappers lived in a lifestyle similar to that of the Indian, and white exploration and trade did not seriously disrupt Indian social or cultural institutions. The conflict between cultures arose during the next era, when wave after wave of emigrants arrived and settled the west.
Between 1840 and 1862, more than 250,000 emigrants traveled through Elmore County on their way “west”. They traveled the historic Oregon Trail, a grueling 2000 mile trail that was referred to as the “longest cemetery in the nation”. One of the more hazardous parts of the journey involved crossing the Snake River. A popular ford was located in Elmore County at Three Island Crossing above Glenns Ferry. The crossing was not without risk; many animals, supplies, and wagons were lost. Three Island Crossing is now a state park commemorating the valiant struggles of the early pioneers.
During this early westward period the majority of emigrants passed through Idaho on their way to California or Oregon. Only a handful of pioneers settled in Idaho and they mostly were merchants who supplied the needs of the wagon trains. But in the early 1860’s the discovery of gold in Idaho resulted in a population boom. For the first time in our nation’s history a reverse migration eastward occurred. The California miners returned to Idaho and Alturas County, later to become Elmore County. Alturas is a Spanish name which means “mountain summit or heavens” and was one of the original counties in Idaho. Established on February 4, 1894, Alturas encompassed a huge area in southern Idaho. Old records report the size of Alturas as extending from the north fork of the Boise River, south to the Snake River, and from American Falls west to Indian Creek.
In the beginning years, the county’s population was concentrated in Rocky Bar and Atlanta. These early mining communities reflected a mixture of peoples from all walks of life. Some were petty thieves, shysters, and restless unfortunates who rushed from strike to strike with visions of wealth bright in their eyes. Others were destitute southerners who had lost everything in the Civil War. They came to the gold fields in search of a new start. The influence of these southerners is evident in the names of gold fields; Atlanta, Jeff Davis, and the Southern Confederacy. Also participating in the early mining camps were the Chinese. A census in 1870 showed that the majority of miners were Oriental. The Chinese miners were often willing to work for less, almost slave wages, and had the reputation for being very industrious and clannish miners.
When mining activities in the camps began to show results the character of the mining camps changed. On the heels of the prospectors came permanent settlers. The camps attracted not only faro dealers, bawdy houses, and dance hall girls but also merchants, lawyers, and editors, men and women who were willing to endure the rugged life for the high prices that their services could demand.
By 1896 the district had produced 10,000 ounces of gold. But gold, silver, and other precious metal were not the only things to come out of the Alturas mining camps. A wealth of western stories involving shootings, hangings, and other assorted skullduggery were produced during the heyday of the camps. The stories characters were always full of grit, courage, warmth, and perseverance. One of the more colorful characters who exemplified these qualities was “Pegleg” Annie Morrow of Atlanta. One winter day while walking with a friend, Dutch Em, across Bald Mountain Summit, a fierce blizzard blew up. Three days passed before a search party found the pair. Dutch Em was dead and Annie was half frozen and incoherent. A back country doctor amputated her frozen feet at the ankles with a jack knife and meat saw, using a few slugs of whiskey for anesthesia. With an indomitable spirit, Pegleg Annie lived for many years afterwards. She gained further fame as a pistol packing restaurateur, boarding house keeper, mother of five, and friend to all.
Early farmers and ranchers arrived upon the heels of the miners. Small ranches and farms began to spring up around the waystations. The families settled on land near transportation routes and water. Settlement was encouraged by the offer of up to 320 acres to each individual who could make the required land improvements and locate water. This process was called “proving up the land”. The ranchers and farmers continually expanded operations to supply agricultural products to the booming mining communities.
Many farm and ranch families came to Elmore County because of land schemes promoted by the railroad and land developers. Promotional campaigns referred to Idaho as the “Switzerland of the West”, and Mountain Home as the garden spot of southern Idaho. Settlers were promised successful crops, plentiful water, and a healthful climate. The claims, although exaggerated, contained some truth. The land was rich, producing 3 to 5 times as many bushels per acre as land in Illinois, Virginia, or Tennessee. The land was also capable of producing a variety of crops, and prosperous farmers invested in cherries, plums, apples, grain, cattle, horses, and sheep.
Cattle, horse, and sheep raising became important industries in Elmore County. By 1888 the county had 35,000 cows, 60,000 sheep, and 8,000 horses. Wool and mutton production rivaled the cattle and horse industry. Sheep adapted well to the desert and high mountain ranges, although according to cattlemen they ruined the ranges for grazing cattle. Conflict resulted between the Glenns Ferry cattlemen and the Mountain Home sheepherders. The disagreements persisted until sheep production became more profitable than cattle.
Young Basque men from the Pyrenees Mountains, between France and Spain, provided the labor for the sheep industry. In their native land they had been fishermen, craftsmen, and farmers, but in America, they turned their hands to sheep herding and shearing. These Basque emigrants had a significant cultural impact on Elmore County.
As the communities of Mountain Home, Glenns Ferry, Rocky Bar, and Atlanta grew, residents began to push for a new county with a centrally located county seat. The creation of Elmore County was hotly debated. Finally, as its last act, the last Territorial Legislature created Elmore County on February 7, 1889. The county seat changed location several times but in 1891 it settled permanently in Mountain Home.
The period from 1890 to 1913 was known as the growth years for the county. The completion of the OSL, Oregon Short Line, railroad in 1883 allowed for the shipment of mining and agricultural products to world markets. The outbreak of WWI intensified demand for these products, especially wool which was used to manufacture military uniforms. The end of the war also was the end of the agricultural boom. The slump that began in the 20’s intensified during the Great Depression. Many small farmers and ranchers lost their land. Economic conditions did not improve significantly in the county until WWII. With the outbreak of WWII crop prices improved and construction of Mountain Home Air Force Base began.
The post-war era heralded permanent changes in the character of the county. The mining industry had collapsed, sheep were replaced by cattle, and farming exploded with the introduction of new technologies. The Air Base remained after the war, although it de-activated for brief periods between 1945 and 1964. The base had a tremendous impact on the community. First, it became the largest employer in the county. Second, the influx of military personnel and their families resulted in a rapid growth of population. Thirdly, business sectors grew to meet the needs of the air base and its military family. And, finally a diverse military population provided the community with a wealth of cultural diversities unique in the state of Idaho.
Early settlers were attracted to Elmore County because of the promise of unlimited opportunities. These opportunities still exist today. And the future promises to be as exciting, turbulent, and unpredictable as the past.
Elmore County is located in Southwestern Idaho. It is bounded on the north by Boise County, on the east by Blaine, Camas, Gooding, and Twin Falls counties, on the south by Owyhee County, and on the west by Ada County.
Elmore is a large county covering more than 3,000 square miles. Approximately 60% of the county is mountainous. The remaining 40% slopes gently down into the Snake River Plain. Elmore County has altitudes ranging from 2500 feet to over 9700 feet. 70% of the county is owned by varying departments of the federal government including the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the Bureau of Land Management. Approximately 22% of Elmore County’s lands are designated farm lands.
The topography of Elmore County is extremely varied, from low elevation plains to high, steep mountainous terrain. The county is divided into two district provinces, the Northern Rocky Mountain Province-Idaho Batholith, and the Columbia Plateau Province-Snake River Plain in the southern 1/3 of the county.
High glaciated mountains in the northern province, especially the area north of Atlanta, are dotted with several hundred glacial lakes. The terrain is very steep, rocky, and rugged, and much is granite rock covered with alpine vegetation.
The Snake River Plain supports both irrigated agriculture and spring-fall grazing for cattle and sheep. The major limitation to further expansion of agriculture in this area is water. Soils also are a limited factor in a few sections of the Snake River Plain.
The main highways weaving through the county are U.S. 30 and Interstate 84. Interstate Hwy I-84 transverses the southern part of the county from northwest to southeast, by passing the two incorporated towns of Mountain Home and Glenns Ferry. I-84 provides adequate on-off ramps for easy access to both cities. I-84 provides the main transportation route for the trucking industry in the northwestern section of the United States. I-84 also provides good connections eastward to Salt Lake City and points beyond.
State highways 51, 67 and 20 converge in Mountain Home, providing a direct link to all of southwestern Idaho. Hwy 67 is a four-lane, ten mile road that provides access to Mountain Home Air Force Base.
The two major rivers in the county are the Snake River and the Boise River. The Snake River serves as the county’s natural boundary to the south, while the Boise River provides a northern boundary. Other important bodies of water in the county are the C.J. Strike Reservoir, which is fed by the Snake River, and the Anderson Ranch Reservoir, which is fed by the South Fork of the Boise River.
The highest temperature on record in Atlanta was 101 degrees (F). The lowest temperature was minus 19 degrees (F). Typically Atlanta has only 6 days a year with temperatures above 90 degrees (F) and 232 days a year with temperatures below 32 degrees (F).
Mountain Home temperature extremes have varied between 110 degrees (F) to minus 36 degrees (F). The town has temperatures above 90 degrees (F) on the average 55 days annually. 146 days a year the temperature falls to 32 degrees (F) or below.
Glenns Ferry on average has 62 days annually with temperatures above 90 degrees (F) and 146 days when temperatures fall below 32 degrees (F).
Atlanta has the shortest growing season in the county with only 21 days. Mountain Home enjoys 136 days when temperatures are above 32 degrees (F), May 16 to September 29. The Glenns Ferry area averages 143 days of temperatures above freezing, May 5 to September 26.
DAYS OF SUNSHINE
In July and August there is an 80% to 85% chance of sunshine in Elmore County. The months with the least cloud cover, and therefore the sunniest days occur between June and September.
Wind speeds average 6 miles per hour or less 39% of the time, and 7 to 15 miles per hour 41% of the time. Damaging winds are rare. Wind directions are quite variable. Predominantly they blow from the northwest but occasionally blow from the east to east-southeast. Strong winds are generally from the west to northwest. February to April are the windiest months with wind speeds of 22 mph or greater occurring 4% of the time. Thunderstorms accompanied by strong winds occur most frequently in June and July. Tornadoes are very rare, but one was reported in the Mountain Home area in the summer of 1986.
FOG, LOW VISIBILITY, LOW CLOUDS
Fog, low visibility, and low clouds are a wintertime phenomenon. The phenomena occurs with the greatest frequency in the month of December, 11% of the days are foggy in December. The fog is not usually dense however and Mountain Home Air Force Base reports visibility of one mile or more 99% of the time. The base also reports that 99% of the time the cloud deck is 500 feet or higher.
An inversion is a climatological phenomenon where the air temperature gets warmer with an increase in altitude. This traps cold air under warm air. Inversions occur normally throughout the year but are of particular interest in the winter because air pollutants get trapped in the stagnant air. Wood burning stoves contribute significantly to the air pollution problems in the winter months.
75% of winter days begin with inversions in Elmore County. Typically the inversion will clear before days end, and rarely is air quality adversely affected. To impact upon air quality, inversions must remain static for three days or more.
Elmore County has many outstanding tourism and recreational facilities. The county offers a full panorama of recreational opportunities ranging from the sand dunes in Bruneau to skiing on Soldier Mountain.
There are two U.S. National Forest systems in the county, the Boise National Forest and the Sawtooth National Forest. Campsites are maintained by the forest services. Both forest services offer visitors a variety of activities ranging from beginning hiking trails, to wilderness camping to backpacking.
Three Island Crossing State Park
Three Island State Park at historical Three Island Crossing Ford, stands as a modern monument to the courage and foresight of the Oregon pioneers who used the natural islands and sand bars to cross the Snake River on their way to the Pacific Northwest. The park is located in Glenns Ferry. A visitor center contains photographs, memorabilia, and information helpful to understanding the importance of this crossing on the Oregon Trail. Wagon ruts from the Oregon Trail are still visible in the park.
Twenty miles south of Mountain Home the two largest sand dunes in North America can be found. The dunes have formed in the Eagle Cove Depression, a former part of the Snake River Canyon which remained after the river changed its course during the Great Bonneville Flood. The sand is decomposed lava rock blown off the plateau to the south and dropped when the winds lose velocity. It has been collecting for over 30,000 years. Hikers will find early morning and late evening the best times for viewing desert wildlife and seasonal wildflowers. But, climbing the dunes at any time is great fun.
Boating is a very popular activity in Elmore County. During warm, still, summer days, speed boats and water skiers can be seen gliding across the two large reservoirs. But, let a breeze begin to blow and a bevy of bright colored sail boats and wind surfers join in the fun. The Southern Idaho Sailing Association holds several regattas during the summer racing season at C.J. Strike Reservoir.
The two major boating facilities in the county are Anderson Ranch Reservoir and C.J. Strike Reservoir. Both reservoirs have docking facilities.
Camping is another popular activity enjoyed by the residents of Elmore County. There are more than 250 maintained campsites in the county. The amenities vary from full RV hookup to only a cleared tent site.
Fishing and Hunting
Fishing and hunting are another popular past time. A wide variety of fish can be caught in Elmore County including: trout, sturgeon, bass, catfish, whitefish, perch, kokanee. The variety of catch is only surpassed by the variety of old fishing tales. The Snake River and the South Fork of the Boise River provide excellent fishing. But many local fisherman claim the best fishing “hole” is in one of the numerous little mountain lakes and streams that dot the county.
For those people who prefer a gun or bow to a fly rod, Elmore County offers a bounty of hunting experiences. Wild birds and game, like deer, elk, bear, mountain goat, pheasant, quail, partridge, chukar, sage, grouse, wild duck, geese, doves, and brant are found in abundance in Elmore County.
For those people who enjoy winter sports, Elmore County has a variety of activities to interest them. Skiers will be exhilarated by the challenging downhill slopes at the Soldier Mountain Ski Resort. Cross country skiers will find well groomed trails in the Boise National Forest. Snowmobilers are not left out, designated snowmobile areas are located in the county.