Gold in northern Idaho was discovered
by E. D. Pierce and company in 1860 while en route to the mines of present-day
Montana with supplies. On the way, the men had to pass through the Nez Perce
Indian Reservation near the Clearwater River. While they camped, the men looked
for gold. Their discovery was near present-day Pierce, Idaho. The men returned
to Walla Walla and reported their discovery. The intention, as usual, was to
keep the gold discovery a secret so that only a few men would go into the
country and do more prospecting. There was opposition to Pierce's desire to
prospect gold on the reservation. But despite the opposition by a large group of
white men, Pierce and his company of men went anyway. They used the Indians as
guides and to help keep the peace between themselves and the rest of the tribe.
But, as is the case in all of the previous gold discoveries, the news leaked
out. The Nez Perce treaty was renegotiated to allow some whites to mine gold.
However, the few whites became an onslaught as the word was passed about the new
discoveries. By spring of 1861 hundreds of men were mining Canal Creek and the
regions around the camps of Pierce and Oro Fino City. As spring passed into
summer scores of men drifted south hoping to cash in on early discoveries at
such places as Elk City.
More gold was discovered at the present
site of Florence by John J. Healy who arrived in September. He and a handful of
other men quickly filed claims and reaped the rewards of being the first to find
the precious metal. By October, the situation was quickly changing for the
miners. Snow was falling and was more than a foot deep by mid-October. The lucky
miners left by November and December and thereby avoided some of the devastation
that followed due to severe winter weather.
The winter of 1861-62 was one of the worst in the Pacific
Northwest for some time. Deep snow clogged the passes making the transportation
of supplies into the camps limited if not impossible. Sub-zero temperatures
killed scores of men either traveling into the mines or trying to leave. If the
extreme temperatures did not kill the ill-prepared men, starvation became their
companion. Gold fever was so intense that many men did not take enough food and
supplies with them. These were mostly veteran miners who probably figured that,
like in past gold rushes, supplies would be forthcoming. Sadly, that was not the
case for these unfortunate gold seekers.
Men in the mines were not the only ones who suffered during
this winter. Miners who had returned to Walla Walla to spend the winter did not
find much solace there either. Firewood became so scarce that furniture and
fence posts became fodder for fires as citizens strived to keep warm in poorly
constructed houses. The extreme cold killed scores of people throughout the
Pacific Northwest. Many cattle ranchers lost more than half of the stock due to
range grasses being deep beneath the snow, while others lost all of their herds.
When I was young we went to Florence every weekend to stay in
our cabin. I rode every inch of road on my motorcycle, knew where every
old mine was and went to them all. Oh, how I wish I had photos of them
all! We also did lots of fishing in the dredge ponds and on Sand Creek.
Now the road has changed once you get there and most of the old signs giving
directions to the mines are gone.
There isn't much left of any buildings in Florence
now. A little bit of an old barn, a small section of the jail sits down
in the trees (an old guy down on the Salmon River once showed us the door from
the jail that he had kept for safe keeping), There is also a tiny bit of one of
the "Brothels" still there. Mom always called it the Chinese
Laundry, but after I grew up, I found out the true identity of it. I was
talking about the "Laundry" one day and everyone in the family laughed
at me, because they thought I knew the truth. I guess I was just
gullible! There are still a few cabins that are owned by private
individuals that have Patented Mining Claims.