Fortunate Camp's Hidden History

Climbing Lemhi Pass

Historic photo of a stagecoach being pulled up a steep slope by six horses

Idaho State Historical Society

Just for the thrill of it, a lady enjoys a rocky ride in the driver's seat of a six-horsepower stagecoach.

From the arrival of the first fur traders in the 1820s and the first settlers in the fifties, people had to make their way through the Lemhi Valley on foot or horseback. After gold was discovered on Orofino Creek in north-central Idaho in 1860, prospectors began to scour the mountains for many miles around. When gold was found six years later in the Lemhi Mountains, a supply point quickly grew up in the valley ten miles east, opposite the mouth of the Lemhi River, where George L. Shoup platted a townsite and named it Salmon City.

Little by little, the ancient Indian roads were "improved"—leveled and smoothed—to accommodate wagonloads of freight drawn by horses, mules and oxen from as far away as Fort Benton, Montana, 300 miles to the north, or Corinne, Utah, more than 250 miles south of the forks of the Jefferson. In the late 1870s a narrow-gauge railroad was built from Corinne to Red Rock, a few miles south of the Forks of the Jefferson, which sped up the long-distance movement of freight and passengers to and from the mining camps on both sides of Lemhi Pass. Stagecoach service was established between Red Rock and the Lemhi Valley in 1884, with terminals at Tendoy on the western end of the Agency Creek road, Salmon at the mouth of the Lemhi, and Leadore fifty miles to the south near the river's source, at 7000 feet. The stagecoach route connected the valleys across the Continental Divide for 25 years.

Lemhi Pass is 7378 feet above mean sea level; the settlements of Armstead (site of Camp Fortunate) and Red Rock, 30 miles east, lie at about 5500 feet, so the average grade over the eastern leg of the journey between the Beaverhead and Salmon City was only a little over two percent. However, the stage road from the pass down the west slope to the settlement of Tendoy, Idaho, dropped 2628 feet in ten miles, an average of 6.4 percent. Obviously, the climb out of the Lemhi Valley was slow and exhausting for the animals, and the descent could be terrifying if a stagecoach or freight wagon weren't braked with a heavy "drag" of logs cut from timber on the ridge.

In 1910 the stagecoach service was supplanted by the Gilmore and Pittsburgh Railroad—the G. & P. for short, sometimes understood as "Get out and Push." It reached Leadore by a more direct route from upper Horse Prairie Creek, and chugged up and down the Lemhi Valley as far north as Salmon. The railroad was built primarily to haul ore from the mines at Leadore to the Union Pacific junction at Armstead, east of the pass. By the late 1920s the Leadore mines were exhausted, and that, along with the advent of automobiles and trucks, dealt a death blow to the G. & P. By that time traffic was flowing principally north and south through Salmon down the Salmon River Valley to Challis and Pocatello on Highway 93, which was commissioned in 1926, and through Dillon on U.S. 91 (now Interstate 15) to Idaho Falls and beyond.

Salmon is still the seat of Lemhi County, the principal agricultural and mining service center for the Salmon River Valley, with local offices of the Bureau of Land Management and the USDA Forest Service. Leadore (pop. 90), "somewhat isolated" beside U.S. 28 down toward Idaho Falls, basks in its historic ghost-town status. Tendoy (pop. 187) is a farm-and-ranch community, and a crossroads quick-stop for motorists retracing the Indian roads Lewis and Clark followed across the divide.

The approaches to the gap in the "deviding mountain" have devolved into comparatively forgotten byways.