We Are East Idaho: Salmon
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SALMON — Salmon’s official population is 3,033, but that’s not counting the many tourists who flock to the area every summer searching for thrills and wilderness adventure.
Take a quick walk down Salmon’s Main Street, and you’ll quickly see the effects tourism has had on the city, with shops and attractions designed to catch the eye of newcomers.
Closer inspection reveals hints of Salmon’s rich past.
The river and its surroundings are a key part of both Idaho and American history, going back to Lewis and Clark and the young Native American mother who served as their guide.
Without Sacajawea and her connection to the Agaidika, (Eaters of Salmon), a northern Shoshone Tribe, the Lewis and Clark Expedition West may have been dramatically different.
“Salmon is considered the ‘birth-place’ of Sacajawea. I think a better term would be ‘homeland.’ We don’t know exactly where she was born,” Sacajawea Center Director Lin Gray said. “She grew up in the valley here and spent somewhere around 12 years in and around Idaho.”
An enemy tribe captured Sacajawea east of the Rocky Mountains. She wound up being sold to a French-Canadian fur trapper, Toussaint Charbonneau. The Lewis and Clark Expedition hired Charboneau, in part, because he said he had a wife who could speak Shoshoni.
“He actually had two Shoshoni-speaking wives. We’re unclear as to why Sacajawea was the one chosen to join (the expedition) with him (as) she had just given birth in February. They left the North-Dakota area in March (of 1805),” Gray said.
As the expedition journeyed west with the Missouri River, Sacajawea guided them toward where her tribe would be. She told them her tribe had horses, which the expedition would need to be able to continue west. When they finally arrived in the Lemhi Valley, Sacajawea facilitated trading between the expedition and the Agaidika.
The Lewis and Clark journals indicate Sacajawea’s brother had become her tribe’s chief. Whether that’s accurate is up for debate.
“There is a possibility that he wasn’t her brother — that he was some kind of male kin. In some languages, the linguistics for just a male relative is the same word for uncle, brother, male cousin. So, the captain’s wrote ‘brother,'” Gray said. “Some tribal members don’t agree. They think it was probably an uncle.”
Old Capt. Guleke and the River of No Return
And just as the Salmon River provided food for Sacajawea and her tribe, it served a key role during the gold rush.
“Our mining history in Lemhi County begins in 1866 when gold was discovered at Leesburg. So that is really the first permanent Caucasian community that develops in the area,” Lemhi County Historical Society President Hope Benedict said.
Salmon developed as a supply town for the mining communities that began to pop up.
“This town, of course, is almost 2,500 feet, probably, lower than Leesburg. So, it made sense — right on the river, it was easy to get to in terms of valley travel,” Benedict said.
The river is what really made it possible to send supplies to the mining communities. The only problem was how to get the supply boats back once they went down the river. The solution was to make the boats into a commodity for the miners.
“(The boats) were all put together with green lumber (and) sealed very loosely so they could be torn apart at that final destination and sold to the miners as dimensional lumber,” Lemhi County Historical Museum employee John Logan said.
Capt. Harry Guleke was one of the first to figure out how to get the boats downriver. He and other riverboat captains at the time chose the scow.
The scows used on the Salmon River were roughly 30 feet long and nine feet wide with long sweeps at either end. They were generally piloted by two people who stood at the center working the sweeps to navigate the boat through the swift and treacherous waters.
Guleke was known as one of the best of his time. He and his crew ran cargo down the river for 18 years, totaling as many as 200 trips.
The Salmon River gained its nickname, The River of No Return, partly because the boats sent down to the mining communities were torn apart and used for lumber never to be seen again. The second reason is because of the extreme danger involved in hauling supplies and, often, people downriver.
As crews readied to shove off, family and friends would line up along the bridge to wave goodbye, knowing they may never see their loved ones again, according to historical records.
Despite the dangers, watercraft and boating techniques eventually improved. The Salmon River evolved from a hub of commerce to one of fun and recreation.
A city in a state of flux
“One hundred years ago Guleke was taking an occasional recreational trip down the river. (As early as) the ’20s, there were occasional trips down the river made just for recreation,” Aggipah River Trips Owner Bill Bernt said. “(But in) the 1970s there was the big jump.”
Bernt said recreational trips down the river jumped 400 percent through the ’70s, with a slight drop-off in the 1980s. He said the demand has leveled off and stayed steady for around 40 years.
And people aren’t just flocking to Salmon solely to float or kayak down the river.
“You’ll have people who come here strictly for the fishing. The Middle Fork (of the Salmon River) has good fishing,” Bernt said. “Most people are coming for the wilderness experience.”
Today Salmon’s economy has shifted from its origin of mining, logging and ranching, mostly to recreation and tourism.
“Recreation has always been a little bit of a red-headed stepchild in this area and a little bit resented by the locals,” Bernt said. “Traditional industries kind of looked down their noses at recreational stuff.”
However, Bernt said attitudes towards tourism have started to change in recent years.
“It’s booming our town, and that’s what we need, and I’m OK with that,” Junkyard Bistro Cook Trista Eastman said.
Lemhi County Historical Society President Hope Benedict wants visitors to know about the area’s rich history.
“Those things that help us create our sense of place are now becoming really enjoyable to others coming in,” Benedict said.
Tourists may come and go, but Benedict believes the local community is made up of “persisters.”
“I just think that the community here has always been strong. No matter the difficulties we have met — whether it’s been the loss of a mine at Cobalt or the loss of mining at Leesburg — wherever that dip in the economy comes, the community rallies together to try to find a way to persist,” Benedict said.