For the independent and self-sufficient people who settled and helped build Idaho, the Great Depression of the 1930s was a very difficult time. With both jobs and food scarce, many were forced to wait in bread lines or look for the nearest soup kitchen for their rations of food. For some, this reliance on government handouts was difficult to accept. Some, like Jack Edmunson, my grandfather, simply refused to hold out their hands.

A lifelong miner, Jack had spent most of his 45 years looking for the next big gold strike in mining towns throughout the West—from Globe, Arizona to Grass Valley, California and up in the mines of Butte, Montana. By 1938, Jack found himself in the city of Boise, out of work and starting a new chapter in his life with a young wife and three young children to provide for. With news that there was a gold dredge mining boom going on in Warren, Idaho, he loaded up his wife and children, left their home in Boise, and headed back to the mountains. There they found an abandoned cabin located on Thomas Creek, just a few miles downstream from the town of Warren, far away from the uncertainty of the city. They settled in to wait out the Depression in their new mountain home.

Detail of Warren Basin mining district overlaid on old Idaho National Forest map. (Click for larger image.)Detail of Warren Basin mining district overlaid on old Idaho National Forest map.

Jack Edmunson wasn’t the only one to seek refuge from the outside world in Warren. Throughout the 150-year history of one of Idaho’s oldest mining towns, Warren became a destination of prosperity. From the town’s very beginnings, men from both sides of the Civil War came to Warren looking for a fresh start, anxious to leave behind the war that had torn apart their families and destroyed their homes. In the 1870s and 1880s, Warren become a bastion of hope for Chinese immigrants who had left their homeland in China, which was experiencing some of the worst drought, famine and civil war in the history of that country. In Warren they found a place to call home that allowed them to make enough money to send home to their families. In the decade of 1930s, Warren again became a destination, this time for many Idahoans looking to provide for their families during the worst economic crisis in the history of the United States.

A RUSH ON THE GOLD FIELDS

View historic photos from Warren.The historic mining town of Warren had its beginnings in the summer of 1862 when, eight months after the discovery of the rich gold fields in Florence, 18 restless men set out from there to prospect for more gold. Among them were James Warren, Matthew Bledsoe and a man named Reynolds. They headed due east across the Salmon River mountains, down and across the mighty Salmon River and up the other side. They struck gold in what became known as Warren’s Basin, named after James Warren.

When the mining laws of the newly formed Warren’s District were published in the Walla Walla, Washington newspaper on August 16, 1862, the rush was on. Two towns quickly sprang up: Washington and Richmond. The names revealed that Civil War sympathies were alive and well in the West. Less than a month later, more than 200 men were in the basin staking claims and seeking their fortunes in gold. The town of Washington, built by Union sympathizers, was located on Warren’s Creek downstream from the town of Richmond. Richmond was located up on Summit Flat at the headwaters of Warren’s Creek and, as the name suggests, was built by Confederate sympathizers. Richmond sealed its fate when it was built directly on rich placer ground, which eventually gave way to the miner’s pick and pan, eventually disappearing altogether. It looked like the North had won a victory for the Union in Warren’s Basin, with the town of Washington surviving. Washington, sometimes called Warren’s Diggins at Washington or Warren’s Camp at Washington, later became known as Warrens and then shortened to simply Warren, the name it is known by today.

Warren Meadows Dredge

Mary EdmunsonDredge working in Warren Meadows.

By the start of the 1865 mining season, most of the good placer claims were being worked hard with great results and Warren was now a well-established mining town. The continuously producing placers, along with a growing buzz that there were rich quartz veins yet to be explored in the hillsides surrounding Warren, created a constant level of excitement. Some extensive effort was finally given to prospecting for quartz in the vicinity, and the result was the discovery of a main vein of immense width, passing to the east of Warren in a northwest and southeast direction. This was traced over 15 miles by outcroppings, which in many places on the surface showed several spars shooting off in various directions. Some 25 or 30 men located claims for themselves upon this lead, and one company of eight men sunk a shaft about 12 feet and found both gold and silver in small quantities all through the vein.

The 1865 to 1866 season saw a tremendous jump in the filing of quartz claims, with more than 100 quartz claims recorded. For the next few years, work in the quartz mines continued at a feverish pitch. Quartz mining around Warren continued steadily, progressing in importance, and by the end of the 1860s, the miners of Warren realized that the most profitable future was in quartz mining, not the placer mines. In addition, most of the placer mine claims were starting to be “played out,” with returns decreasing each year. Their only two options were to abandon the claims or find someone who would be willing to buy them out.

When the original mining laws were written in the summer of 1862, James Warren and the other miners who had discovered Warren’s gold fields made it clear that they did not want the Chinese anywhere near their discoveries, but by 1869, the miners of Warren were in a welcoming mood. Their placer claims had been worked over for several years, and it was getting more difficult to procure a desirable wage from those claims, so they voted to let the Chinese into Warren.

ARRIVAL OF CHINESE MINERS

“The cheerful pop of the firecracker and the brilliant light of the joss-stick, in conjunction with an extra stench arising from Chinatown, indicates the arrival of our Celestial citizen’s New Year!” — Idaho Tri-Weekly Statesman, July 11, 1874 As expected, the Chinese bought up many of the placer claims from the whites and began to diligently work them, most of the time achieving more earnings per day than the previous owners. By the middle of the summer, the Chinese had settled peaceably into the community of Warren. They seemed to infuse new life into the mining district. It was generally believed that the Chinese lived on a few cents a day and sent the rest of their earnings back to China, but the Chinese who settled in the area spent their money freely in Warren. Chinese stores were established on the meadows of Warren Creek and their dwellings went up along the hillsides. They established a washhouse and worked diligently. They procured their own pack trains and several groups went back and forth into the South Fork country.

“The Chinese in camp had a grand festival last Sunday, the occasion being the feeding of the dead.  Several hogs and chickens were barbecued and taken to the burying ground and were then brought back and made a repast for the living. The streets were full of drunken Chinamen who did all the same as ‘Melcan man on fourth of July!’ About ten o’clock at night they burned a whole lot of joss sticks and colored paper and spilled lots of indifferent whiskey on the ground as an oblation to the evil spirits, the heathens meanwhile prostrating themselves and genuflecting like an East Indian dancing dervish outfit!” — Idaho Country Free Press, September 2, 1887

The Chinese made an immediate impact not only with their work ethic in the gold fields, but also with their ability to grow fresh vegetables, in high demand, especially after a long Idaho winter. Many of the Chinese, who hailed from farming regions of China, wintered down along the Salmon River where the growing seasons were much longer than in Warren and vegetables were ready for consumption long before those grown in Warren.

Another new and exciting cultural aspect that the Chinese brought with them to Warren were the Chinese New Year’s celebrations, held annually at the end of each January. With dragon costumes and abundance of firecrackers and joss sticks, the Chinese brought much excitement at a time when any sort of stimulation was desperately needed in a mining camp. There were reports of cheerful pops of firecrackers, brilliant lights of the joss sticks and exotic smells arising from Chinatown every year.

Polly Bemis with her horses, Nellie and Julie, Feb. 6, 1910.

Charles Shepp / National Park ServicePolly Bemis with her horses, Nellie and Julie, Feb. 6, 1910.

By 1879 it was estimated that the Chinese population of Warren had grown to more than 800 along with about 200 whites engaged in mining activities. By that time, Chinese miners held almost all of the placer claims. The Chinese in Warren, although initially viewed with apprehension, became an integral part of the community and experienced very little of the racial violence that was occurring throughout the West during this time. Racial violence against the Chinese escalated during the late 1890s, largely due to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act and a host of other state and local laws.  The Chinese retreated to the cities, hoping for safety in numbers within Chinatowns. By the turn of the century, Warren was home to only a handful of Chinese and in 1933-1934 the last three—Polly Bemis, Ah Sam and Ah Kan—all passed away within months of each other. With their passing, a colorful part of Warren’s history was gone forever.

PRE-WAR DREDGING REVIVES A TOWN

For the first three decades after the turn of the 20th century, Warren struggled to survive. With very little mining activity the citizens of this isolated mining community were in desperate need of some good news. Thankfully, the good news came to them in the spring of 1931: A new company known as the Idaho Gold Dredging Company was coming to revitalize the mining industry of Warren and the rest of Idaho County. The stock market crash was still a recent memory and a major depression loomed, but news that jobs were coming was received with tremendous enthusiasm. The people were told that the Idaho Gold Dredging Company, owned by E.T. Fisher and A.F. Baumhoff, had recently purchased a dredge and was actively preparing to explore the placer fields along the meadow below town. The company had decided that the dredge would begin its work in the upper end of Warren Meadows, and by summertime had already started employing some local men to cut cords of the local “jack pine” to be used to fuel the plant. The dredge was a steam-driven, wooden-hull boat, with four cubic foot buckets closely connected and a daily capacity of 3,500 yards. The residents of Warren went to watch in amazement as the “boat” seemed to float in the middle of the valley floor, while it gobbled up large amounts of rock. Fifteen men were employed to run the dredge. More importantly 15 families from Warren were able to eat and live during the Depression, something that all the people of this tight knit community were glad to see.

Dredge activity at Warren made it one of the most prosperous communities in the state and the rich ground was living up to its expectations in every way. Regardless of winter conditions one of the dredges dug gold bearing-gravel day and night. The dredges were so productive because they were steam driven and worked year round so their ponds wouldn’t freeze over. They ran three shifts, employing three to four men per shift.

In just four short years Warren rose to the top of the mining industry in Idaho and by the end of the decade, the valleys had been overturned with close to $4 million in gold recovered. But, just as quickly as this last boom had begun, it was over. The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, thrust the U.S. into World War II. Gold and silver mining in Warren came to an abrupt end when the War Production Board issued Limitation Order L-208 in October of 1942, effectively closing the nation’s gold mines. The government’s intent in shutting down gold mines was to focus mining on strategic metals and minerals such as lead, zinc, copper and tungsten, which were needed for the war effort. Gold and other precious metals such as silver were deemed “non-strategic.” While many individual miners managed to find employment in strategic-metal mines, the closing of gold and silver operations had a significant impact on the communities that relied on them for jobs as well as support of local businesses. Overnight, Warren was deserted. Most of the miners left for places like Stibnite.

Our Mountain Home

We wandered to this cabin in the mountains
To make a home where we could live in peace;
And wrest a living from old mother nature,
And build anew our hopes; a vast release
From the constant dunning of the landlord,
The bills for city water, light and heat,
Unemployment and the pain of sickness;
Of wondering what the children have to eat.

We have no modern fixtures in our cabin,
We carry water from a crystal spring;
And cut our winter’s wood upon the hillside,
And feel the joy that only work can bring.
There’s laughter in this little old log cabin
In spite of lamps that have a feeble glow,
And health has been restored to all the family;
It’s wonderful the way the children grow.

We have a very small productive garden,
A little pond well stocked with rainbow trout,
And on the hills are many birds and berries,
Where deer and bear and cougar stalk about.
We’ve gained a very independent spirit,
From daily work has come an honest pride,
We have a happy home in this log cabin
Here in the pine trees on the mountain side.

Mary Edmunson, August 1941

Jack Edmunson, my grandfather, was one of those lucky enough to be employed cutting the “jack-pine” for the dredges. With his crosscut saw in one hand and his double-bit axe in the other, Jack would walk down from his cabin on Thomas Creek to cut and pile the four-foot logs they used to power the boiler of the Fisher and Baumhoff Dredge. When he wasn’t doing that he found work in one of the quartz mines above town. Between the jobs he made enough to buy groceries and other supplies for the winter, and even more importantly, he didn’t have to wait in any bread lines or soup kitchens for handouts to feed his family. He would just grab his old deer rifle, head down Warren Creek and get his own winter supply of venison to feed his family. Mary, his wife, did more than her fair share, raising their three young children, canning fruit and vegetables as well as a generous supply of mincemeat and fish she had caught out of the various dredge ponds that were stocked with trout.

Jack and Mary enjoyed their time in Warren, insulated in their tiny log cabin, far from the bread lines of the cities. With the start of WWII came the end of gold mining and the end of their time in Warren. Jack moved his family to Cascade so the kids could start their schooling and he followed the other miners to Stibnite where mining for the essential war minerals was booming. Even though their time was brief in Warren, it would always hold a special place in their hearts as their mountain home. Mary’s poems reflect her feelings at the time. As a true measure of her devotion to their home in Warren Meadows, her final wish upon her death more than 50 years later was to have her ashes spread over their mountain home.

CONCLUSION

Throughout its 150-year history, the town of Warren became home to thousands of people. Whether they were leaving behind the devastation of the Civil War battlefields, the drought stricken plains of China or the desperation of the Depression-era inner city, they saw Warren as a place where they could leave their past behind and start their lives over. But what made Warren different than many of the other gold rush towns that eventually faded into ghost town oblivion, was that Warren became more than a place, it became a home. They came to Warren to escape their past and seek their fortunes, but many stayed and built a town to last throughout the ages. Today, to walk through the cemetery above town is to take a stroll through history. Tombstones reveal the names of the Civil War veterans who discovered gold and built the town, the Chinese immigrants who brought a foreign culture along with a tremendous work ethic to the valley and Depression era citizens who chose Warren as their final resting place.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • TS

    Marvelous story and a forgotten place that somehow keeps coming to life despite its isolation.
    I am curious about the treatment of the Chinese. You suggest that the Chinese were driven out of Warren by anti-Chinese hysteria in the wake of the Chinese exclusion act. Yet your fine masters thesis did not see it that way. And the standard book on the subject dismisses that interpretation as the perpetuating the stereotype of the Chinese as victim. That book, of course, is Liping Zhu’s A CHINAMAN’S CHANCE (2000). The book is about Idaho City and the Boise Basin, mostly, so perhaps things were harsher in Warren. Or perhaps editors and professors (like me) pressured you to conform to the standard story line because strong narrative needs plot, with heroes and victims.
    Professor Zhu said it well in CHINAMAN’S CHANCE: “Writers and historians have traditionally portrayed Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth-century American West as victims. . . . In many Rocky Mountain mining camps, [the Chinese] comprised a majority of the population. Unlike settlers in many other boom-and-bust western mining towns, the Chinese in the Boise Basin managed to stay there for more than half a century. Their basic material needs were guaranteed, and many individuals were able to climb up the economic ladder. Frontier justice was used to settle disputes; Chinese-Americans frequently challenged white opponents in the various courts as well as in gun battles.”
    There were anti-Chinese riots, for sure, but they were in the cities, I believe. I have not heard of any in Boise. Despite the myth of Chinese tunnels, nobody drove these people underground. Despite your colorful side notes that suggest racist language, the language was equally colorful and more hostile when Boiseans talked about European Catholics and Jews (such as the Bohemian Jewish whoremongers” who populated Levy’s alley). Colorful language aside, the Chinese were apparently strong enough in Boise to prevent Japanese rail workers from entering town, and powerful enough to challenge the City of Boise and the Idaho Supreme Court in the 1970s. The myth of the Chinese being driven out of Idaho, or Boise, is simply that. In Warren, I suspect, the Chinese left for bigger cities when the gold played out. Idaho remains, to this day, xenophobic, but it seems to me the traditional targets were Mexicans, Basques, Mormons, and Japanese. Do you have evidence to the contrary?
    Great article, Keep writing. Can’t wait for your book.

  • T.S.
    Thank you for your comments. The role of the Chinese in Warren is an interesting study in itself. As you mention, Professor Zhu describes the roles of the Chinese in the Boise Basin as contributing members of society, not just victims of racial injustice, and I believe the role of the Chinese in Warren followed similar patterns. During the decades of the 1870’s and 1880’s, the glory years of placer mining in the Warren Basin, the Chinese not only were valuable members of Warren’s society, they contributed a good deal to the economy and constituted the majority of the population. Largely due this valuable contribution and Warren’s isolation, we didn’t see the large scale of racial violence perpetuated against the Chinese that occurred in Seattle, Tacoma and Rock Springs, Wyoming. Yes, there were some isolated instances of violence, but very little compared to the aforementioned cities. Warren’s dwindling population of Chinese was a result of several factors. Many Chinese left for more productive mining camps, some went back to their homes in China and others left for the cities. The few that remained lived out their lives in peaceful co-existence with the rest of the Warrenites.
    CE

  • Christy Kay Linden

    3 time great grandfather Amasa Daniel Smead settled there during the Gold rush. He married an Indian women named Mollie. I am trying to find out any and all information about Mollie. Can anyone give me direction of where to look, or does anyone know of any stories? I do know that he and his family are still buried in their family cemetery on their family Plot. I have not clue who owns their old homestead now but would love to get in contact with them as well.
    Thank you,
    Christy!

  • gotwood4sale

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    Having recently visited Warren with my sons, one being a geology student, I very much enjoyed your article. Thank you…we’ll be back. Maybe even permanently!

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