Idaho mining camps
This story won third place Idaho Magazine‘s 2016 writing contest. I spent many summers exploring the old mining town of Atlanta, Idaho. I hope you enjoy this tale.
Lost Near Atlanta
“It’s great here,” Pam said as she stoked the campfire.
Surrounded by the Boise National Forest, we settled in for the night after a productive research day in Boise and Idaho City. As soon as the Old Idaho Penitentiary out on Old Penitentiary Road opened, Pam and I were there ready to take pictures and notes. I was particularly interested in some of the women incarcerated in the women’s prison and Pam, being a criminal reporter at her day job, was more intrigued with the gallows. We could have stayed there all day, imagining the people who walked behind those bars, and talking to the tour guides, but we were on a tight schedule. We had only three days to see the State Pen and the mining ghost towns of Idaho City, Rocky Bar, and Atlanta.
As usual we had underestimated how much time we would need to see everything. Discussing our trip over the phone, it seemed doable. We would meet in Mountain home. Pam knew the manager of AJs Restaurant and Lounge who said I could leave my car in his parking lot. That way we wouldn’t have to take two cars. Better yet, it would be safe there and we wouldn’t have to worry. Now, there we were, at the end of our first day, pitching a tent in the forest, anxious to see Atlanta and Rocky Bar the next day. We had heard the legend of Peg Leg Annie and we were eager to check it out.
Pam and I are writers and we both have a passion for Idaho history, which isn’t surprising given the fact that we met at an Idaho history conference in Boise five years ago. Pam is writing a murder mystery set in Idaho City and I’m working on a novel. We were hoping this trip would give us all the details we needed to finish our projects.
Since neither one of us are mountain women, I borrowed a popup tent from my brother. “It’s easy,” he said as he showed me how to assemble the tent. And it had looked easy enough when we played with the tent in his driveway. But there, in the forest, I had no idea how to put the thing together. “Maybe we should have stayed in that rustic hotel in Idaho City,” I said to Pam. “A shower would be nice.”
“Yeah,” she said. “But that would defeat the purpose. The character in my novel escapes into the forest. I won’t learn about cooking over a campfire sitting on a bed staring at a TV.”
“That’s true,” I said. “And it’s nice here, being outdoors and away from city traffic.” The campground was deserted. Even the camp host had left for the season.
We were nearing the end of a beautiful October day. The sun-warmed forest was fragrant with pine and sage. I inhaled deeply, enjoying the outdoor smells. It took us a while to set up camp, but once we did, we were glad we’d made the effort.
Sitting around the campfire sipping wine, we discussed all we had learned that day. Pam was particularly intrigued with the story about Lyda Southard, Idaho’s notorious female serial killer, also known as Lady Bluebeard.
“Flypaper,” Pam said. “She boiled flypaper to make her poison.”
I nodded and tried to listen. But I was more interested in the story one of the guards told us about Peg Leg Annie. A rumored prostitute who worked in the mining camps, Annie spent her days living in Atlanta and Rocky Bar. One day in May she and her friend Dutch Em tried to walk from Atlanta to Rocky bar. A freak snowstorm cost Em her life and Annie her legs. My brain was spinning with all the stories I could tell. What was it like to be a prostitute in a mining camp? Better yet, what was it like to be a woman in a mining camp? The possibilities were endless.
As the fire crackled we plotted. “What if I have the murderer hide in the basement of that old church in Idaho City?” Pam said.
“What if Annie had a daughter who hated living in the mining camps and all she wanted to do was escape?”
Pam and I watched the fire and talked until our eyes could no longer focus. “Night,” Pam yawned. “I’m going to bed.”
“Be there soon.” I stared into the fire, wanting to sit there all night and dream. But tomorrow was another busy day, so I needed to get some sleep. Afraid the wind would fan the fire during the night, I snuffed it out and crawled into my sleeping bag. When I turned off the flashlight, Pam was already snoring.
I woke to the sound of wind howling through the forest. Good thing I put out that fire, I thought as I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag. Good thing I have a brother who likes to hunt in subzero temperatures.
“Wake up.” Pam was shaking me. It was still early, barely morning. “You’re not going to believe this.”
I poked my head outside the tent. “Whoa. What happened?”
We were smack in the middle of a snowdrift. The howling wind I heard during the night had filled our campsite with at least ten inches of snow.
“Holy cow,” Pam said. “We’re snowed in.”
Shivering, I pulled on my jeans and sweater and went outside to start a fire. Like that was going to happen. All the wood was covered with snow and what wasn’t buried in a snow bank was too wet to burn. No fire for coffee, no fire to warm our bodies. To make matters worse, everything looked flat like a white sheet. We couldn’t see the road.
“Guess that takes care of Atlanta and Rocky Bar,” Pam said.
“Guess that takes care of a lot of things,” I said. “I think we have bigger problems than research in old mining camps. Her beige Honda was good on roads, but now it was buried in snow. Gloveless, we didn’t have a shovel so we had to use our hands to move the snow away from the car. It was pointless. The more we shoveled, the more snow fell from the cottony sky.
“I’ll call for help.” Pam tired her cell. “No service,” she said looking at the snow still falling.
Exhausted, we stood beside the car in our wet clothes. “What are we going to do?”
“Well,” I said. “It would be stupid to try and walk out.”
“We can’t stay here.”
We broke into a nervous laugh. We’d been looking for an adventure. We sure got one.
“Maybe it’ll stop soon.” My teeth chattered.
“I’m going to sit in the car and run the heater until I get warm,” Pam said. Lucky for us we’d filled the car with gas in Idaho City. Just to be safe. Who knew where the nearest gas station was. I’d heard there wasn’t one in Atlanta. But that didn’t seem to matter now. We’d be lucky to get back to Idaho City, let alone Atlanta. Our research trip had morphed into a trip of survival.
We sat in the car until we could feel our fingers and toes again. By then the snow had stopped, and it was almost noon.
“I think we should walk out,” Pam said.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Do you want to end up like Peg Leg Annie?”
“No.” Pam stared out into the forest. “But I don’t want to die here either.”
We weren’t dressed for winter weather. We had no heavy coats, no snowshoes, no boots or gloves. What we had was a sense of panic as we started out, hoping we were walking in the right direction.
“I can’t even see the road,” I mumbled as I plowed through the snow, breaking a trail. Keen on adventure, I’d gotten myself into some pretty fine pickles, but this was the worst. I looked up at the sky afraid it would snow again. How did this happen? Beam me up Scotty and get me out of here.
We walked for an hour or more. “Look,” Pam said. “Here’s the road that goes back to Idaho City. If we follow it someone will find us.”
What little food we brought was all but gone. We had to keep going. We trudged through the snow until Pam slid off the road and tumbled down the embankment toward the river. “Help,” she cried.
I rushed forward and planted my feet the best I could on the slippery ground. “Give me your hand. I’ll pull you out.”
I yanked and almost fell in myself, but I didn’t let go. When she was safe, we sat on the side of the road our sides heaving. “I think I hurt my leg,” Pam said. “That was fun.”
“Barrels,” I said. “Now what do we do?” The sun was setting. We were wet. It wouldn’t be long before our clothes froze to our bodies.
“We need to keep moving,” I said, afraid if we stopped we’d never move again.
Pam winced. “I don’t think I can walk that far. Our only chance is if you go for help. I can wait here.”
“No you can’t.” I yanked on her arm until she was standing. “We’re in this disaster together.”
We both smelled it before we heard it. “Oh, no,” Pam said. “Is that a bear?”
“They don’t have bears out here, and even if they did, bears hibernate in winter.”
“Well,” Pam said. “It isn’t winter yet. He probably was surprised by the storm just like we were.”
“Run,” I said. “Here he comes!”
We turned to flee but running in the fluffy snow proved impossible. And Pam could only hobble on her bum leg.
“Roll up in a ball and play dead,” Pam instructed.
We both hit the ground and grabbed our knees tight.
Yelp. Yelp. Yelp.
I turned my head to peek. Hallelujah. It wasn’t a bear but a scraggly dog the size of a pony, barking and running toward us.
“Holy cow,” Pam said. “Never saw a dog that big.”
The dog ran to our side, pushing us with his nose. We had no other choice but to follow. “Maybe he lives around here,” Pam said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe somewhere warm.”
He led us to a small mound, a shelter covered with snow. He wouldn’t leave us alone until he had nudged us inside. Once we were settled, he lay down and went to sleep.
“Thanks, buddy.” I snuggled beside him. He was so warm, so comfortable, even if he smelled like a wet dog. Exhausted and spent, we fell asleep next to the giant dog. When we woke it was morning and the dog was gone. The sun was shining. The snow was starting to melt. Looked like our luck was changing.
“What now?” Pam said.
“I guess we keep walking. How’s the leg?”
“Not bad. I think I can make it.” Pam limped.
“Good because I’m not leaving you behind.”
It helped to walk, each step warming our muscles. “Listen,” Pam said. “I hear something.”
“Doesn’t sound like a snowmobile,” I said, which had been my secret hope. That someone eager for winter would break out their sled to play in the snow. This was better. A snowplow clearing the road.
“Hey, you!” We jumped up and down calling, “Here! Here!”
“Wow,” the driver of the yellow machine said. “Where’d you come from?”
We pointed behind us. “We were camped back there when the storm hit. My car is buried in snow,” Pam said.
“Hop in,” he said. “Let’s see if we can get you out.”
“Thanks.” We scrambled into the cab of the plow, glad to be out of the cold.
Back at camp, the driver used a rope to pull Pam’s car out of the drift. When he was finished, we quickly packed up the tent and our chairs, and loaded the car. He waited to make sure we could get out.
“Thanks so much for your help,” I said. “I don’t think we could have stood another night in this weather.”
“Consider yourself lucky,” he said. “I don’t know how you survived this one.”
“There was a big dog,” Pam said. “A Newfoundland, I think. He kept us warm. When we woke, he was gone.” She looked into the forest. “You didn’t see him did you?”
The driver chuckled. “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen him around once or twice.”
“Does he live nearby?” I asked.
“No. He roams the forest between here and Rocky Bar. That’s Annie Morrow’s dog.”
I looked at Pam. Was he kidding? If Peg Leg Annie had a dog, he’d be long gone, just like her.
“Seriously,” I said. “Where did he go? We tried to find him, but he didn’t leave any tracks.”
“Seriously,” he smiled. “That’s the dog Annie and Dutch Em had with them when they tried to walk from Atlanta to Rocky Bar that wicked day in May.”
“In that freak snowstorm,” I said.
“Right,” he said. “That dog stayed with Annie and kept her warm.”
“No way,” Pam said.
“That was over a hundred years ago,” I said. “That dog would be dead now.”
The man winked at me. “He may be a ghost, but I’m not going to tell him. Not with the job I have. He’s saved my butt a time or two.” He hopped into his snowplow, waved, and drove off toward Atlanta.
We didn’t go into Atlanta that day, or Rocky Bar either, but we did return home with some great stories to tell. And a promise that we’d make the trip again sometime. But never in October and never in May.
Sawtooth City in the late 1800s. Photo courtesy Community Library Regional History Department
Since April is national poetry month, Emily McIntyre wants to share a poem with you. Emily grew up in the gritty mining camps of Saw Tooth City and Rocky Bar, Idaho Territory, in the 1870s. She lived in a log cabin and carried water from nearby Beaver Creek. She was a great companion to Lizzie and George Harmon until the nefarious Kerry Chapman Troupe came to entertain the miners in the spring of 1882.
Back East there is a better life,
No digging in the dirt,
Or staring in a miner’s pan
Until your eyelids hurt.
A place where parasols are made
Of Paris silk so fine,
A place where steamboats paddle by,
A place that I’d call mine.
Back East is where I wish to go—
I’d like to run away
From all these mountains, trees, and chores.
Back East is where I’d stay.
Somewhere there is another sky
That’s just this shade of blue,
Somewhere back East, away from here,
Where all your dreams come true.
Emily Ann McIntyre
Saw Tooth City
April 29, 1882
You can read all about Emily’s journey in Goldie’s Daughter.