Clark Fork is rich in mining history.
Reminders of that bygone life in the mountains that circle Clark Fork abound: stories of old-timers who spent their early years underground, cherished photographs and old ore cars planted with geraniums.
Remnants of that hard-rock life also can be seen in abandoned mining sites dotting steep hillsides, in weathered cabins and in heavy equipment rusting into the wooded landscape.
Many old mining sites remain open and unknown and pose risks for the unwary. The once-profitable and now abandoned Lawrence Mine on Antelope Mountain, for example, was closed by the U.S. Forest Service this summer. These old “glory holes” are a danger because of rotting timbers, lack of air and poisonous gases and should not be explored.
The Webb Mine, however, situated above a canyon on the steep sides of Goat Peak, has long been blasted shut, and this summer became the destination of a Bonner County group called Monday Hikers.
Organized in 1991 by Rosalyn Clark after she and husband Bob retired to her native Idaho, the year-round hiking group explores known and little-known areas of the Panhandle and northwestern Montana on foot.
Earlier this summer, they met in Clark Fork, drove up Lightning Creek Road and headed into the backcountry behind this small town of 450. The 38 hikers parked on a side road in full view of a black bear ambling along the steep rocky sides of Goat Peak.
Although goats have not been seen for several years on their namesake mountain, other wildlife, including mountain lions, moose, elk, deer, coyotes and bears abound. Fortunate to see a black bear from a distance, the hikers were equally fortunate not to encounter a grizzly, or griz as they are known locally. The entire region is designated grizzly bear habitat and recent sightings have been reported.
The black bear disappeared, and with generous permission and assistance of a local landowner, the hikers hoofed it up the mountain. Eventually they located the overgrown wagon road built by a Clark Fork legend, a long-deceased miner known only as Mr. Webb.
“The road was lots wider when I was a little girl,” said Annie Harris, who also recalled tales of how Mr. Webb single-handedly built the road and hauled up an air compressor, over ninety feet of water pipe, and other heavy equipment with a horse-drawn wagon. But when Annie was “six or seven,” Mr. Webb resorted to riding up into the area “on one old horse.”
“He’d bring me chewing gum,” said Annie, who runs cattle and horses on over 300 acres of prime valley land, “and that’s the only chewing gum we had when I was a little girl because we were poor.”
Mr. Webb, apparently, worked alone while his family remained in comfortable Clark Fork in a home that still stands. In winters, when he got older, he lived in the rear of the post office with his married daughter, Ethel Knowland, the postmistress. As soon as the snow melted, however, he headed for the hills to search, yet again, for the elusive silver-lead ore.
“I don’t believe he ever took anything out of that mine,” said Roland Derr, who, like many other long time Clark Fork residents, also spent time underground.
Bushwacking over the overgrown wagon road, following Mr.Webb’s nearly forgotten trail, the hikers also clamored over trees uprooted by spring storms. Called “falldowns,” these large trees might have deterred a less determined crowd. Finally the hikers leapt over or waded through the creek below the site of Mr. Webb’s abandoned mining operation. They ate lunch beside a spectacular waterfall that once powered his heavy machinery. Mr. Webb’s lonely cabin, standing until the heavy snows of last winter, lay on the ground on the cliff above, as did rusted machinery, and the securely sealed mine.
Only the magnificent waterfall, drumming over mossy covered cliffs, cascading into pools and continuing down Webb Canyon, remained the same as it must have been in those early prospecting days, when life was hard but hopeful.
For information on Monday Hikers, call Rosalyn Clark, leader, chief organizer and official “Mother Hen” at 263-0549.
, DataTimes MEMO: Susan Saxton D’Aoust is a freelance writer and author who lives in Clark Fork. Panhandle Pieces appears every Saturday. The column is shared among several North Idaho writers.
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