Steam Donkey Engine

Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness
USDA Forest Service
Payette National Forest
Heritage Program
Kathleen Eld 2004

Along the banks of Smith Creek just up the hill from its confluence with Big Creek stands an old rusted steam powered, donkey engine with a winch and cable still attached. Nestled in the shade of the forest it stands as a monument to the determination and ingenuity of those hearty souls the early miners. The only enduring sign of their toil is the scattered piles of stones and fragments of mining equipment that they used daily to try and scrape a small fortune from the soil.

We don't know exactly when this machine arrived in the woods but we do know that it must have been some time between 1910 and 1940. The big gold rushes in the west around the turn of the century sparked mining activity in the Big Creek drainage for decades. The steam donkey is located approximately two miles northeast of where the small settlement of Edwardsburg at Big Creek was established around 1903. It was the natural supply point for this district and the region lying between it and the Salmon River to the north. Big Creek Ranger Station, Big Creek Hotel and store were centrally located for miners and ranchers along Big Creek to get supplies, collect mail, and to exchange news. The area was active through the 1920's. Even during the Great Depression of the 1930's many people came to the area to mine because the government was buying even small amounts of gold dust. Interest in mining declined with the commencement of World War II in the 1940's.

John Dolbeer invented the donkey engine in August 1881. The machine changed the existing logging system from the use of mules and oxen to steam and gas powered engines. This engine was connected to a horizontal capstan mounted together on log or metal skids. By wrapping cables around the capstan, the engine can pull large heavy loads that would otherwise require animal power. The engine is moved using its own power by attaching the cable to a solid tree or rock and pulling it along on skids.

Located just inside the Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness, this engine was used as a mechanical scoop for removing sediments at and below the confluence of Big and Smith Creeks. It rests on metal skids. There is a cable attached to the engine that dragged a large rectangular scoop. The scoop is now lodges in the creek bottom sediments. At the confluence of Smith and Big Creeks you can see an accumulation of rocks that appear to have been piled during the mining operation. There are various scattered riveted pipes and mining debris in the area that attest to the activity that happened there.

This site is a one of a kind cultural resource on the Payette National Forest. There are no other industrial mining machines like in anywhere within or adjacent to the Payette Unit of the Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness.

Inscribed on the frame of the steam donkey are the words M Mining, Council Idaho.

California Steam Donkey - the one from the Forest Service was a rough picture to copy.

Historic and prehistoric cultural resources on all federally managed land are protected under federal laws and regulations, including the Archaeological Preservation Act, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. These laws make it illegal to collect, remove, disturb, damage, destroy or dig for archaeological resources on federal lands without authorization. These resources are defined as any evidence of remains of past human life, anything made by people that are more than 50 years old. Such remains, sites and artifacts include, but are not limited to burials and human remains, habitation and activity areas, building, corrals, ruins, foundations, bottles, cans, coins, bullets, tools, jewelry, arrowheads, pottery and beads, and petroglyphs and pictographs.