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AIC Shines Its Community Spotlight on White Bird

Friday, April 22, 2016  
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
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White Bird Today

White Bird lies a few miles from the southern base of the 4,488-foot-high White Bird Hill in a narrow canyon created by White Bird Creek, a tributary of the Salmon River.

The Salmon River, the River of No Return, flows about a mile west of the city. The Nez Perce National Forest begins a few miles east. Grangeville, the Idaho County seat, is 17 miles northeast of White Bird. Riggins is 29 miles south, and Lewiston is 86 miles north.

The city and many nearby geological features bear the name of Chief White Bird, leader of a band of about 300 Nez Perce Indians. Chief White Bird and his followers joined Nez Perce Chief Joseph and Chief Lookingglass in several battles and skirmishes with the U.S. Army in 1877, generally referred to as the Nez Perce War.

The Indians won the first battle of this war about two miles north of the city of White Bird. After that, the Nez Perce had running skirmishes with the army as they fled across Idaho to Montana where other contingents of the U.S. Army intercepted them—killing Chief Lookingglass and capturing Chief Joseph. White Bird and his band, with a few hundred horses, escaped into Canada—avoiding the fate of the other two bands of Nez Perce.

Historical Tidbits 

A.D. Chapman and his Umatilla Indian wife built a ferry across the Salmon River near the mouth of what is now White Bird Creek around 1863, about a mile west of what is now White Bird and what is now known as the Jim Kilgore Farm. The ferry was germane to the founding of White Bird.

Chapman and the succeeding owners of the ferry were granted a post office, likely named Chapman as the use of "White Bird" in the naming of geographical locations did not occur until after the 1877 Nez Perce War.

Frontier post offices often consisted of a wooden box in a public location such as a store or office. The postmaster or postmistress was often the store proprietor. People sorted through the box to find their mail. Before wagon roads were available, U.S. postal carriers transported the mail by horseback or on foot, carrying the mail in their backpacks.

Prospectors discovered gold near Pierce in 1860, prompting Idaho’s first gold rush. Most of these prospectors traveled from the coast by steamer up the Columbia and Snake Rivers to Lewiston and then traveled 75 miles east by foot or horseback to Pierce. Use of Chapman’s Ferry increased dramatically when prospectors spread out from Pierce to several other placer gold discoveries in the mountains to the south and east. One of the largest was at Florence in 1861. Initially, the roads were little more than trails used by people on horseback, pack trains and herders driving domestic livestock.

Florence is about 25 miles southeast of what is now White Bird and a similar distance northeast of Riggins. The trail went south of White Bird about 10 miles to Slate Creek, then turned east on Slate Creek Road to the Florence gold fields. Prospectors coming from the south passed through what is now Riggins and either traveled north to take the Slate Creek route or turned east at Riggins for 11 miles up the Salmon River before turning north on the Allison Creek Road to Florence. By 1862 several thousand fortune seekers were panning for gold in the small creeks around Florence.

The community that grew up around Chapman’s Ferry became a trailhead and supply station for a steady stream of prospectors and merchants with trains of pack animals carrying food and supplies on the ferry and on to Florence. A small boomtown developed near the ferry where prospectors prepared and equipped themselves for the balance of their journey. Most merchants took their pack trains loaded with food and supplies over the trails to Florence where they sold the goods directly to the miners at prices several times the original cost.

The Florence gold rush reached its peak shortly after it began. By 1863 most of the prospectors had moved on to the bonanza gold discoveries in the Boise Basin and the Owyhee Mountains. As placer gold mines at Florence played out, ferry traffic also declined, but service continued for several years. After gold was discovered in the mountains west of Salmon, freighters took supplies from Lewiston—pack trains of mules and horses traveling over 200 miles of rugged mountain trails to Salmon.

The Chapman’s sold their ferry to Samuel Benedict and Grat Bernamayon in 1874 and moved into a cabin five miles northeast near a creek now named in their honor.

Benedict and Bernamayon secured a franchise from the Idaho County Commission to operate the ferry. The franchise was originally granted for eight years on condition that the two entrepreneurs build "a good and substantial wire cable ferry." Charges for using their ferry were 75 cents for a horse or mule and rider, 50 cents for a loaded pack animal, 25 cents for a "Horse Light and Loose," 25 cents per head for cattle, 12 cents each for hogs and sheep and 25 cents for a man on foot.

Following Benedict’s death, his widow sold the ferry to G.W. Curtis and his partner John Hammer in 1892. The new owners advertised in the Idaho County Free Press on April 5, 1892, "Curtis White Bird Ferry…on the direct route to Joseph and Domecq Plains and [the entire] county situated between the Salmon and Snake Rivers. Our cable is made of the very best Bessemer Steel and the Ferry boat is of the same substantial construction." Curtis’s son Fred took over the ferry in 1899.

About 13 miles southwest of White Bird near what is now Pittsburg Landing, Mike Thompson and Albert Kurry built a ferry across the Snake River in 1891. The road between the two ferries—now Forest Road 493, also known as Deer Creek Road—is narrow and steep with many tight switchbacks and breathtaking views. In the early years, the road and ferry provided an important transportation corridor between Oregon and Idaho for the early settlers and river traffic. Today, Pittsburg Landing is a popular developed campground maintained by the U.S. Forest Service with a boat dock and launch for jet boats coming from Lewiston and Cambridge through Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America.

Present-day White Bird is near the transportation corridor, U.S. Highway 95, between Lewiston and Boise just east of the Salmon River.

The original road north on the Grangeville side of the mountain had gentle slopes and was relatively easy to travel. However, on the White Bird side it started as a trail that, in part, ran through the long and steep mountain ravine that lies between today’s U.S. Highway 95 and the switchback highway built in the 1920s, now the White Bird Hill Grade Historic Site—a 14-mile, 3,000-foot vertical climb. The road was so narrow and steep in places that wagons coming down the gorge often drug logs to slow their speed of descent. A settler built a home and way station a few miles from the bottom of the gulch where travelers could rest and water their animals.

During the 1870s James Baker acquired—likely a homestead claim—the land that would become the future site of White Bird. As reported in Idaho County Voices, a publication written to commemorate Idaho’s 1990 centennial celebration, Baker was killed during the brief but difficult times of the Nez Perce War of 1877.

Katherine Kline Clay, another resident of the area, gave an interview in 1911 recounting her experiences near what is now White Bird during the Nez Perce War when her first husband, Edward Osborn, and other settlers were killed.

After leaving the unincorporated gold mining boomtown of Warren, northeast of McCall, they traveled north through Meadows Valley to a location that consisted of a few log cabins that they called French Bar, presumed to be near what is now White Bird. There is no record that White Bird was ever called French Bar; however, a French Cemetery is about an eighth of a mile from the present-day Salmon Bridge and Old Highway 95.

Although details of accounts vary, Clay said that on June 13, 1877, the men were helping neighbors harvest hay when a messenger rode up with the news that a band of Indians had killed four men, apparently prospectors, working on Slate Creek.

Edward Osborn and those with him hurried to move their families to one of the cabins that had stronger fortifications. They no sooner arrived than a war party led by Chief White Bird attacked the cabin, killing the men and one woman. The other women and children survived by lying flat on the floor as the bullets passed overhead. Clay said that Chief White Bird entered the cabin with some of his warriors. He told the women and children that he intended to spare them, but it was obvious he had great difficulty controlling his warriors who were drunk, apparently from whisky they discovered during an earlier raid.

Clay said Chief White Bird was able to get the women and children out of the cabin and saw them on their way to the home of a family member 12 miles away. The first to arrive at the destination were still in shock. The youngest of the Osborn children, a two-year-old daughter who traveled on the back of an adult, delivered the message of the tragedy. She said, "Pap shot dead, uncle dead, Indians shoot, Momma coming."

Following James Baker’s death, the land passed to L.P. Brown, who built a store. He sold the store to Frank and George Fenn around 1889. The Fenn brothers successfully made application to the U.S. postal authorities to open the White Bird Post Office in their store with Frank as postmaster. Steven S. Fenn purchased the remainder of the property from Brown in 1891.

The small community grew slowly until the Fenn’s built a stage station in White Bird in 1893. Fenn Station quickly became popular for teamsters and passengers preparing to make the climb up the long wagon road. It was also a welcome rest stop for passengers, teamsters and animals completing the long, stressful, wheel-breaking descent down the road.

As traffic on the road increased, a town began to develop. By 1900 the town had three hotels, a livery stable, saloons and various small stores and shops. The 1900 census reported a population of 176, and by 1910 the population had increased to 400.

The need for a better road up on the southern slope of White Bird Hill was critical. After the turn of the century, transportation officials began planning for the road but experienced challenges that proved difficult to overcome. The Salmon River Sun, a county-wide newspaper, reported on August 21, 1913, "…work on the north and south wagon road, under the auspices of the highway commission, is to be started very soon. The courts have upheld the constitutionality of the bond issue and the report seems entirely plausible." Workmen finally began work on grading and graveling the switch-back road up White Bird Hill in 1921.

In an oral history, White Bird resident Virginia Benz Adkison said that around 1936 or 1937 the school was closed for the funeral of a local resident who died working on improving and paving the road.

On September 11, 1956, White Bird became an incorporated village. It became a city in 1967 to conform to the change in Idaho municipal law.

​White Bird Hill Roads

The original White Bird Hill Road led to the founding of White Bird. It began as a rest stop for travelers making trips over the White Bird Hill Grade where people going up the hill could get supplies and prepare their rigs for the arduous climb and travelers headed down could rest after making the harrowing trip.

The State used convict labor to help widen the switchback road, built during the 1920s, to two lanes. In 1926 the road became part of U.S. Highway 95. At the time the road was paved in 1938, it had so many switchbacks that, if the arcs were combined, they would constitute 37 full 360-degree circles.

By that time, motor vehicles were replacing horse-drawn wagons and coaches, and the character of the town’s business community was changing to less labor-intensive services that catered to car and truck traffic. In 1940 the village population reflected this loss of employment and dropped to 275. By the end of the next decade, it had fallen to 175.

Around 1965 the Idaho Department of Transportation began construction of a new road up White Bird Hill. Contractors took 10 years to complete the complex construction project of massive cuts and fills—now a graceful seven-mile curved road. During this time, the city’s population swelled with construction workers, only to fall off when the road was completed.

The new road is elevated as it bypasses White Bird on the west. A frontage road provides access down into the city. From the elevated highway, the landscaped setting below gives the appearance of looking down into a beautiful secluded community nestled in a mountain valley.

Amenities and Attractions Today 

The city has a small downtown park with a memorial to its veterans. The City leases the closed White Bird School from the school district. The school baseball field, playground equipment and stone picnic tables have been donated to the City.

Each June on Father’s Day, the community sponsors "White Bird Days," a traditional community reunion that attracts current and former residents and families. The principal event is the White Bird Rodeo.

The nearby Nez Perce National Forest and Salmon River provide a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. Fishing, boating, hunting, kayaking, ATV riding, snowmobiling and camping are available within a short drive from the city.

Old White Bird Road is on the National Register of Historic Places and is open to traffic. It provides a wonderful opportunity for tourists to take this backcountry drive and relive the area’s history.

The nearby White Bird Battlefield Historical Site is part of the Nez Perce National Park system. Unguided walking tours are available at the site.

The historic Dr. Wilson Foskett Home and Drugstore memorializes this dedicated physician who, for 27 years, was the primary medical practitioner and first responder in most of Idaho County. He was known to selflessly put the care of his patients ahead of his own interests. He died in 1924 when the already physically spent doctor, driving from Riggins after responding to the emergency needs of an expectant mother, fell asleep and his car ran off the road into the Salmon River. A roadside monument to this exceptional and beloved man stands near the location of his death.

Pittsburg Landing, a modern 28-unit campground on the Snake River in Hells Canyon, lies across the Salmon River and the 4,300-foot divide between the Salmon and Snake Rivers.

Downhill skiing is available 22 miles northeast at Snowhaven Ski Area, accessed through Grangeville.

Outside of town, there are a couple of camping and RV camps; a couple of boat ramps for boating; lots of fishing, hiking and 4-wheeling where the State permits; and the Indian Battle Grounds, just north of White Bird.

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