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Laying the Foundation for Today
Sunday, June 28, 2015


 Sun Valley Resort was created as a destination ski resort to get people to Union Pacific passenger trains.

It might never have been built had it not been for the Philadelphia Smelter.

The smelter was the reason the Oregon Short Line extended a branch from Hailey to Ketchum, building a depot near where the Wood River YMCA is today.

At one time, the smelter was one of the largest employers in Idaho, processing ore from mines as far away as Vienna, Sawtooth City and Bayhorse.

            John Lundin, a Seattle attorney who has a second home in Sun Valley, will offer a free presentation on the Philadelphia Smelter at 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 30, at The Community Library. Lundin has been researching a book about the Wood River Valley through the eyes of his great-grandparents Matt and Isabelle McFall, who built a Bellevue hotel in 1882.

            Silver was discovered in the Wood River Valley in 1879 and miners rushed to what was said to be “one of the most extensive belts of heavy galena ores in the world

            But it cost more than $90 a ton to transport and smelt the ore 1,560 miles away in Omaha.

            So, a group of Philadelphia investors raised $2 million ($47.8 million in 2015 dollars) to build the Philadelphia Mining and Smelting Co. to reduce the volume of the ore before it was shipped.

They built the smelter with state-of-the-art equipment on 160 acres on the bench where Warm Springs Creek enters the Big Wood River in 1881.

            The half-million dollar facility (nearly $12 million in 2015 dollars) included barns, offices, scale rooms, coal houses, ore bins, mess houses, bunk houses, assay and business offices and two 40-ton smelting furnaces.

            “It was a very expensive facility,” said Lundin.

The operation also included 20 kilns to produce 60,000 bushels of charcoal for smelting and a160-acre sawmill three miles west on what is now Lower Board Ranch. A second sawmill sat on the West Fork of Warm Springs Creek.

Frank Gooding, who would become Idaho’s governor and senator, cut and rafted timber down river to the smelter.

By 1982, when the smelter opened, Wood River miners were producing more than a million dollars in ore, a portion of which was smelted at the mine where daily output reached 50 tons.

            The smelter heated the ore with charcoal. When the metal melted, impurities rose to the top and the silver and bullion was drawn of the bottom and poured into 92-pound bars.

A lot of homes in the Warm Springs area are built on slag piles, said Lundin.

In 1883 the smelter added two 50-ton furnaces, allowing it to produce 180 tons a day from 52 mines.

 Ketchum would soon be the “great smelting centre of the West,” the Ketchum Keystone predicted.

            The building of the Wood River branch of the Oregon Short Line reduced the cost of transporting goods, allowing the smelter to import coke from Pennsylvania and iron ore from Wyoming.

            It bought capital from Europe and the rest of the United States into the valley, allowing ore production to more than double from $4 million in 1884 to $9 million in 1887. And it bought modern technology to the valley—the smelter had one of the Northwest’s first electric light systems in 1882, although critics noted that “the dadgasted thing can’t be made to work when wanted.”

The smelter also had one of the first two telephones in the valley, with the Ketchum Post Office having the other. Subscribers paid a quarter for a call and non-subscribers, 50 cents.

The following year the smelter doubled in size and expanded to 400 acres, allowing it to lodge 80 employees and 50 teams and wagon trains at a time.

But in the mid-1880s the price of silver dropped and Mexico began importing low cost-duty-free silver lead ore. When mine owners cut workers’ pay, the miners at the Minnie Moore and Queen of the Hills mines near Bellevue went on a 119-day strike—the longest in the nation up until that time.

National Guard troops came from Boise with infantry, cavalry and two Gatling guns.

 The mine owners won.

            But the Philadelphia Smelter closed in 1890 because of the Silver Depression. It briefly reopened in 1892 and closed for good in early 1893. Maj. William Hyndman, a lawyer, ordered furnaces to be dynamited and the machinery sold. And the land was converted to farmland.

            “The Wood River Times said the valley’s mining district was ‘deader than a lime fossil,’ ” said Lundin. “Many towns like Bullion and Gimlet were abandoned. Hailey’s population dropped from 4,000 to 1,073; Bellevue’s, from 3,000 to 892, and Ketchum’s, from 2,000 to 465. The silver boom days were over.”

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