During a backpacking and gold panning expedition into Idaho, Grandson Skylar Schisler, our friend Dan Case, and I came upon a ghost town nestled in the shadows of the magnificent Sawtooth Mountains, perhaps the wildest piece of real estate left in the lower U.S. My kind of country—where you can wander for days without seeing another human being. Only elk, bear, moose, wolves and deer. A 62-year-old hiker vanished here in 2015 and hasn’t been seen since.
For a while after the great 1863 gold strike, Rocky Bar was the largest settlement in the region with a population of over 2,500 people and an uncounted number of mules and dogs. Now, all that remains are a few ruins scattered along Bear Creek.
A wildfire had swept through the town in 1892. It survived to some extent, but there had not been a permanent year-round resident since the 1960s.
Thinking the town unoccupied other than by ghosts, Skylar ventured off to explore. Unexpectedly, an irate apparition named Gail Ann in worn overalls appeared like an aroused mama grouse to chew him out and run him off her “gold claim.” It turned out Rocky Bar still had one resident and her husband eking out a living from what gold they recovered from panning and a placer operation. They had homesteaded in the ghost town’s 150-year-old former Chinese restaurant.
Stories abound of eccentrics like Gail Ann who are part of the history of the gold culture. Take, for example, Peg Leg Annie and Dutch Em, both leading ladies of the night during the boom era.
One night after a hard evening’s plying their trade in nearby Atlanta, also now only a couple of residents shy of a ghost town, the two ladies set out on foot for Rocky Bar. A spring blizzard caught them.
A search party found them three days later. Dutch Em had frozen to death. Peg Leg Annie, who had been just plain Annie when she left Atlanta, had to have both feet amputated at the ankles due to frostbite.
She ended up selling whiskey from her cabin in Rocky Bar until she died in the 1930s. Incapacitated as she was, she lined up her wares and guarded them with a shotgun across her knees while she kept a wary eye out for would-be pilferers.
Gail Ann pointed out where Peg Leg’s cabin had once been located. She gazed up the creek that provided the source of her and her husband’s livelihood.
“There’s still gold in these hills,” she said. “But you got to know where to look for it—and I ain’t tellin’.”
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