Sun Valley History: The wagons of Wagon Days

The 55th Wagon Days parade takes place tomorrow, Saturday Aug. 31 at 1 p.m. In honor of the event, The Valley Sun’s guest blogger Jennifer Tuohy digs into the history behind the centerpiece of the parade, The Big Hitch, also known as the Lewis Ore Wagons, the only wagons of their kind in existence today.

The 2013 Wagon Days poster by Ketchum photographer Steve Snyder showcases the majestic beauty of the Lewis Ore Wagons. Click on the poster to purchase a copy.

On August 15, 1958, Katherine Lewis rode down Ketchum’s Main Street as the Queen of the very first Wagon Days Parade. It was her 85th birthday, and the town she had called home for seven decades was honoring her in a way only this town could. Behind her snaked a line of seven unique ore wagons that had been pulled out of storage especially in honor of Ketchum’s grande dame.

As Kate, as she was known, watched the giant wagons rumble through town for the first time in over a decade her thoughts likely travelled back through the years to the story behind this remarkable sight. A story that began, as many stories of the Wild West do, with the quest for gold.

In May of 1879, David Ketchum arrived in Idaho’s Wood River Valley searching for metallic treasures in its mountains. Although he discovered the first lead and silver deposits in the area, Ketchum left a few months later. But many came behind him, chasing the same dream, and on August 2, 1880, the town of Ketchum was born.

One of those who followed in Ketchum’s footsteps was Issac Lewis. But he didn’t come just to mine, he came to build a community. Hailing from Butte, Montana, Lewis was a banker and a businessman and – as many businessmen did in those days – he saw an opportunity to create a community out of this town of dusty mining tents and dirty miners. He quickly invested in real estate, opened the town’s first drug store, helped build the Gueyer Hot Springs Resort, purchased the weekly newspaper, and constructed the town’s first bank. In his own words he “virtually made the town.” The effort Issac put into building Ketchum is still visible in the form of the First National Bank building which still stands on Main Street.

Issac’s son, Horace, soon joined him from Montana, along with his wife, Katherine. They settled on the brand new Lewis Ranch, which extended from just east of what is now Spruce Avenue in Ketchum to the mouth of Trail Creek Canyon. Horace, looking out at the daunting mountains surrounding his new home, spied another investment opportunity for his family: transporting the lead and silver from the valleys beyond into the new railroad-town of Ketchum.

The Lewis Ore Wagons remain a centerpiece of the valley's history. Alongside Bald Mountain they are one of the most recognizable features of the former mining town of Ketchum. Photo courtesy Sun Valley Resort.

In 1884 he formed the Ketchum & Challis Toll Road company to construct a road over the precipitous Trail Creek Summit and built a chain of massive wagons known as the Ketchum Fast Freight Line. A testament to human engineering and masterful animal husbandry, these giant wagons carried between 18,000 and 24,000 pounds of ore along a road no wider than a wagon. They careened around hairpin turns and teetered along sheer ledges on giant six-foot wheels, covering 12 to 14 miles per day. Built to withstand the stresses of traversing the summit loaded with ore, the wagons were daisy chained together and powered by a team of draft mules, chosen for their temperament, strength and stamina. This awesome combination of metal, wood and beast was masterfully controlled by a unique craftsman, the mule skinner. Using a jerk-line, a rein approximately 100 feet long attached to each member of the team, the mule skinner controlled as many as 20 mules at a time through a series of distinct whips and jerks.

This video demonstrates the skill of the mule skinner, showing how each mule in the team of up to twenty, must be commanded to perform a different task. (Not displaying? Click here.)

At the height of the mining activity in the Wood River, Big Lost, and Salmon River valleys the Ketchum Fast Freight Line employed 700 mules and 30 wagons to haul 700,000 pounds of ore to the Philadelphia Smelter on Warm Springs Road annually. There it was turned from raw ore into precious metal and shipped down the Oregon Short Line railroad.

Between 1880 and 1885 approximately $12 million worth of lead and silver left the valley. By 1902, when rail service to Mackay and Challis arrived, the Ketchum Fast Freight Line became obsolete and in 1909 the wagons were retired for good. Two years later Horace passed away.

For a couple years, the wagons sat sadly in a barn on the Lewis Ranch. Then, in 1911, Horace’s widow, Katherine, sold the ranch to Ernest Brass, moving down the road to a house in town. Her home is also still standing, currently occupied by the Elephant’s Perch sporting goods shop.

Kate Lewis's moved into this home in Ketchum in 1911. It is now the Elephant's Perch sporting goods store. Photo from Google Maps.

Connoisseurs of the history of Sun Valley Resort will have already made the connection in this story. That ranch between Ketchum and Trail Creek, which Kate sold to the Brass family, had a grander future in store.

For the next 20 years Ernest Brass and his large family struggled to get by. In January 1936, after losing half his herd to an appetite for the poisonous purple larkspur, Brass met a handsome foreigner named Count Felix Schaffgotsch. Schaffgotsch was on a scouting mission for Averell Harriman, searching for the perfect spot at the end of a railroad track on which the president of Union Pacific Railroad could build a luxurious ski lodge. Brass Ranch was that spot. In April, Ernest Brass sold his 3,888 acres to Union Pacific for $39,000. That December the Sun Valley Lodge opened its doors. Among the names on the guest list for opening night was Katherine Lewis.

The wagons on the other hand, were not invited to the party. Mining had long since been replaced in the valley’s economy by sheep, who had no need for breakneck rides down mountain sides. These giant emblems of Ketchum’s past sat in a rapidly crumbling barn along what is now Sun Valley Road until 1925 when one of the valley’s last teamsters, Sam Sanders, brought them out for the Fourth of July parade, and then one more time in 1940 for the Sun Valley Rodeo. For the next 15 years the wagons were left silent and forgotten. Then, in 1958, the city of Ketchum was looking for a way to honor its founding mother Kate Lewis’ 85th birthday. What better way to do that than to resurrect the source of her family’s fortunes, the Lewis Ore Wagons, and parade them through town, in what became known as the first Wagon Days parade.

In October 1958, two months after riding triumphantly through Ketchum, Kate Lewis passed away. Her nephew Palmer G Lewis, donated the wagons to the city on the condition that they be displayed once a year to commemorate Idaho’s mining heritage, and so the annual event that is Wagon Days was born.

In 1985 the wagons were given their very own home, a museum designed and built especially to house them, and allow them to be on display year round. The city has kept its promise to the Lewis family, and trots out these massive symbols of American history annually (barring wildfire and city politics) for the grand finale to the Wagon Days Parade. Held Labor Day weekend, the event has extended into a 5 day festival celebrating the area’s heritage, but the Saturday parade at 1 p.m. is still the centerpiece, and the Lewis Ore Wagons’ hair-raising trip down Sun Valley Road and around the corner onto Main Street is still the highlight. If she could see what “her town” has become, and the smiles of joy the parade brings to the thousands who gather to watch the largest non-motorized parade in the West, Kate would be so very proud.

Jennifer Tuohy

Preserving this unique and irreplaceable relic of history is a costly effort. As the Lewis Ore Wagons near their 130th birthday, the Wagon Days Committee is looking to raise $10,000 to help maintain the wagons through an indiegogo campaign. Donate to the campaign here.

For a full schedule of events this Wagon Days’ weekend go hereFor a list of the 100 unique wagons from across the West participating in the 2013 Wagon Days’ parade click here.