Natural History of Bannock County, Idaho

Nature is the greatest of all historians. She is alike the most accurate and interesting. Her pen is the impress of time, and in characters more durable than the most lasting creations of man, she has written the story of the ages as they rolled slowly by. Impartial, unprejudiced, and in this respect omniscient, she has patiently and unerringly recorded a history more ancient than that of primeval man, more valuable than that of the proudest monarchy. And so, having in the previous chapter traced Bannock County from an unlocated spot in an unexplored desert to a settled and civilized community of fixed limits, let us now examine the scene of our story more closely, and try to read something of what Nature has written there.

The sheltered canyon mouth in which our city is built was once the bed of a huge lake, larger than many present day seas. Fish and prehistoric water animals, uncanny and awe-inspiring monsters, could we see them today, once sought their prey where now our houses raise their sheltering roofs. The benches that today are advertised as desirable building sites, were at one time the sloping shores of an inland sea. Could we but read the romance of rock and soil in all its detail, surely the most lurid fiction of man would pale by comparison.

The westernmost point of Bannock county is bounded by the Snake River, far-famed for the beauty of its valley and the rich gold deposits therein. The character of these deposits has puzzled prospectors and miners for many years, because unlike all other placer fields, it maintains a uniform fineness and coloring from mouth to source.

In the Engineering and Mining Journal for January 25, 1902, Mr. Robert Bell, a well known mining expert of this state, published an article entitled: “The Origin of the Fine Gold of Snake River.” This article was reprinted in the Pocatello Tribune, February 15. 1902, from which we quote, in part:

“One of the most plausible theories that have been suggested touching the origin of this extensive distribution of the precious metal was advanced by Captain N. L. Turner, a West Point man, who spent considerable time investigating the problem in the early eighties. Captain Turner advanced the theory that the gold was originally held in solution by the waters of a great inland sea or lake that occupied the Snake River valley subsequent to the Miocene period and that the gradual and repeated evaporation of this great body of water by subsequent lava flows resulted in the precipitation of its metallic contents, generally and evenly over its basin area. This theory would seem to account for the uniform size and quality of the golden colors so generally disseminated throughout the enormous acreage of fine gravel beds through which the Snake River now courses.

“The geological record of the rocks left along the borders of this stream offer conclusive evidence of a landlocked body of water. This great body of water, which might aptly be called Lake Idaho, was created by the closing of the lower valley by a great dam of brown Columbia lava, 6,500 feet high, now plainly exposed by erosion.”

The highest level of this lake was about 6,000 feet, and its extent 500 miles in length from “Weiser to the foot of the Rocky Mountain range, and 150 miles in width. Its deepest point was over 4,000 feet.

Mr. Bell goes on to say: “This lake suffered numerous and extensive variations of level during the Tertiary period. Some of the more recent horizons are still exposed at Pocatello, where on either side of the Portneuf estuary, in plain sight from the depot, well defined benches or terraces of shoreline gravel are left exposed one hundred feet above the town; and a succession of low step-terraces of lakeshore gravel, cut by the main track of the Oregon Short Line railroad between Pocatello and American Falls, plainly indicate the rapid recession of the lake levels of this period, and its final drainage and complete obliteration by the erosion of the Shake river channel to its present level.

“Prior to the inception of the great floods of black lava that have filled the upper valley (near Pocatello), the shore lines and basin area of Lake Idaho were almost all composed of granite and Palaeozoic formation. These formations were rich in placer and quartz gold.”

It is thought that the Snake River deposits also contain some alloy of platinum or iridium.

But gold is not the only valuable mineral deposit in Bannock County. Situated at the mouth of Sulphur canyon, five miles east of the town of Soda Springs, is a group of soda springs with associated deposits of native sulphur. These mines were worked in the late nineties and in the years 1901 and 1902 a considerable amount of sulphur was taken from them, but the enterprise was finally abandoned. The United States Geological Survey, in Bulletin 470, gives the following summary of these deposits:

“The failure of an apparently well backed attempt to develop these deposits will render improbable any further attempts in the immediate future. It is extremely doubtful if the deposits can be profitably worked in competition with the relatively high-grade deposits of Wyoming and Utah.”

The same bureau, in Part I of its publications for 1909, speaks more hopefully of the salt deposits in Bannock County. In an article on this subject, Carpel L. Breger says:

“Valuable areas of salt-bearing land lie along the “Wyoming-Idaho border in Bannock County, Idaho. In the old days, before the advent of railroads in the west, relatively large amounts of salt were boiled from the brine springs in this region and were hauled by ox team to supply Idaho and Montana mining camps. The emigrants to the northwest along the Lander route also drew upon this region for their salt. Indeed, some forty years ago, in the reports of the Hayden survey, this area was briefly described as containing the finest salt works west of the Mississippi. In those days as much as 200,000 pounds of salt was boiled per month, selling in the late sixties at $1.25 a hundred pounds at the spring’s.”

Col. Lander, mentioned above, after whom a street in Pocatello has been named, led a government expedition through these parts in 1863, and F. V. Hayden, whose name has been given to Hayden street, Pocatello, conducted a United States geological and geographic survey in this country in 1872.

“Since then, however, the area has decreased in importance. The railroads have passed it by; other salt works those of the Great Salt Lake region have taken its markets on account of easier railroad connection.

“Interest in these salt deposits has recently been revived, owing to the discovery of rock salt beneath some brine springs. James Splawn and H. Hokanson, in deepening these springs in 1902, encountered a formation of rock salt six feet below the surface and this has been penetrated for a thickness of twenty-six feet without reaching the bottom. The exceptional purity of the salt, its cheapness of production, and the probability of railroad connections in the near future, lends interest to the deposits of the entire district.

“As to quality, salt can be easily obtained here which is above the average in chemical purity. This salt could be produced most cheaply and with the maximum of cleanliness by a process of solar evaporation.

“At present the market for the salt of the area described is limited to the immediate vicinity. It could, however, command the markets of eastern Idaho, western Wyoming, and much of Montana.

The vicinity adjacent to Pocatello is rich in mineral deposits, but most of them lie on the Indian reservation upon which white men are not allowed to trespass. In his “History of Idaho,” Mr. Hiram T. French speaks as follows of the mining resources of Bannock County:

“Many out croppings in the mountains near Pocatello give promise of most fabulous richness. Many assays from the rock have been made, and they run up into the thousands. The agent in charge of the reservation, however, has been strict in enforcing the treaty laws. In the summer of 1893 a company of Pocatello men discovered a copper ledge of marvelous promise, on Belle Marsh creek, on the reservation, and made a determined effort to work it. They put a force of men to work there and uncovered a ledge for a distance of a hundred feet, finding a well-defined ledge of wonderfully rich copper ore. They worked it until twice warned off by the Indian agent, and quit only when they were finally threatened with arrest. During the same summer a strong company of capitalists of Pocatello, Butte and Salt Lake City organized and made an effort to secure a lease of the mineral lands on the reservation; but other men in Pocatello, who had been watching prospects and opportunity for years, entered a protest and the interior department at Washington refused to grant the lease. The same year a Pocatello organization made an attempt to obtain permission to develop mines on this reservation, but failure likewise attended this only when they were finally threatened with arrest. In 1891 some very rich galena was discovered about two miles east of Pocatello, and this created a veritable stampede of miners who began digging vigorously. The signs were most encouraging, but the Indian agent again came to the front and drove the men from the reservation. According to the testimony of all the old timers in this region there are many rich deposits of the respective valuable minerals in nearly all the mountains of Bannock County. Apparently there is enough of coal and asbestos deposit here to make a whole community rich.”

Pocatello ‘s railroad and ranching interests alone insure the development of a prosperous and fair-sized city, and in the immediate attention demanded by these activities, the mining possibilities of the neighborhood seem for the time to have fallen into the background. The day will come, however, when the Indian reservation will be thrown open, and when that day does come, a new source of wealth will be released which might easily place Pocatello well in the front rank of western cities.

In the southeastern counties of Idaho there lies an extensive shoreline of middle carboniferous limestones and shales, which has been outlined by the United States Geological Survey, and a very large portion of which is contained in Bannock County. This in its entirety composes the largest phosphate field in the world, the rock phosphate of the deposit being seventy per cent pure, in beds of from three to eight feet thick. In December 1908, the secretary of the interior withdrew from all kinds of entry 4,541,300 acres of land, part of which extends over the Utah line, pending an examination of their phosphate resources. During the summer of 1909, the United States Geological Survey conducted field work on this area, which resulted in the restoration of some of these lands and the withdrawal of others. The total area now withheld is 2,551,399 acres.

The rock phosphate deposits of Bannock County are original sedimentary formations made when this part of the earth was still under water. Since then other rock-forming sediments have accumulated, so that thousands of feet of subsequent strata have overlain them. Deformation of the earth’s surface has broken these strata, which originally lay flat. Hence these rock-phosphate deposits resemble coal and limestone, rather than ore deposits, such as veins or lodes. No entirely satisfactory explanation of their source or manner of accumulation has yet been given.

The value of these deposits will be more readily understood when it is known that prior to their discovery the total known supply in the United States was barely sufficient to last forty years. In addition to this, most of the deposits were in the control of European investors, which threatened to put the American farmer at the mercy of foreign speculators.

In his book entitled, “The Conservation of Natural Resources of the United States,” Professor Van Hise, of the University of Wisconsin, says: “The most fundamental of the resources of this nation is the soil, which produces our food and clothing, and one of the most precious of the natural resources of America, having a value inestimably greater than might be supposed from the present market value, is our phosphate-rock resources.”

Phosphoric acid is essentially a soil fertilizer. It is really nothing else than a rich manure, as the odoriferous smell given off when two pieces are rubbed together amply testifies. The enormous deposits of this powerful fertilizer practically insure the agricultural future of Idaho. The secretary of the interior, in a recent report, said: “The present crop yields of the virgin fields of the west under irrigation cannot be expected to be maintained by irrigation water alone, and the intensive methods of that region will within a few years have to figure on artificial fertilizers to maintain their great yield.”

And Nature, foreseeing our future need, has provided for it in advance.

The limestone deposits near Inkom are said to be valuable for the manufacture of cement.

The agricultural soil of the county is composed largely of disintegrated lava and volcanic ash, which, when irrigated, is very fertile. The principal waterways are the Portneuf, the Snake, and the Belle Marsh, which are fed by many mountain tributaries.

The county contains 3,179 square miles.

Having now determined in our first chapter the geographical location and early history of Bannock County, and in our second examined the nature of the country and what resources it contains, we will in the third chapter turn our attention to its first inhabitants, and consider the case of our brother, “the noble Indian.”

History of Bannock County, Idaho

Source: The History of Bannock County Idaho, By Arthur C. Saunders, Pocatello, Idaho. U. S. A., The Tribune Company. Limited, 1915

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