The Camas Prairie
A rich past and an uncertain future
Photography: Heather King and Nancy Farese
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A Unique Prairie Paradise
The Camas Prairie is situated about 20 miles southwest of the Wood River Valley. Like the Stanley Basin and Silver Creek, it is our neighbor. Perhaps more than we recognize, our neighbors are vital to us. We share geography, resources and heritage. We affect and define each other. The vast openness of the Camas separates us from Boise’s sprawl, making us a remote “destination resort.” The camas’ rich pioneering and mining history is integrally entwined with that of the Wood River Valley, and is more palpable because time has not yet erased its traces.
Yet the prairie is a neighbor that many Valley residents do not know well. Its trails and fishing holes are not mentioned in most of our recreational guides. Few have skied Soldier Mountain’s back bowls. Most Wood River residents know the Camas by the view out their windows as they speed to Boise. Highway 20, from the blinking light to Mountain Home, runs directly through it. It is a scenic drive—cathartic in the way fast roads through wide spaces can be. Yet, with a little detouring, and a greater appreciation for the area, it can also be a very rooting journey.
From Left to Right: John Henry cups a camus bulb he recently liberated from the earth in the Centennial Marsh. At 90, Lena Rice is a testament to the fortitude of the people of the Camas Prairie. David Hanks, mayor of Fairfield, president of High Country Fusion, is the county’s largest private employer.
The Camas Prairie is a high-desert plateau with an average elevation of 5,000 feet. It extends approximately 50 miles east to west and 12.5 miles across. Its more than 350,000 acres are fairly flat. The annual rainfall is less than half that of the mountains to its north, 15.7 inches, and most of that falls as snow. Yet, water has been more plentiful than it appears. A vast underground aquifer, fed by mountain runoff, provided a natural artesian watering system to the first farms. Nine creeks channel the drainage. Seven of these creeks flow out of the mountains from the north, and two additional creeks run from the south into the central Camas Creek and Magic Reservoir. This broad green prairie snuggles up cozily to the southern protrusion of the mighty Sawtooths, the Soldier Mountain Range. On the map, it is the verdant “moustache” that sits above the Snake River. As the Indians and settlers came upon it, lush with grasses and camas, and populated by antelope, grouse, sage hens, prairie chickens and waterfowl, they came upon a veritable Eden.
A Rich & Colorful Heritage
The history unfolds in waves of discovery. So abundant and accessible was the prairie that it attracted early hunters and gatherers from far reaches of the country. According to one local student of Camas history, tools made of basalt and materials specific to the area have been found as far off as Florida. The Indians enjoyed the solace of their summer campground for years before the influx of trappers, immigrants, miners, stockmen, farmers, and lumberjacks. Hudson Bay Company trappers camped in the area en route to pursuing beaver in the Big Wood and Little Wood rivers. In 1862, Tim Goodale opened a detour off the Oregon Trail. His route traveled directly through the prairie: westward along the foothills of Soldier Mountain, down through the distinctive “signage” of the Castle Rock and rejoining the main trail at Rattlesnake Junction, just east of what today is Mountain Home. Highway 20 roughly parallels Goodale’s Trail, and vestiges of his original road can be seen along Baseline Road.
Settling the prairie started in the later 1800s. Cabins sprouted along the immigrant trail, and the first stock ranches took advantage of the creeks. New irrigation methods and the Homestead Act encouraged the influx. Crops included hay, wheat, alfalfa, oats, barley, potatoes, and apples. The lower prairie, in and around Bennett Mountain, fast became the most prodigious sheep-ranching region in the U.S. A San Francisco newspaper advertised the area: “The Camas Prairie is the largest body of tillable land in Idaho and is settling up quite fast. Its only drawback is the snow in the winter . . . With good land, plenty of timber, the best of water, good grass, an abundance of fish and plenty of game of all kinds, it is the farmer’s home, the stockman’s delight and the hunter’s paradise.”
Mining and lumbering drew more people to the region. The Camas Prairie became a thoroughfare for prospectors into the Soldier, Smoky, and Pioneer mountains. Stagecoach stops serviced the traffic. Porter’s Inn was a legendary stop. The orchard at Porter’s is still visible along the south side of the highway at Tollgate. Lumber presented another boon. The Sawtooths were rich in pine, fir and spruce. By the early 1900s, there were four sawmills in the area.
By the early 1900s, the prairie reached a pinnacle. Generous census reports for the area put the population at 4,900. Of the four small towns on the larger prairie—Soldier, Corral, Manard, Taft—Soldier was the commercial center. Throughout the prairie, there were 27 schoolhouses. Because of harsh winters, early residents built more schools to facilitate access to education. The Jackson School, near Mountain Home, is one of the most noticeable remaining schoolhouse structures.
In 1912, Union Pacific built a spur rail line into the prairie to service the sheep ranching and lumber industries. For political reasons, the railroad was situated two miles south of the town center. Most of Soldier moved to be on the railroad. Civic buildings and homes were rolled on logs down snow-covered roads. At its new site, the town was renamed “Fairfield.” Hill City, at the terminus of the spur line, became another significant townsite.
By the mid-1900s, the tide had turned. The mining and, subsequently, the lumber industries, ceased operations. In 1985, the Oregon Short Line to Hill City shut down. The larger farmers bought out the smaller farmers. With fewer available jobs, the population on the prairie declined to approximately 1,000. Of the several towns along the Highway 20 corridor, only Fairfield remained. Camas County became a one-town county.
The closest other prairie towns, Pine and Featherville in Elmore County’s lower prairie, had fast filled out as resort retreats, largely for Mountain Home and Boise residents. In many respects, the prairie entered a hiatus, suspended in time. Despite its robust farming industry, the area has seen no growth since the mid 1900s. On the positive side, the hiatus has been a steward for preservation. It is why the prairie has remained a wide-open space and a museum of pioneering history. >>>