Hells Canyon


It was also in this period that one of the grimmest events in the canyon’s history occurred. The time, as nearly as it can be made out, was early spring, 1887; it was, in any event, later that year that decomposing bodies with an oriental cast to their features began floating past Lewiston and the alarmed authorities launched an investigation of what was later to be called the Chinese Massacre, the Deep Creek Massacre, or—by the more sensational historians of the canyon—the Crime of the Century.

In the fall of 1886, thirty-two Chinese placer miners had moved onto the bar at the mouth of Deep Creek, six miles upcanyon from the mouth of the Imnaha River and some thirty river miles above the lower end of the canyon. Rumors had quickly gathered about them; the most commonly accepted story credited them with the possession of “seventeen flasks of gold dust,” each worth between $500 and $1,000. It was wealth enough to set men plotting darkly, and certain men did.

There were eight involved in the original plot, hired hands employed by a rancher running cattle on the east rim of the canyon. The plan they came up with was as simple as it was ugly. They would ride down to the Chinese camp, shoot all the Chinese, bury the gold, and climb back out of the canyon to their cows. Later, after the furor had died down, they could go back, dig up the gold, and be rich.

The night before, one of the younger men, Carl Hughes, changed his mind and begged to be left out. So there were seven men in the party when it arrived at the mouth of Deep Creek early the next afternoon. Riding directly into the camp, they opened fire immediately, at close range. The Chinese had no chance at all to resist. All thirty-two were slain and their bodies thrown casually into the convenient river.

The investigation that began when the waterlogged corpses reached Lewiston quickly spilled over local borders to become a national—and even an international-incident. An indemnity claim was filed by the Government of China against the Government of the United States to the amount of $275,000. One of the murderers, a man named Frank Vaughan, eventually broke down and confessed; he was taken into custody along with Carl Hughes, the man who had backed out on the morning of the massacre. The others faded away and were never apprehended. Fifteen years later, two young men who had been trying their luck panning gold at Deep Creek showed up in Joseph one day bearing a flask partially filled with gold dust that was worth approximately $700.


It was all that was ever found of the rumored Chinese treasure.

The first decade of the twentieth century was, in many ways, the high point of civilization’s attempt to tame the rugged reaches of the deepest gorge on earth. That was the decade that saw three towns founded in the depths of the great canyon. Only one remains. The first, and shortest-lived, of these three communities was Eureka, a mining camp on a small bar at the mouth of the Imnaha River. Gold was discovered there in the summer of 1902. A “Eureka Mining Company” was quickly incorporated; by August, 1903, there were two thousand people living on the bar, a postmaster had been assigned, and the foundations for a gigantic stamp mill were crawling up the canyon wall. Eureka, Oregon, was on the map.

Because of the difficulty of travel through the canyon country from Joseph, all heavy traffic had to come by way of the Snake River. The Eureka Mining Company had its hand in that, too. A wholly owned subsidiary, the Lewiston Southern Company, was put together early in 1903 to run steamboats between Lewiston and Eureka Bar. The lower half of that run, from Lewiston to the Grande Ronde, was easy enough; but the upper half was a challenge. Here the river narrowed down, the canyon walls climbed, and the rapids increased drastically in both size and frequency. The Lewiston Southern Company had prevailed upon the Army Engineers to do channel improvement work in the area early in 1903, and the rapids had been tamed somewhat by dynamite, but they were still vicious. Two were especially troublesome: the Wild Goose, a few miles above the Grande Ronde, and the Mountain Sheep, deep in the narrowest section of the canyon—a mere sixty-two feet wide—a mile and a half below the Imnaha. A stern-wheeler could not hope to ascend these white staircases of angry water under its own power; help was required. It came in the form of a great iron ring set firmly into the canyon wall well above each rapid. A steel cable was attached to each ring; an empty barrel was fastened to the free end of the cable, to mark it and keep it afloat. Lewiston Southern’s only steamer, the Imnaha , carried a powerful winch. Approaching a rapid, she would locate the barrel, fish it out of the water, tie onto the cable, and draw herself up to the calmer water above. There the barrel would be released, to float back over the rapid and lie in wait for the next trip.