Hells Canyon

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The stamp mill for the Eureka mines arrived in Lewiston early in November, 1903, and was immediately loaded on the Imnaha . On Sunday, November 8, with captain Harry Baugham at the wheel, she pulled away from the dock to begin the trip upriver. It was to prove her last voyage. Late that evening or early the next morning, while negotiating Mountain Sheep Rapid, she fouled her paddle wheel on that helpful cable-and-barrel arrangement. The wheel jammed; the engine died. Powerless, the Imnaha drifted back into Mountain Sheep Rapid. At the brink she touched shore just long enough for the crew and passengers to leap clear; then, as they watched helplessly, over she went. Halfway down she swung crossways and hung up, caught like a cork in the narrow channel; the water backed up behind her, and the pressure tore her in two. The stamp mill went to the bottom of the river.

The Eureka Mining Company put up a brave front, but the lack of significant pay dirt, coupled with transportation difficulties, thoroughly crippled it. Within three weeks, men were being laid off at the mines. Cargo runs on the Imnaha ’s successor, the Mountain Gem —built with money raised by subscriptions from Lewiston businessmen—slowed to a trickle, then ceased altogether. The post office was closed. By 1906 it was all over; soon nothing was left but the gigantic, lonely stamp mill foundation, stair-stepping up the canyon wall behind the empty bar like some kind of Incan ruin. It is there today, little changed—as durable a monument to the folly of man’s greed as has ever been constructed.

Even as Eureka lay dying, however, two more attempts were being made to found communities within Hells Canyon. At the south portal of the gorge, just north of the Oxbow, the cities of Homestead and Copperfield were headed for their brief moments in the sun.

Homestead is, in a sense, still there, though it is little more than a name on the map today. Founded around 1900 as an agglomeration of homesteaders, prospectors, and hard-rock miners, it flourished briefly with the success of the Iron Dyke copper mine during World War i, plummeted in importance when the mine closed in 1922, and managed to hang on to a tenuous existence mostly through the outright cussedness of a few people who simply refused to leave. Copperfield was another matter altogether. Born out of next to nothing in 1908, it rose like a meteor, flared just as brightly, and plunged to earth just as rapidly, after briefly making front-page news as far away as New York City. Credit for its demise is usually given to Miss Fern Hobbs, though the lady always insisted modestly that she really had little to do with it, that it was mostly that nice Colonel Lawson from the state penitentiary; after all, he did command the troops. …

The business of Copperfield was vice—or, as historian Stewart Holbrook once succinctly put it, “drinking, fighting, gambling, and whoring.” Its clientele were construction workers. Modern technology was beginning to inch its way into the canyon; a half-mile-long tunnel was being punched through the Oxbow to serve as a penstock for a new hydroelectric plant, and nearby the Oregon Short Line was making a gallant attempt to push a railroad through Hells Canyon to Lewiston—an attempt that would never get beyond Homestead. Between them, the two projects employed better than two thousand men. The nearest place to offer anything that could generously be called a red-light district was the city of Baker, more than a hundred miles away. Under the circumstances, Copper-field was probably inevitable.

Copperfield had no sheriff, no jail, no law enforcement apparatus of any kind. The mayor and the city councilmen were the keepers of the town’s rowdiest saloons. Riots, gang wars, fist fights, and public drunkenness were not only tolerated but, in the interests of publicity, encouraged. Baker County Sheriff Ed Rand rarely went near the place. The rest of the county government carefully looked the other way.

By 1913 the stink of Copperfield had grown to such proportions that it had begun to be smelled in distant Salem, Oregon’s capital. Governor Oswald West sent a stern message to the Baker County officials, giving them until Christmas to clean up the town. Christmas came and went; Baker County sat on its hands. Os West took matters into his.

Thus it was that, on January 2, 1914, Miss Fern Hobbs alighted from the Huntington-to-Homestead train when it stopped at the Copperfield depot. Miss Hobbs was Governor West’s personal secretary. She was twenty-five years old, stood five feet three inches tall, and weighed in at 104 pounds after a heavy meal. She carried a light briefcase. Right behind her came Colonel B. K. Lawson, warden of the state penitentiary; Frank Snodgrass, chief of the penitentiary guards; and five burly National Guardsmen. They carried heavy rifles.

Copperfield had been forewarned; the streets were decorated with pink bunting, and the entire population had turned out to greet the governor’s tiny emissary and to escort her to the town hall. There, while her armed escort stood guard at the building’s only doorway, Miss Hobbs mounted the rostrum, opened her briefcase, and took out four pieces of paper. They were letters of resignation, she said, prepared for the town’s officials. Would they sign?

They would not.