Women in Thunder Mountain, 1902: Viola Lamb, Mrs. Smith & M. A. Rice

by Sharon McConnel
In "Pans, Picks and Shovels", I leaned about Mrs. Lamb's incredible account. I contacted the Payette National Forest and Larry Kingsbury generously sent me copies of their Heritage Program articles. Thank you, all!

Rainbow Peak

Rainbow Peak, looking west from Thunder Mountain

In 1901 Colonel William H. Dewey presented the Caswell Brothers with a check for $100,000 for their Thunder Mountain claims and the rush was on. Lu and Ben Caswell, and later brother Dan and his partner Wes Richey, had been working the Monumental Creek area seven years to get to this point. (See Wayne G. Minshall's Wilderness Brothers: Prospecting, Horse Packing, & Homesteading on the Western Frontier. Streamside Scribe Press, 2012, for the story of Caswell Brothers)

Newspaper articles about Thunder Mountain and Colonel Dewey's purchase used terms like "mountains of gold" and "Idaho's Klondike." "The Idaho Daily Statesman" reported almost daily on new finds and these articles were picked up by other up by other regional newspapers. Newspapers from as far away as Pittsburg (the source of Dewey's financial backing) and professional mining journals sent reporters to cover all developments. Any and all reports were fodder for news hounds.1 Women, as well as men, were drawn to remote, high-elevation Thunder Mountain.

Mrs. Viola Lamb, a stenographer from Cripple Creek, Colorado, left a typewritten account, which mentions Mrs. Smith, "a matronly looking woman about forty years of age," whom she met on the trail as well as about nine unnamed, married women and Miss Rice.

Viola Lamb

There were four in our party - a lawyer (Harry B. Tedrow), a mining engineer (Henry Weber), prospector (Robert Harper) and a stenographer (herself). Robert Harper had long ago made his fortune in the Elk Mountain District, Gunnison County, but when the papers began telling of the new Eldorado, he could not resist the temptation and decided he must go.

We left Denver Apr 23, 1902. I purchased my outfit for "roughing it" in Denver . . .(including) a pair of elk hide boots guaranteed water proof - they were until we struck the first water and after that my feet were never dry . . I usually managed to dry them enough so I could pull them on in the morning.

We stayed in Salt Lake for twenty-four hours and arrived in Boise on the 27th. . .

At Boise we heard all kinds of discouraging reports, and people who came out of Thunder (Mountain) on snow shoes informed us that it would be folly to try to get in there before July 1st with pack trains. We purchased our blankets & tents here . . .

We purchased our horses, eight of them, at Council, where we bade adieu to the railroad. . .I rode a pretty bay horse while my typewriter and supplies were carried by a white horse. Mr. Harper also rode, but the lawyer and engineer after hearing about the condition of the roads came to the conclusion they would prefer to walk. It took me some little time to learn to cook camp fashion. . . .

Well, it rained every day after leaving Council and the mud was above our horses knees, and very often I had to raise my feet to keep them out of the mud. . . . The horse that carried my supplies went down Fisher Creek and finally lodged between two boulders, when the men waded in and untied the pack, or rather cut the pack off - we saved most of the pack, but my supplies were a sight - the envelopes were all sealed, but I managed to dry the paper and legal forms so thay could be used. The horse was finally pulled out, but it was a sorry sight - all cut and bleeding - I covered it with blankets and the next day lead him without a pack, he recovered but was stolen before we reached Thunder Mountain.

Yes, the trail was simply dreadful - we had to swim the horses across the Payette River. After crossing the Payette, the next terror to be encountered was Sesesh Pass, covered ten feet deep in snow. We started out at two o'clock in the morning, hoping that the snow would have a crust heavy enough to hold up the horses - we proceeded one and a half miles when two of our horses went down and had to be shoveled out. We met several trains that had just gone a few feet farther and they too had given up . . . One of the most pitiful sights was a pack train of twelve horses that had gone into Sesesh Pass about six miles and had been there four days waiting for a frosty night, and their animals had not had a bit to eat except what they had given them in the shape of flour and oatmeal from their own supplies, they looked starved, but as they passed us they were going like lightening in the direction of grass, of course they were unpacked and the supplies cased by the way side. Two of our party went with the horses and it was a dreadful trip back over those muddy roads - thirty five miles to feed.

The rest of the travelers including Mrs. Smith - the first woman I had seen on the trail - she is a matronly looking woman about forty years of age - she had on a short skirt, soft hat, a shawl crossed over her shoulders and in her hand she carried a shepherds crook, she looked like an Alpine tourist. Her home is in Canon City and she and her husband were taking a grocery store - they hired the supplies carried in and they walked every foot of the way - after getting in Thunder she started up a bakery and made quite a fortune furnishing the mining men with pies and bread . . . where we camped - we were surrounded on all sides with rugged mountains; on one side of us was the raging Payette River, while just in front of us lay the Big and Little Payette Lakes . . .

We camped here some days when a train consisting of ten men and thirty mules - Diamond and Young's outfit from Telluride, Colorado, and drew a sigh of relief, because we felt that these hardy mountaineers, who had climbed the snowy ranges of Colorado would surely go through . . They unloaded their loaded their mules and ran them over the twelve miles free of incumbrances, this packed the snow, then they came back and took half a load, then returned again and took the remainder of their load, this of course made a good trail, so we sent word by the mail carrier to bring the horses back (mail is carried to Warren in the winter time with two dogs a man as guide, the latter on snow shoes or skis.) We crossed the Sesesh in safety but we had to unpack our horses many times so they could get out of the mud. We reached the town of Warren and had a very good dinner, but here we were warned that worse part of the trip was before us, Elk Summit. It was going up Elk Summit that Barney McGill of Victor died, he sat down on his toboggan and died of sheer exhaustion, and three men were killed in a snow slide just three days before we went over, I saw their supplies beside the trail. I had become used to all sorts of sights by this time, the first time I saw a dead horse beside the trail I felt like weeping but when I had counted two hundred it ceased to cause heartaches - two dead burros lay on Elk Summit and old prospectors told me that it was the first time that they had ever seen these hardy beasts of burden give up and die.

. . .After we came down off of Elk Summit we found that a new terror awaited us in the shape of slide rock - a sort of slate - which keeps shifting all the time, and we had forty miles of this to go over - the trail could only be followed by the blood left by the dumb beasts gone ahead, and our horses' feet were dreadfully lacerated and there were deep cuts clear up to their knees.

Just after crossing Monumental Creek (so named on account of the many beautiful monuments of granite along its banks) we encountered a new danger - places where the monuments arose hundreds of feet above the trail and a narrow ledge in some places not over eight inches wide on which the horses had to cross, and then a sharp decline of several hundred feet to the river. Many horses went down these places and were drowned and carried down stream. Our engineer and several men built a trail over these places by putting heavy trees along the dangerous spots and bracing them so as to keep the horses from slipping . .

"We arrived in Thunder and Mrs. Smith and I being the first women in camp were given a hearty welcome, and I being the first unmarried woman was presented by Mr. Moyer, the town site man, with a corner lot on Colorado Avenue . .

Miss Rice, who claims to be the first woman in Camp was about the twelfth, because the trail over which she came, "the Boise route" was not open until weeks after the Warren Trail. (I was made Registrar for the Thunder Mountain District by the County Commissioners of Idaho County, but I could not accept it on account of duties demanding my attention on the outside.)

The first typewritten letter by dictated by a Mr. Ryan of Victor and sent to Congressman F. E. Brooks, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

I had one serious accident and that was just after we passed Elk Summit - more horse slipped and threw me off and then stepped on me - I was stunned and very much bruised but I had to walk and lead my horse twelve miles the next day over slide rock, so I was forced to be a Christian Scientist that day.

I came out of camp the 26th of August . . No, I did not make my fortune with my typewriter but I secured five good claims and hope to make my fortune out of them. . . I have great confidence in that country . . . 2

M. A. Rice

. . . an occasional father-daughter team comes to light, including a pair of Texans who gravitated to the oil boom at Beaumont after the Galveston flood ruined them financially. At twenty-one M. A. Rice founded the Beaumont Oil Review, continued to edit it until she and her father decided to go prospecting in Idaho's Thunder Mountain district in May 1902. With a party of nine others they made the difficult and dangerous journey through the melting snows of Idaho high country. As usual, we learn more about Rice's clothes than we do about the prospecting activities that earned her the sobriquet "Queen of Thunder Mountain."Nevertheless, she was the one of the other prospectors thought had the entrepreneurial savvy to market their mining claims, notwithstanding the cliches of the period about women's property sphere of refinement and seclusion from the crass, materialistic world of men. In November the Queen of Thunder Mountain emerged in Chicago with sacks of sparkling gold samples to exhibit, powers of attorney from all concerned, and in impressive command of practical mining. 3

1903 and following -

A 1904 article in the "Montpelier Examiner" about the "Thunder Mountain News" reports: "Some Roosevelt women who persist in wearing pants would look more symmetrical by first removing their petticoats. Don't store excess raiment in the seat of your trousers."

"The Prospector and Thunder Mountain News" at yellowpinetimes.wordpress  ::  images  :: November 1904  :: February 1905  :: March 1905

(newspaper ads from a 1905 Thunder Mountain News.")


1 Robert G. Waite, To Idaho's Klondike/The Thunder Mountain Gold Rush, 1901-1909. Heritage Program, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Region, Payette National Forest, December 1994.

2Bob Waite, A Woman in the Gold Fields of Idaho: Viola Lamb and the Thunder Mountain Gold Rush, 1902. . Heritage Program, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Region, Payette National Forest, December 1995.

3Sally Zanjani, "A Mine of her Own/Women Prospectors in the American West," Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1997, p. 166.

Additional Reading

Idaho State Historical Society Reference Series, No. 20

Minshall, G. Wayne. -- Wilderness Brothers: Prospecting, Horse Packing, & Homesteading on the Western Frontier. Streamside Scribe Press, 2012. (The story of Caswell Brothers)

Valley County History Project. Pan, Picks and Shovels. Stories gathered by the Valley County History Project.

Wells, Merle W. -- Gold Camps & Silver Cities/Nineteenth Century Mining in Central and Southern Idaho. Idaho Department of Lands, Bureau of Mines & Geology, Moscow, Idaho, 1983.

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