Wednesday, August 31, 2011

In search of Chilly

Historic cabins hint at wetlands’ past as commercial hub


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

This 1903 cabin was partially restored by the Bureau of Land Management in 2001, as part of an effort to preserve the Chilly Slough Wetlands 14 miles north of Mackay. The cabin is one of the few structures remaining in an area that was once a thriving commercial center. Express photo by Katherine Wutz

Little remains of the town of Chilly, Idaho, apart from a few abandoned cabins and a dot on Weather Channel maps. But where there is now a lush riparian wetland, locals say there was once a thriving ranchers' town settled in the early 20th century.

"It did exist, believe me," said Sharron Akers, a Mackay resident whose family was one of the first to settle in the region.

Akers' maiden name is Larter, marking her as the descendant of Claudius Larter, a cattle rancher who staked a claim at Whiskey Springs, roughly 14 miles north of Mackay, around 1903.

According to the BLM, the land where the remnants of Chilly reside was once a fertile hunting ground for the Shoshone Indians.

The first European travelers to come through the Lost River Valley were French fur trappers, who arrived in 1823.

Among the first people to come and stay were sheepherders. According to a 1985 article by Ray Thalman, "The Rise and Fall of Chilly, Idaho," Robert Thalman and J.B. Hunter trailed their sheep into the Lost River Valley in 1898 and never looked back.

The area is full of natural springs, sometimes known as the "Thousand Springs" region. BLM Wildlife Biologist Bart Zwetzig said this feature, mostly the water for livestock, was one of the reasons a town sprang up there.

"[The springs] were awful attractive to settlers when they arrived," he said.

The area also provided habitat for antelope and waterfowl, which translated to food for the early arrivals.

The town grew into a stage stop for freight wagons hauling ore to Mackay, said Thalman, as drivers would stop in Chilly for food and supplies. Chilly grew into a boomtown with the advent of World War I in 1918, as meat and wool prices rose rapidly.

Tourists arrived to hunt and fish in the Big Lost area as well, supporting the Hunter Store in Chilly and even creating the need for a new hotel in the region.

But everything changed when the Hunter Store burned to the ground in the mid-1920s. Though various sources give the date as anywhere from 1925 to 1927, one thing is for certain: When the store burned, the town died.

"Chilly went to hell when that store burned down," Chilly resident Ferry Larter told Marge Fulton Smith, a former schoolteacher who wrote an article about Chilly in 1985.

After the store, which provided residents with the necessities of life, burned to the ground, the Hunter family moved to Salt Lake City without rebuilding.

"People started moving away," Akers said. "And when the Depression hit, everybody left."

Janett Bailey, owner of three parcels of land near Whiskey Springs, suspects another culprit in the death of Chilly. She said that when the Mackay Dam was completed in 1918, the ranchers in Chilly upstream of where the dam was built lost part of their water rights.

"Before they had the Mackay Dam, it was a small city up there," she said. "Once they built the dam, the little town just kind of withered away."

And withered it has, whatever the reason. Akers, an author of futuristic Christian fiction who grew up in Chilly, said the place is almost unrecognizable.

"There were a few buildings left when I was a child," she said. "It's just ranches now. There's not even hardly a foundation left."

The former Larter property has a few foundations left, said Carol Herne, a historical geologist for the BLM. Though the area near Whiskey Springs was never formally homesteaded, the Larter family had a cabin built there as early as 1903.

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"It's a puzzle!" Herne said. "But it's not unusual for this area. It seems to happen quite a bit."

Herne said the cabin, which was stablilized by the BLM in 2001, was likely also used commercially because of its location on a main road.

"In a lot of cases, when you see pictures of homesteads, people are just way out in these amazingly desolate areas," she said. "This cabin was put there because it was not—it was right along the freight road."

Bailey said her land, also in Whiskey Springs, has the remnants of two cabins, which she estimates are more than 100 years old.

"They've been there as long as we can remember," she said, "And I would assume those buildings were there before that."

Her husband's stepfather, Clint Ditton, went to school at Chilly's one-room schoolhouse, where, she said, he always won the spelling bees.

Akers also attended the schoolhouse through fourth grade, when the school district was consolidated, and she had to make the 20-mile commute to Mackay each morning. The schoolhouse no longer exists, and the post office shut down in the 1960s, leaving what Bailey seems to describe as the shell of the town that was.

"There are several houses, but mostly for people who want summer homes near the river," she said. "As far as the town, it's not there anymore. There used to be a post office and a general store, but those are all gone."

What remains is a vast expanse of public and private land, a few historic buildings and a weather station—hence Chilly's appearance on The Weather Channel. Thalman said Chilly got its name in the early 20th century when traffic from ore wagons demanded that the little settlement have a more formal moniker.

The residents' original suggestion was "Wagontown," because almost everyone arrived there in a covered wagon. But, Thalman wrote, "The day was cold and the school teacher said it sure is chilly today [sic]. That ended the discussion as all went for Chilly."

Chilly's elevation is 7,000 feet, and temperatures have dipped to nearly 50 below zero in the winter. Akers said she isn't sure how her family managed to stay in the area so long.

"It's one of the coldest places on the face of the earth!" she said. "It makes you wonder why they picked it [to settle]."

Rick Dittman, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pocatello, said a weather station was put in Chilly to help work with other stations in the basin and provide an accurate weather forecast.

Much of the land is now owned by the BLM, which has worked with The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Ducks Unlimited to preserve the rare wetland habitat.

"Central Idaho just does not have [many] wetlands like that," said Lou Lunte, associate state director for The Nature Conservancy. "It's so important for migrating birds."

Zwetzig said the Chilly Slough, as the area is called, is home to more than 134 bird species, 27 mammals and more than a few reptiles, amphibians and fish. Trumpeter swans and sandhill cranes use the area as a layover on seasonal migration paths, and peregrine falcons nest in the rocky bluffs above the wetlands.

"There's a major food source [for falcons] with the waterfowl," Zwetzig said. "It's unique, and we want to protect it and make sure it stays that way."

So far, 1,462 acres have been protected by the BLM. Zwetzig said the agency is trying to pull together funding to make an offer on 800 acres of private land that's for sale in the area, including Bailey's 476 acres.

Lunte said it's possible to explore the wetlands through public access points. The easiest one is marked "Whiskey Springs" pullout, just off U.S. Highway 93 about 14 miles north of Mackay. However, Lunte recommends bringing a canoe.

"Because there are so many wetlands, that's the easiest way to get around," he said. "It's only when you start creeping around tat you really realize how much water is out there."

Zwetzig and Lunte both said they hope to restore the larger area to the way much of it is now. In place of the once-thriving freight town of Chilly, the region might soon return to something close to its native state, with electric lines and abandoned cabins being the only aberrations studding the otherwise untouched landscape.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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