The Sawtooths are home to more than spectacular views, hikes, and wildlife; they are also home to unique stories from the past. One way to experience the history is to explore the region’s ghost towns. The two ghost towns of the Sawtooth Valley are Sawtooth City and Vienna. One would hesitate to call Sawtooth City and Vienna ghost towns and might think “ghost ruins” would be a more appropriate term. Hardly anything remains of Sawtooth City and Vienna aside from a few stone foundations, but it is still worthwhile to make the trip especially if one knows the history of the land.
In the mid-1870s, the Sawtooth Valley was mainly used as a spot to camp on the journey between Custer or Ketchum. In 1878, a chance discovery of minerals on a creek bank brought settlers to the southern part of the Valley. Two men, Levi Smiley and T.B. Mulkey, panned for gold in present-day Smiley Creek, a tributary of the Salmon. After some exploration, they found a lode of quartz at the headwaters of the creek. That discovery led the two men to bring a mining party to the area who realized there were mineral veins around Smiley and Beaver Creeks. By 1879, several new mining companies emerged to invest in the burgeoning camps of Sawtooth City, on Beaver Creek, and Vienna which was located on Smiley Creek.
Mining towns typically followed the boom-bust cycle, and the two towns of Sawtooth City and Vienna were no different than the others of the American West. By 1882, Vienna had a population of eight hundred people—dramatic growth for only three years. People arrived in Vienna with relative ease thanks to the toll road, constructed in 1880, over Galena pass. It was narrow and steep, but it was the first road that ran between the Sawtooths and Wood River Valley. At its prime, Vienna had three stores, a bank, a post office, two meat markets, six restaurants, five saloons, and two Chinese immigrant-owned laundries. For a few months, Vienna even had its own newspaper. The most impressive feature of Vienna was the mill. The huge mill was called “The Vienna” and it had the ability to process fifty tons of ore in a twenty-four-hour period.
Sawtooth City was the smaller of these twin cities with a population of 600 during its peak in 1882. The town had three restaurants, four saloons, two hotels, a laundry, a blacksmith shop, a post office, and an assay office. An assay office would test the purity of precious metals and guarantee their mineral content. Assay offices were vital to the growth of mining towns where fraud ran rampant.
There were many factors that led to the decline of these two towns. The first was a particularly harsh winter in 1884-85. The snow lasted until late June of 1885 which affected both the mines and the citizens of the Sawtooth Valley. Some brave souls stuck around after that winter, but the towns shrank. Then, as gold and silver prices fluctuated, mining towns became increasingly unstable. Eventually, the towns could not handle the boom-bust cycle of the mineral market and the mills closed.
Hardly anything remains of the towns. The buildings and mills are gone, but one can hike back into the forest and see how the landscape was altered by the presence of the structures. The stone foundations are unimpressive, but they represent the industrious entrepreneurs who took a chance here. Think about the saloons and the clientele they served. Can you picture the miners and transients who would pass over the threshold of those bars? Further down the creek are more stone foundations. Perhaps one of the foundations was originally part of one of the laundries owned by Chinese immigrants. There is no information about the early Chinese residents of the Valley, but one can imagine how isolated they must have felt being a part of a discriminated minority in a remote part of the country. One’s imagination is the best tool to use when exploring ruins like Vienna and Sawtooth City.
The mountains have witnessed numerous people struggle to survive in the beautiful, but unforgiving wilderness. The memories of our predecessors live in the land and fragments of those memories are stored in the written record. Knowing the history makes for a far more satisfying venture into the original towns of the Sawtooth Valley. If you ever have a desire to explore the ruins of these two towns, remember to tread thoughtfully and let the historical record guide you.
Yarber, Esther, and Edna McGown. Stanley-Sawtooth Country. Salt Lake City: Publishers Press, 1976.
Megan Nelson is the 2020 and 2021 Docent at the Stanley Museum. Stanley is her favorite place on Earth and she’s especially passionate about its history.