Sawtooth Association

The Alpine Examiner

August 21, 2022

Naturalist Blog

Getting to the heart of what matters in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area

The People Behind the Peaks: A Brief History of Bill Horton

The view from Horton Peak Lookout

The Sawtooth peaks are filled with mystery. Mountaineers unravel the mystery by finding hidden routes while geologists unearth the puzzles buried within the rocks. Every peak’s unique name adds to the overall mystery. One of the most accessible and trafficked peaks in the Sawtooth Valley is beautiful Horton Peak. Horton Peak butts up against the White Cloud Mountains which are on the eastern side of the Sawtooth Valley. Unlike the Sawtooths, the White Clouds aren’t visible from the drive on Highway 75, but that does not make them any less magnificent than their more-popular neighbors. For those looking to experience what the White Clouds have to offer, the trek up to Horton Peak offers a great first taste of adventure.

Horton Peak’s name is an homage to the first Forest Ranger of the Sawtooth Valley, Bill Horton. Horton moved to the Wood River Valley, better known as Ketchum, when he was a young child because his father was a mining engineer who worked at a mine in the area. But shortly after the move, Horton’s father died, leaving young Bill an orphan. Bill stayed in the Wood River Valley on a local homestead. While living and working on the homestead, Bill did odd jobs for the Forest Service until eventually landing a full-time job. He built two Ranger Stations in the Ketchum Ranger District until receiving a new assignment to build a new Ranger Station in the Sawtooth Valley. Not only would Horton build the Ranger Station on lonely Pole Creek, but he would serve as its first Ranger.

Bill Horton in his cabin at Pole Creek

Pole Creek is a small tributary of the Salmon River and its headwaters rise in the White Clouds. In 1909, when Bill Horton went to build a Ranger Station on Pole Creek, it was a uniquely isolated place. Broadly spaced homesteads dotted the valley while the two ghost towns of Sawtooth City and Vienna were on the other side of the Valley. Horton was not deterred by the remoteness. In the early spring, he would snowshoe over Galena Pass to open the Ranger Station and prepare for the season. At that time, the journey from the Wood River Valley to Pole Creek took three days by horse and wagon, so one can only imagine how long it would take on snowshoes. Once the snow melted, Horton’s wife and daughter joined him at the Ranger Station. Horton served as the Ranger for over twenty years, so the little family spent many of their summers in the little cabin on Pole Creek.

Ranger Horton’s tasks varied from day to day. Currently, the Forest Service divides management between different departments such as rangeland, wildlife program, and fire. However, in the early days of the Forest Service, the Ranger handled everything. Horton often handled disputes over range boundaries within the National Forest. The Sawtooth National Forest had only been established in 1906, so the regulations were relatively new to the residents of the Valley. Horton was also responsible for overseeing the water and feed conditions for the stock. A particularly challenging aspect of the range management was the language barrier between Horton and the Basque sheepherders.

When he wasn’t overseeing pastures, Horton protected stock by setting traps for predators and reporting and fighting other dangers like fires. Horton caught several bears and according to an apocryphal story, one bear was the largest that had ever been spotted in the Sawtooth Valley. However, there was no concern greater than fires. To combat the summer’s constant threat, the Forest Service installed phone lines and phones at a few places throughout the Valley. The Ranger Station at Pole Creek would be informed of any fires through those calls.

Bill Horton retired from the Forest Service in 1930 after over thirty years of service. He moved to California and died in 1936, after visiting the Sawtooth Valley one last time with his daughter. While Bill Horton the Ranger might be long gone, his memory lives on in the Valley through the still-standing Pole Creek Ranger Station and Horton Peak. Those who hike should consider exploring Horton Peak. On top of the peak sits an old fire lookout. While Horton never manned the lookout, the peak is named in his honor as he was the first official steward of the Sawtooth and White Cloud wilderness. The summit of the peak provides an incredible view of the Sawtooth Valley. Although time has passed, the Valley looks about the same as the Valley that Bill Horton managed. Perhaps one will find a newfound appreciation for the view from Horton Peak and its namesake

Megan Nelson is the Docent at the Stanley Museum. She loves learning something new every day about Stanley-Sawtooth history. In her free time, she loves to hike or spend time at Redfish Lake.