Pearl, Gem County, Idaho
–Sharonmcconnel 11:07, 16 January 2009 (EST)Sharon A. McConnel
Pearl was located in the West View Mining District of Boise County, Idaho, “ten miles east of Emmett, twenty-five miles north of Nampa and four miles south of the Boise and Payette power plant on the Payette River,” in Boise County. It was included in Gem County when that county was formed in 1915. The district encompassed roughly Sections 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 21, 22, and 23 of Township 6 North, Range 1 East, B.M.
In 1880, twenty years after the Boise Basin Rush, the census taker counted twenty-nine miners on Willow Creek, fifteen of whom were Chinese.
1894 Discovery, production
Robert N. Bell, former Idaho Inspector of Mines, writing in a 1935 article in the “Boise Capital News” describes the discovery as follows:
“The original ore discovery of the Pearl district was made in the ’70′s by the early day placer miners who, however, did not find anything to justify more than a few scattered prospects cut in rather lean ore. In 1894 the camp consisted of one cabin under a grove of cottonwood trees, occupied by cowboys as summer cattle range headquarters. During that year a section boss by the name of Dan Levan wandered into camp with a wife and two or three small children, looking for a summer camp. . . the cowboys taking kindly to him encouraged him settling there, pointing out to him some rusty streaks on the side hill where they had found some good gold panning. . . Levan took to prospecting; ran a cut on the discovery shown him; found rich ore from which he could make wages with a hand mortar; soon expanded his operation to a horse arrastra. . .
Levan’s claim became the first mining title suit in Pearl district and was settled out of court when attorney William Edgar Borah found a buyer in Colonel E. H. Dewey and the sales proceeds were divided by all concerned.” 
Merle Wells in “Gold Camps and Silver Cities” writes that Pearl gold mines became productive in 1894 yielding $30,000, followed by $80,000 in 1896.
The post office was established November 12, 1895 with miner Oakley C. Wylie the first postmaster. He served until July 1904 when he was followed by George A. Sprague. 
In September 1896 Robert Minton and Margurite Jury bought a newly constructed two-story, 20′x 50′ boarding house “on the south side of the road, between a storeroom on the east and the Checkmate ore house on the west.” J. E. Griggs filed a mechanics lien against the builder for $96.70, which included freight charges on 13,608 feet of lumber. Another contractor filed a lien for unpaid labor at the rate of $3.50 per day and materials in the amount of $75 for the construction of a store. Other mechanics liens at that time included “labor as a miner at rate of $3.00 per day,” one at the rate of $3.50 per day and another at the rate of $4.00 per shift.
1900 – Optimism
The 1900 census counted 243 people in Pearl, fifty-one were women and seventy-two were children, thirty of whom were in school. Five households were headed by women. Single men outnumbered single women, 75 to 8, and women did not stay single long. Of the ten single women, at least five were married within five years.
All occupations necessary to keep a village running were found in Pearl – mercantile, drug store, livery stable, barber shop, shoemaker, butcher shop, saloons. Eight teamsters, plus veteran stage driver Joseph Shepherd, all lived in Pearl indicating the volume of freight traveling the Willow Creek road. Even firewood needed to be freighted in. The other men were miners, millwrights, engineers, machinists, laborers, carpenters, farmers, washman, and stenographer. Besides the three hotels, five households took in boarders. People came from the mining towns of Ruby Hill and Cortez in Nevada and from Silver City, Delamar, Quartzburg and Placerville in Idaho. My family relocated to Pearl from northern Nevada, where the men had all worked in the mining camps. (See person:Donald MacAskill (3) for their story.)
The first of April 1902, the “Emmett Index” reported that the Checkmate mill was nearly full of concentrates, but due to the bad condition of the roads, it was almost impossible to ship to Boise. The same month Colonel Dewey’s First Idaho Northern Railroad arrived in Emmett. The following month it was announced that E. H. Dewey had arranged for a new daily stage, to run from Emmett to Centerville via Pearl and Placerville. In June the paper reported “”the Pearl district has had a black eye because of the lack of energy, capital and management.” A week later it reported that “The Checkmate mine, the famous producer of the Pearl district, has been sold to a syndicate of Spokane capitalists for a price said to be $200,000. . .”
Optimism was evident on Pearl’s Main Street. The “Ladies Aid Society of Pearl” bought a “two story house, one wood shed and a cellar located on Main Street” which they sold thirteen months later to Union Congregational Church. The IOOF Pearl Lodge bought a building. Rush VonHarten, a stationery store keeper from Boise, bought the Pearl Drug Store. A year later Rene Hazelton, an innkeeper from Ada County, bought the Gem Saloon, which, the deed tells us, was “on the south side. . facing Main Street. . . between the building now owned by Frank Demant as a store and the building occupied by the Idaho Dress Beef Company,” the northeast corner of the ground being about “fifty feet westerly from the town well.”
A year later, in April 30, 1903, the “Emmett Index” reported “the power plant (four miles north of Pearl on the Payette River) has poles set and wires run and is now ready to transmit power to Pearl and install electric lights” . . . “the town has a good school, union Sunday school, two first-class general stores, a meat market, barber shop, two hotels, two saloons, a feed and livery stable and dairy. There is daily mail excepting Sunday and two telephone lines. . It can be reached by wagon from Boise or Caldwell in four hours time or from Nampa to Emmett by the Idaho Northern thence by state in two hours time.
“This district is comparatively a new one, as while placer mining has been carried on for a number of years, not until the year 1895 were even the crude methods of quartz operations undertaken. Within the past two years concentrators have been introduced into several of the mills of the district with the most satisfactory results. The camp now has a few steady producers and has shipped more ore and bullion than any mines of Southern Idaho. Hitherto all this ore has been hauled to Boise, but since the completion of the Idaho Northern railway to Emmett, this place has become the distributing point of the Pearl district. Already one carload of concentrates is shipped each third day from the Checkmate mine via Emmett and Nampa. The arrival of the railroad is timely for the productions of the mines of this district will be many times large this year than ever before.”
1910 – Decline
By the 1910 census, Pearl’s population had decreased by roughly half and the occupational diversity was gone. Twenty-seven of the 123 residents were gold miners and three others were mine-related: engineer, millwright, and one handyman. The number of businesses had dwindled. Rush VonHarten still had the store he had bought eight years earlier and his wife Luella was the postmistress.
Seventy-five year old Lewllyn Walter still had his store. During the past decade both men had represented Boise County in the state senate. Rene Hazelton was managing the hotel and Fred Crawford from Quartzburg was the only saloon keeper. Former saloon keeper Sam Birdwell had turned to mining.
Four men from Pearl registered for the WWI draft. John McLean, son of the Dave McLeans of Pearl, was the first Gem County WWI casualty.
1920 – Further Decline
In January 1920, the census taker counted 40 people in the village of Pearl, with the total for the entire precinct being sixty-nine. Farmers outnumbered miners almost three to one. William VonHarten, presumably Rush’s brother, was running the store. Rush’s son-in-law Jules Delamater was post master. George O’Neil, Pearl’s last post master, died December 1928, within one mile of home, while on his way to Boise in an automobile, and an era ended. Joseph Dunbar, who moved to Pearl in 1899 as a miner and stayed until his death in 1950, at which time he was managing the Idaho Power substation, probably lived in Pearl longer than anyone else.
The last remaining buildings were razed in the spring of 2004.
Today legends circulate about Pearl. One legend is of shootouts and victims buried in “boothill” yet a study of the obituaries of the people buried in the Pearl cemetery does not show that. Working from J. B. McKenney’s 1921 cemetery plat, there are forty-five known burials in Pearl, twenty were babies and two were suicides, plus one man who presumably died from a prolonged drunk. The John McKenneys moved to Pearl around 1903, so he was there during the boom.
Another legend is that Pearl was one-time an incorporated town, yet there is no evidence to support that. Again a study of Pearl obituaries does not reveal any mayors or city councilmen. Another is of documents not transferred from Idaho City to Emmett when Gem County was formed in 1915, but no one can say exactly what documents are supposedly missing. The village sat on patented mining claims and those deeds can be found in courthouse in Emmett. Some of what we know today about the Pearl businesses has been gleaned from leases and bills of sales found in the public record.
Estimates of the number of people and dwellings vary greatly. The 1900 census shows 243 people – men, women and children. The 1902 museum photograph looking west from water tower hill shows less than fifty roofs, including outhouses. No tents are visible in the photograph, so presumably the population was stable at that time.
Now as early in last century, the small mining camp of Pearl captures people’s imagination.
- Metsker’s Atlas of Gem County
- Tenth Census of the United States
- Idaho State Archives, vertical file
- 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.
- History of Post Offices in Idaho. United States Post Office. Gem County Historical Society
- Public record, Gem County, Idaho
- Twelfth Census of the United States
- Thirteen Census of the United States
- Gem County Obituaries, Edith Scott, ed; Gem County Historical Society
- Fourteen Census of the United States