Whiskey Springs

By S. L. Larter
first printed in The Arco Advertiser on December 30, 1999

Most old timers already know, but a number of newcomers may wonder about this place called "Whiskey Springs". It won't be found on present day maps, but roadside evidence of its existence remains today. In the upper valley, in the shadow of Idaho's highest mountain, the majestic Mt. Borah, along the south side of Highway 93, a small log house and outbuildings mark the place. Located very near milepost No. 127, this historic site overlooks the surrounding landscape of ranches and their cattle.

Though some of the original structures have been modified or removed from the site, some are still standing, a reminder of a long forgotten homestead, stagecoach and freight station. The windowpanes have long since been broken and disappeared, the hinges rusted, the floors rotted, and its privacy vandalized by a score of curious uncaring visitors who, little by little, destroyed and packed off its treasures. To add insult to injury, hundreds of pigeons have made their roosting spot in the attic of the house. It stands, stripped and naked, on a foothill overlooking the large valley separating mountain ranges.

The place of Whiskey Springs came into being around the turn of the century and was among the Lost River Valley's early stage and freight stations. Pioneer and early settler Claudius (Claude) Milnotre Larter and his wife, Ella Cordelia (Clark), came with a wagon train across the desert from Blackfoot about 1890, homesteaded the site and eventually started the stage station at Whiskey Springs about 1910. It was a place where travelers attained needed rest and nourishment, where horses were exchanged, rested, groomed and fed. While Mr. Laner took care of the livery stable and changing of the horses. Mrs. Laner managed the kitchen and guestrooms, both furnishing a desperately needed service for the travelers of that day. (See photo).

Presently one can still see the stable where the horses were housed and fed. This structure holds evidence of both old and newer construction methods. The use of common metal nails is an example of the new, but closer examination reveals an older fastening method, logs drilled and pinned together with wooden dowels. Other examples of this type joinery can be seen in a large ridge beam that was even spliced together with wooden pins, a testament to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of our ancestors as they settled this wilderness.

Part of another log structure still stands and at one time covered a spring to protect it from the elements. The small building has been dislodged about two feet from its original spot and green vegetation grows in the spring camouflaging its clear sparkling water. One has to look carefully to see where it bubbles up from the ground. Whiskey Spring's output of pure, fine tasting water surely rivals any spring anywhere in the whole state.

Below the old homestead and stage station one can see the Chilly Slough, a lush wetland where coyotes, mallards, sandhill cranes, blackbirds, muskrats, mink, fish, frogs, bloodsuckers, and a multitude of life make their home. Cattails, in plenitude, grace the slough with their tall green reeds and fuzzy brown heads that bob and weave in the wind.The slough is fed by a myriad of upper valley springs and the area is rightly named "Thousand Springs". Idaho's Fish and Game Department and the Bureau of Land Management protect it.

Whiskey Springs Stage and Freight Station ended about 1918 with the birth and development of the nearby town of Chilly, which drew the stage traffic in its direction. In about 1919, it is recorded that Mr. Larter and family moved to Chilly and bought a homestead where he began ranching. Mr. Larter continued to expand his homestead and spent the rest of his days raising purebred Hereford cattle. Just as the era of the Pony Express was short-lived, so also was that of the stage and freight station, but nevertheless, a vital role in the building of the western frontier and the state of Idaho.

Later on, near the end of the Great Depression, a newly constructed state Highway 27, now Highway 93, that went over the summit to Challis, brought life back to Whiskey Springs. It was resurrected as a gas station and rest stop for weary auto travelers, the station managed by Shirley Larter, the youngest of Laner sons. Whiskey Springs provided this service for a time, but the isolated rural service station too became history, as cars became more fuel efficient and able to travel father without stopping.

As strange as it may seem, Whiskey Springs Stage and Freight Station cannot be documented with proof from the Custer County Courthouse. The land was never surveyed at the time of filing, so no record was completed. The only documents giving evidence of Whiskey Spring's existence is a couple of old photographs, the personal testimony of one man, and a birth certificate of one of the Larters' children (child number six of seven, the only person who was ever born there). The birth certificate carries the name of Ferry Henry Larter, the place of birth "Whiskey Springs", and the date 1911. (More on Whiskey Springs next week). (Replicas of the photos and birth certificate can be seen at the Lost River Museum operated by the South Custer County Historical Society). Unable to publish Photos. But you should know that there are photos available and where.)

The second part of two articles; Section B, on January 6, 2000 by S. L. Larter

(Any description of a time or place in the history, of our Lost River Valley is more complete with first-hand observations and recollections of those who were there and a part of the history, or privy to family stories passed down through the years. The author offers a few reflections.)

At Whiskey Springs, where several springs bubble up and surface, nature has formed large watery holes approxi-mately five feet wide and four feet deep, and trout find it a haven for spawn-ing. If you can let your imagination work, one can see specters of the past, a father and his young daughter walking in the full moonlight near one of the springs. The father is carrying a fish net in one hand and holding his daughter's hand in the other. Their figures make dark silhouettes against the moonlight shining on the blue-white snowy ground. Listening carefully, one can hear the frozen snow crunching under their win-ter boots, the temperature is very cold. Thousands of hummocks cover the boggy area and the couple step briskly from one bump to another to get to the spring. Once they arrive at the spring's hole, the father dips the net into the water. He carefully guides it along the bottom of the hole and lifts out a net full of fish. Emptying them all on the snow, the daughter squeals with de-light and quickly catches and sorts the trout, throwing the large ones in a bag and the small ones back into the spring. Her fingers are red from the wet and cold temperature, but it doesn't dampen her enthusiasm.

Then imagine a wood stove and the smell of breakfast cooking, trout and small diced potatoes sizzling in a wrought iron frying pan and a pot of brewed coffee sitting on the back of the stove. Hot sourdough biscuits are stay-ing warm in the warming oven (a shelf like spot or hood on the early wood stoves to keep food warm.) Sad irons (for ironing clothes) have a permanent spot towards the rear of the cooking surface of the stove. The stove also houses a reservoir that contains water, heated by the wood burning in the fire-box, to use for washing dishes, etc. Now imagine father and daughter sit-ting down with the family to a wonder-ful breakfast of trout, the ones caught fresh the night before in the moonlight. And that's the way it was.

Now if the old buildings could talk, how many stories might be told? If one listens closely, it might tell of a little boy, the one born on that very soil, playing with his brother and making small harnesses for their pet gophers. These strange pets served as imaginary horses and pulled a child's make-be-lieve freight wagon. It was the only entertainment the children knew, void of modem day television and radio. When winter came the pet gophers were put in the root cellar with a pile of hay for them to hibernate.

Occasionally, on an incoming freight wagon, another little boy would stop by with his father and play with the Larter boys. His name was Clint: known now as Mr. Clint Whitney, a fine, upstanding gentle-man and current resident of Mackay. He reflected on those early days and said that if the freight stage left Mackay early in the morning they would stop over at Whiskey Springs, but if they left later in the day, they would go on to the next stop at Dickey, Idaho. However if they did make the stop at Whiskey Springs, Mr. Whitney, with a twinkle in his eyes and a smile on his lips, recalled the fond memo. rise and the fun he had playing with the Larter boys. One of their favorite games was playing with the pet go-phers or throwing rocks at the undo-mesticated gophers (picket pins). Mr. Whitney is happy to substantiate the existence of the Whiskey Springs Stage and Freight Station and the gopher stories.

By now, you may be wondering how Whiskey Springs got its name. Though its origin is uncertain, a number of accounts persist and have been passed down through the years. The first of several was that because of the spring's very cold water, the freighters and local folks would stash their jugs of whiskey in it to keep it cool and refreshing. One gusty soul, it is rumored, put his jug in the spring and for some unknown rea-son could never find where he'd left it. Now because the whiskey was lost for-ever, they called it "Whiskey Springs". Most likely it didn't just vanish, but had a little help from someone.

Another version involved a visiting freighter with a wagon load of whiskey headed to the Salmon River area. When the wagon pulled to a stop, a barrel accidentally rolled off and down the hill. It hit a rock and burst right at the head of the spring. You guessed it! They dubbed the place "Whiskey Springs".

The last account concerned a jug of whiskey kept in a box, buried in the ground next to the spring. Rumor had it that the jug of whiskey was always kept cooling in that box for medicinal purposes and to quench the thirst of hot, dusty, and weary travelers who were guests at the stage station. Famous for its whiskey, they naturally called the place "Whiskey Springs". However the place got its name, today one can still see what re-mains of the original house, stable, a few boards from the barnyard sheds, the concrete foundation of the service station pumps, and a small collapsed building that cov-ers the famous "Whiskey Springs" spring. When you drive by this his-torical site, take time to remember the humble lives who once lived there and imagine, if you will, a weathered wooden sign creaking in the interminable wind and read-ing "Welcome to Whiskey Springs Stage and Freight Stop".

It is encouraging to report that the BLM, present owner of the site, has plans and funds to make some renovations to the structures and to officially designate the spot a historical site. <If you have an interest in the collection and preservation of Lost River Valley history please contact the South Custer Historical Society at 588-3148.


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