Sunday, August 2, 2009

Mackay: Mines, mountains and Main Street

MACKAY – It’s a busy day in Mackay. On one end of town the county fair is packing them in. Out on the highway there’s an arts and crafts show. As usual for a summer weekend, four-wheelers are everywhere.

On Main Street, besides the usual ATV traffic and a few more folks than usual walking the sidewalks, it looks pretty much like any of two dozen other small Idaho towns – a small grocery store here, a bar there, motel around one corner, hamburger place around another.

There are, however, a couple of landmarks of distinction. One is the empty building of mysterious ownership and history with this enigmatic sign on the front: Clock Cigar Store. (According to the Custer County Historical Society’s web site, the building was originally the home of the Mackay Miner newspaper.)

The newest storefront on Main Street is the From the Saddle photography gallery, where proprietor and photographer Linda Hesthag Ellwein greets us with stories and cowboy music on the CD player.

Ellwein is a former Madison Avenue producer turned facilitator turned economic developer turned photographer and rancher, the latter happening gradually over the last few years. With a perpetual smile, she says she’s still reluctant to refer to herself as a “professional photographer.”

“It just happened,” she says. “I said to myself, ‘I’m probably not going to take it seriously unless I call myself a photographer’.”

In truth, one look at her pictures will tell you she’s a photographer. Most of the prints on the walls of her gallery are of local people and places, from atypical landscapes to a dusty horseman on the trail. In the center of her gallery are chairs and sofas, sending a clear message – sit a spell and chat, which we eagerly do.

But our main objective today is the Mackay Mine Tour, which begins essentially at the southern end of Main Street and will take us high above the valley into the White Knob Mountains to the remains of one of Idaho’s most remarkable mining ghost towns. We reluctantly take our leave of Ellwein and head out of town.

Before making the 96-mile drive from Idaho Falls to Mackay through the Arco desert, do what we did and spend some time with the online virtual tour of the mine hill. Just Google “Mackay Mine Hill virtual tour” and you’ll find the Bureau of Land Management site. It’s superb and will provide history and directions, the latter being the more important.

There are three trails on the mountainside – Green, Blue and Red. After taking a combination of the Green and Blue trails loop in a four-wheel-drive pickup, we strongly recommend sticking to the Green loop, which is easily passable for any passenger car. The Blue trail got a little dicey for about a mile or so (where I was forced to impress my wife, Kathleen, with my two-footed 4WD skills) and the Red trail is for ATVs and motorcycles only. Print out the map and pay attention to the signs and you’ll be fine.

(Mackay is famous for its ATV trails, and the Mine Hill trails are a good place to start on your four-wheeler.)

The Mine Hill was active from 1879 to 1949, at one time supporting four towns (Mackay, White Knob, Cliff City and Houston), yielding $3.75 million in copper by 1914. Remnants of the mines and towns are all over the mountainside and the Green trail provides access to most of these. Figure a good three hours-plus for the tour, longer if you take a picnic to eat at the top, where there's a little mining still going on in an open pit along several terraces.

The top of the passenger car tour peaks at 8,500 feet, so check locally before taking the tour – snow stays late and returns early at that elevation.

There’s no snow on this day – it’s in the 80s and perfect. We swing by to thank Ellwein for her hospitality and promise to return. There are, after all, Idaho’s highest mountains just down the road, canyons in every direction, and more pictures to see.


  1. Choice of subjects is tops. Execution great. If you want to be a professional, you are already there. Cheers.

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  3. Thanks, folks! I'm editor and publisher of Idaho's second largest newspaper, the Post Register. I'm writing most of these stories for a weekly series this summer on places to see in our region (except, of course, for the ones about places elsewhere). Your continued input is appreciated.

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