Monday, May 14, 2012

Bureaucrats needlessly obliterate an Idaho landmark

(UPDATE: Post Register Assistant City Editor Mike Mooney, in doing research for his weekly column, "You Asked For It," spoke to two people at the Bureau of Land Management about the dugout site. He was first assured by Linda Price, the new district manager, that the dugouts were still intact and that she intended to visit them very soon. She then gave Mooney the name of Liz Townley, the person in charge of interpretive sites for the local BLM office. She told Mooney the truth -- that the dugouts had been destroyed, for the reasons I suspected -- potential danger, liability, etc. As I suggest below, these issues could have been overcome had the BLM really wanted to preserve even one or two of the dugouts that were still in good condition. A cabin Dick had built and lived in below the site will be preserved, she said. That, however, is not the same thing. Cabins are commonplace.

Anyway, Townley says interpretive signs will be in place within the year. I intend to hold her to that deadline. You may want to do the same. Her email address is

Our first visit to Dugout Dick's place since his passing in 2010 was not a happy one.

Richard "Dugout Dick" Zimmerman had lived on a hillside above the Salmon River since 1948, when he built his first "dugout" into the side of the mountain. Over the years he built a dozen or so, living in one or another and renting out some of the rest. In July of 2009, Kathleen and I spent an afternoon with Dick, and my story of our visit includes the last interview that Dick gave, so far as I know. He died in April of 2010 at the age of 92.

Dugout Dick in front of his home at the end of our visit in 2009.
We spent last weekend in Salmon and had heard rumors that Dick's place had been destroyed by the Bureau of Land Management. When we arrived at the Greyhouse Inn, our home for the weekend and the place we had stayed on our previous visit, owner Sharon Osgood confirmed the story.

The land on which Dick had built his dugouts was federal property. He had eventually been granted a lifetime lease on the land, under certain conditions, with the understanding that the BLM would take over control of the land upon Dick's death. Sometime after he died, I heard that the BLM was going to preserve one or two of the dugouts for their historical value. This was, of course, the right thing.

The site of Dick's home as it looks today.
I even called the manager of the local BLM office (sadly, I don't recall the name of the man I spoke to), who assured me that it was their plan to preserve some of places Dick had called home for 62 years.

It didn't happen.

We visited the site the morning after our arrival in Salmon. If we hadn't been there before, we would not have been able to decipher that the hillside had once been dotted by the caves Dick had painstakingly dug by hand. The switchback trails Dick had carved into the hillside were nearly impossible to spot. Dick's 62 years above the Salmon River had been obliterated.

I suspect I know what the BLM folks would say. Preserving the site would have been expensive and a potential liability. Leaving the dugouts there while money was being raised to do the work exposed people to danger. I say, bull.

Sharon, and others later, told us that Dick's place had been pilfered by local people after he died. They took, among other things, the miner's hat he often wore (it's on the wall at a nearby restaurant). Some people in Salmon had no use for Dick -- he drove slowly and was something of a nuisance, they thought. Others, though, were clearly proud of Dick and his life's work. There hasn't, to my knowledge, been much of an outcry about the destruction of the dugouts, however.

I climbed to the spot where Dick had last lived, the scene of our visit with him in 2009. The dugout was gone, filled in by volcanic rock and dirt. There were some odd vestiges of Dick's presence, however. At the top of the site, a wire ran out of the ground and into the filled-in hole. This, I believe, was the wire Dick had run from a simple solar panel to a small light bulb in his kitchen. There was an empty glass jar. But there were two particularly odd items.

Perched on one rock was an old, lace-less shoe. Was it Dick's? If so, how did it get there and why was it still there, many months after the dugout had been destroyed? Was it someone's sick idea of a prank? Or had it simply been left behind by the machinery? I took a picture, then continued making my way around the site. I spotted a large fork -- the type you would use to turn steak on your barbecue grill -- sticking vertically out of the ground next to the rocks that filled the dugout. It was peculiar.

I have left part of the story out. About the time I reached the main dugout, Kathleen called out to me weakly from the dirt road about 40 feet below.

"Roger," she said. "I fell." By her voice and the way she was holding herself, I could tell she was hurt. I told her I'd come right down, but she said she was OK. She just wanted me to unlock our car doors with my remote. Anyway, when I eventually did come down, her face was bruised and bleeding and caked with dirt -- she'd taken a header from a spot above the road when she'd decided to go back instead of following me up the hill.

Anyway, after consulting with Kathleen after her fall but while I was still at Dick's place, I decided we would take the shoe, so I tossed it down the hill and carefully made my way back down to the car. We drove to the Greyhouse, where Sharon provided some first aid.

That evening at dinner, as we talked about our visit to Dick's, Kathleen teared up as she talked about the fork I had found, which I had left behind.

"It's as if someone said, 'stick a fork in him, he's done'," she said. She was sad and furious. "I want to go get it."

"We'll go back tonight and I'll get it," I told her. After dinner, we did just that.

I won't go on the verbal rampage that I feel is warranted, other than to say that some bureaucrat somewhere has mindlessly, ignorantly and needlessly obliterated a piece of Idaho history. It makes me sad and angry. Kathleen and I have vowed to do something, starting with talking to some of the people we know who had met and admired Dick. At the very least, there needs to be a memorial to the man at his place by the river.

1 comment:

  1. Roger Plothow...Thanks for sharing the story about Dugout Dick. Sad deal for sure. A fewyears ago, I made a point of meeting him with my family and enjoyed the afternoon exploring his caves and looking at life through his eyes. I asked him if he knew Buckskin Bill (Salmon River miner), who I had met back in the 70's. Pretty sure he had, as they were cut from the same cloth. We swaped a few stories, names, and jokes. He shared some of that old fashioned wisdom that doesn't come around much anymore. Recently in Vegas, at a social gathering, I noticed some fabulous photos of Dugout Dick taken by some Salmon, Idaho photographer. Made me smile big. My thought is: between the Salmon and Challis chamber of commerce (and Idaho Falls Chamber, the Idaho Dept of Commerce and the Sacagawea Cultural educational center....there certainly ought to be a way to give special recognition to this Idaho icon. He was a one of kind, tourist attraction, landlord, ice producer/salesman, who will long be remembered and adds to the folklore of Idaho.