Saturday, January 25, 2014

Idaho’s Magnificent Shoshone Falls Announced to the World

On January 25, 1864, the San Francisco Evening Bulletin published an article that began, “A detachment of troops recently scouting in the valley of the Snake or Lewis fork of the Columbia, discovered a waterfall which, it is said, is entitled to the distinction of being the greatest in the world. The entire volume of Snake river pours over a sheer precipice 198 feet high, 98 feet higher than Niagara.”

Given that description, the troops had observed Shoshone Falls, located about four miles northeast of today’s town of Twin Falls. The numbers given are somewhat skewed: The falls are around 212 feet high, and that’s only about 45 feet higher than Niagara Falls. (The combination of falls at Niagara is much wider, however.)

The first white men thought to have visited the falls, in 1818-1822, were French-Canadian trappers working for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Because of that, mountain men from the U. S. sometimes referred to them as the “Canadian Falls.”

Writer/artist George Gibbs provided the first documented description of the falls, and drew a sketch. Gibbs was with the Regiment of Mounted Rifles, which marched over the Oregon Trail in 1849 as a show of force against the Indians. Gibbs and the Army lieutenant who saw the falls with him decided to call them “Shoshone Falls,” which stuck.

Yet even with that earlier report, the falls had “always been enveloped in mystery.” Travelers might get near enough to hear “ the roaring of these falls,” but they seldom had the time or inclination to investigate further. As the Bulletin noted, “Very few, if any, of the tens of thousands of adventurers that have crossed the plains ever looked upon the great falls.”

In fact, even John C. Fremont, “the Pathfinder,” does not mention seeing the falls when he marched through in September 1843. His column cut across the flats south of the canyon and camped on Rock Creek, well away from the canyon.
Shonshone Falls, ca 1868. Library of Congress.
“It was said,” the Bulletin went on, “that there were a series of falls and rapids, making a descent of 700 feet in 7 miles, and the sound gave color to the report.”

Actually, the Snake drops over a thousand feet in the 24-25 miles of course between “The Cedars” (today’s Milner Dam) and below Shoshone Falls. The bulk of that – about 400 feet – occurs in the last three miles, where the Snake goes over the Twin Falls and then Shoshone.

The article said, “Some day they will be visited by the tourist and pleasure seeker, and looked upon as frequently and familiarly as Niagara is to-day.”

References: [Brit]
John C. Frémont, Report Of The Exploring Expedition To The Rocky Mountains ... The Senate Of The United States, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC. (1845).
“The Great Waterfall Of The Snake River,” Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, California (January 25, 1864).
Raymond W. Settle (ed.), The March of the Mounted Riflemen, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1989).