HISTORY OF WARM RIVER, IDAHO
The first written account of traveling through the Warm River area was published in the Deseret News in Salt Lake City in August of 1890.
The party consisted of Dr. J.R. Park president of the Deseret University, Harry Squires, the artist, Milando Pratt, and his daughter, Miss Viola Pratt, and B.W. Driggs, Jr.
The party left from Marysville (then known as Springville). "We found an old trappers trail leading from up the Warm River, or "Mormon Mule River" as it is sometimes called. The trail is very dim, and leads up to near the vicinity of the Vioia Falls (Mesa Falls) on the Snake River. We were told these falls were worth spending a day to see; but it being a wild country, without roads, very few people ever visit them. We camped on the Warm River, after following its winding course half a day, and found it one of the best places for fishing in our experience.
Ward Reynolds wrote a recollection of the road before the railroad came, stating; The original road started where the stone arch bridge is now on top of the canyon at the Howell Ranch, the road headed north straight off the canyon to the Walker flat. From there it followed the river to the junction of Warm River and the Snake, then east up Warm River, fording Robinson Creek and Warm River right where the Fred Lewies Café was established.
The road then followed Warm River to Keppner's flat, forded the river again, then went straight east, out of the canyon. Form her it stayed on the ridge east of Warm River until it was above Warm River rapids, possibly 2 miles above Bear Gulch. Here a dugway went back down into the canyon, across the river again, thence west into the Warm River meadow country (Garrett Meadows).
One of the first settlers in the Warm River area was Bimlick and Josephine Stone who had arrived from England in 1896. The Carter, Egbert, Howell and Walker families and others built log cabins and settled in the bottom of the canyon near the river and creeks that made water easily available.
The earliest road to Island Park and Mesa Falls ran through the area. The first dugways down and out of the canyon proved hard to maintain as the soils were clay and tended to erode and slide when saturated with water. An old stone bridge can be seen as one drops into the canyon, and after being down at the bottom, one can look up through the lodgepole pine and see the large rock walls that sheltered the first dirt and gravel roadway that horse and wagons, stages and coaches provided transportation to tourists traveling to Yellowstone Park.
The coming of the tracks for the Oregon Short Line Railroad in 1907 brought life to the canyon area eight miles east of Ashton. The railroads main purpose for the Warm River siding was a 60 foot steel turntable in a concrete pit, built in 1908 on the west side of the tracks. The turntable was used to turn around the additional locomotives that had to be added on to the trains to push the load up to the top of Rees Pass in Island Park.
The stock pens built in 1911 were to the south of the turntable, and there was also a passing track on the east side. In 1930 the railroad listed Warm River as having a two pen stockyard with a capacity of 9 head on livestock on the loading deck. The stockyard was no longer being listed by 1946.
There was a pump house that supplied water from the river built in 1907. The standard 24' diameter,50,000 gallon wooden water tank was built in 1907 on a concrete foundation. By 1946 this water tank had been removed, since the locomotives were working out of Ashton.
Many will remember an old passenger car and a boxcar set off of the tracks on a foundation and used by the section crews. They were burned down shortly before the line was removed in 1978.
In May of 1906, The Idaho State game warden was on the lookout for Japanese railroad laborers dynamiting fish in the local rivers. Six laborers were caught at the confluence of the Snake and Warm rivers. All six jumped in the river to swim to the other side to escape the law, but three drowned with only two bodies ever being recovered down river. Their names were, H. Ishii, S. Makita, and S. Matsu. Two of the bodies are buried in the southwest corner of the Pineview Cemetery east of Ashton.
A contract was let in 1920 to reconstruct the road dugway going down into Warm River and constructing a new bridge at the bottom. Otto Lobnutz was said to be the contractor, moving large amounts of soil and hillside to provide a stable roadway that was prone to sliding.
Zina Iowa Gunter had recently married David Taylor Howell, and expressed her concern about living by the newly laid tracks, as many laborers, hobos and transients walked the rails. David had filed a homestead on some good farm ground on top on the south side of the canyon in 1905 and was in hopes of building a home on the property when a well could be drilled.
Early farm families on the north side of the river were George and Willis Hibbard, Eli Kirkham, G.S. Arnold, David Levi Stone, Marvin Jones, and later Lavar Cherry. In the late 30's E.L. "Doc" Hargis began buying larger tracts of land on the north side, sometimes by buying land for back taxes or from financial institutions that had foreclosed on the previous owner. Doc's brother Daws and his son Lou did the farming and ran cattle in the area.
Farms on the south side of the canyon were David Taylor Howell, his brother William Preston Howell and their brother in law Lorin Walker and his brother Charles Oakland Walker. It was very common in the early days that the farmers would put in their crops and then drive coaches for the Yellowstone Park companies through the summer until the crops ripened and harvest began. Others on the south side were Max Marotz, Otto Lenz, Harry Hudson, Owens, Sheppard, Joe and Henry Reimann.
The Keppner family who's large log home eventually became the Ranch House, owned land on the upper east side of Warm River. Ralph Stephens purchased his ranch in the Fish Creek area from Joseph Hollis Egbert and several others in about 1918. Small fields can still be seen in the upper areas, but acidic pine soil was more predominant and was poor and lent itself to pasture land better than farming.
A post office in Warm River is listed as being from 1909 to 1924 with Adolph Adair as the postmaster. Family members say that the Adair home possibly sat in the right-of-way when the train came through and was possibly destroyed at that time. Many early post offices were run out of the postmaster's home. A post office is shown in the Greentimber area in 1906 with John Albert George as the postmaster. It was closed in 1912 with the mail being then delivered to Warm River.
In 1909 an LDS Ward was created in Warm River with Samuel P. Egbert as presiding elder. In 1912 Bishop George A. Hibbard and his councilor Eli Kirkham were released and David Taylor Howell was set apart as bishop along with his counselor Axel Anderson.
In 1914 David Howell was released as Bishop and George Hibbard was appointed as Presiding Elder as the Ward was downgraded to a Branch. It is said that the church meetings were held in the school house. Records show that there were 23 families and 103 souls in the Ward.
The Warm River Sunday school /Bible class show records through to July 27th 1930 in the record book found in the Hess Heritage Museum. Over the years of 1923 to 1930, enrollment ranged from 25 to 45 children, with about ¾ that amount attending any given Sunday.
WARM RIVER SCHOOL - DISTRICT # 18
School in Warm River began in 1909, possibly in the log barn owned by Lorin Walker. One early picture and memory of Dallas Howell confirms this. But soon after the cast stone school house was built on the flat half way up the dugway owned by Charles Oakland Walker and later Henry Reimann. This school had a basement and one large classroom on the ground floor. A bell hung in the belfry which summoned the students. The school served for many community events.
Normally two teachers taught anywhere from 27 to 45 students in grades 1 - 8. Upon entering high school, kids in the outlying areas would rent an apartment in town or stay with relatives in Ashton to attend the higher grades. A complete roster of teachers is available at the Ashton Archives, and is too long to list here.
The rock school mysteriously burned down the summer of 1939. It was speculated if it was arson, but nothing was ever proven. The stone was salvaged and the Reimann family used it to build a barn now located at the Walter Reimann farm, south of the Pineview Cemetery east of Ashton.
In 1940 a new two room framed school house was built at the top of the hill just north of the Dave Howell residence on land purchased from Henry Reimann. School Board Trustee Ralph Hossner, quite a large man, was helping install a swing set for the children when Reimann became quite animate about being paid for the previous years summer fallowing of the soil where the school house set. A heated argument ensued and Ralph ended up hitting Henry side of the head with the shovel, knocking him to the ground. Henry took the matter to court and Ralph was convicted of battery. The school board gladly paid the fine.
School was held in the new school house until 1943, when Fremont County consolidated all the small school districts. Bus routes were established and in 1948 and the school district moved the Warm River school house to Macks Inn where it was settled on a foundation west of the LDS Church where it became a school site for youngsters in that area.
The first sawmill at the confluence of the Snake and Warm River was built by Milton M. Hammond and Joe Hendricks, early Marysville pioneers. Work began in 1894 by building a dam that diverted water from Warm River, taking it around the foot of the rocky bluff and dumping it into the Snake River.
A large concrete millpond was built along side the new mill. This is often referred to as a swimming pool, however nothing was ever proven that it was. A steam boiler fired with edgings from the logs powered the saw and planer. The third year a water wheel was installed. A cable was strung across pilings in the Snake River to catch the logs floating down. A winch cable was then attached from the water wheel to the logs, dragging in the logs to the mill. At a later date a small turbine was installed at the bottom of the mill pond powering all of the equipment in the mill.
By 1906 the mill was owned and operated by Jacobs and Fogg. These were local business men who owned several mills including one in Island Park, and then several lumber yards that were located in St. Anthony and Rexburg. Tourists riding by on the train at that time could recount large piles of sawdust at the confluence on the two rivers.
Not too much is known about the operation of the mill in the 1920's and 30's. We do know that by 1940 Randell Howe had acquired the mill. In about 1943 to 1945 Herk Rightenour was buying the mill from Howe, but because of wartime conditions, the government could not make up their mind as if a sawmill was deemed an essential industry and sometimes the mill was allowed to run and sometimes not.
Through this turmoil, Herk ran into financial trouble and Howe moved for foreclosure. Lawyers were retained and it was said that the matter ended up in the Idaho Supreme Court. Howe was repossessing trucks and equipment. Rightenour was trying to get the equipment out of Howe's grip by moving it up north to West Yellowstone. In the hurried move, Herk's brother Mertin was killed when the men were loading a planner on a freshly surplused army truck, the equipment got away from them crushing it's victim. Herk ended up spending the rest of his days running a lumber and hardware store in West Yellowstone, Montana.
After World War II had ended, Randell Howe sold the mill to Chet Isaacs and his brother who had just returned from the Navy. Chet named his new business the Warm River Lumber Company, had many successful years and ran the mill until the mid 1960's. The mill was still powered with the old water turbine system for many years. Chet did convert to electricity but found the power bill to be harder to live with than the low cost water power.
Chet and his wife Selma built a nice log home located across a low slung wooden bridge on what people called the Island. Norman Bates was an early employee and lived in a small frame home where Rightenours had resided down on the point in a swampy area where the rivers met. Logs were either trucked in, or at one time, floated down the Snake River and captured with cables strung across the river attached to man-made rock islands. The slide where the logs entered the river was upstream from Bear Gulch.
Even though the mill boasted a capacity of 20,000 board feet a day and employed 24 men, the demise slowly came as the Stud Mill in St. Anthony was established and the Forest Service started selling larger timber sales requiring a mill to upfront almost a million dollars to land a timber sale. The mill equipment was sold and disassembled in the mid 1960's.
Of course no story could be written about Warm River without talking about Fred Lewies. Fred was not your typical sod-busting German or Mormon immigrant which was so common of all the others settling in the area. Fred and his brother Jack were born in the Estonian region of Europe. The young brothers were sent to live with more well off relatives in Johannesburg, South Africa. As a young teenager, he participated in the Boer War and was captured by the English and was taken to England as a prisoner. Not being detained long, he was released into a strange new land. Being skilled, he joined a traveling show troupe as a fancy rope performer and trick shot artist, and in time performed before the kings and queens of Europe. During this time Fred became an accomplished photographer. This career took him to the far off lands of Australia, Asia, and South America.
In 1910 the troupe landed in North America. Fred then traveled west possibly stopping in Cleveland, Ohio to visit a sister who had immigrated earlier. Fred first came to Driggs but soon afterwards going to Rexburg where he operated a photo studio and ran a small farm. While living at Rexburg in 1920 he met and married Berta Keck who had immigrated from Switzerland.
After marriage, Fred and Berta ventured north of Rexburg and found an area that reminded them of their homeland in Europe. Most farmland in the area had already been filed on by farmers, but the land in the bottom of the canyon was available, so Fred filed a homestead and started to develop the Warm River Inn and Rendezvous Dance Hall.
Fred incorporated Warm River as a town with the State of Idaho June 9th of 1947. Berta served as the first mayor. Members of the family have served as the mayor and city councilmen ever since.
The first concession stand was located on the edge of Warm River, cold drinks and food were offered for the tourists. Popcorn was sold, and what was not used, was thrown out the back window into the river, this began the long time tradition of feeding the fish which continues to this day. The resort later consisted of a cafe, store, bar, and rental cabins. With the main highway going to Yellowstone going right past their front door, business was good for many years.
The Rendezvous featured dances every Saturday night from early spring of each year until Labor Day. It was a thrilling sight when one was halfway down the dugway, and saw the strings of colored lights that lit up the outside of the dance hall. It featured a refreshment counter near the ticket booth with the tantalizing aroma of hamburgers filling the corner of the hall. There was a low fence where the men could stand and watch the dancers if they didn't have a dollar for a ticket. A large square pillar went through the center of the dance hall with all four sides being covered with mirrors. The ladies privey was connected with an enclosed passageway, a convenience that the women appreciated.
Every forth of July, Fred would entertain his guests with a fireworks display. The fireworks were shot from the rim of the canyon, directly over the dance hall. When they exploded in a cascade of glory, the canyon would echo and reverberate with the loud booms.
The Ross Dunn Orchestra was the most favorite band to play at Warm River. Dances were held up until about 1950. Fred never allowed alcohol inside the hall, but a brisk business was carried on out in the parking lot during prohibition. Jim Hoy who ran a still in the Greentimber area was one of the main suppliers of moonshine. Roller skating was done for a couple of summers in the early 60's.
For years Fred was an active fur trader for the Hudson Bay Fur Company. Buying furs at Warm River in the summer and during the winter he set up shop at St. Anthony, making a trip to Ashton once a week. In the late 1920's rabbit hats were very popular. Fred would pay 34 cents for a white or snowshoe hair, and 25 cents apiece for the common jack rabbit. The carcasses were sold for a nickel a pound to an Idaho produce company, who used the meat to make dog food. On a good day, a hunter could make twenty five to fifty dollars, a good sum money for those days.
For years, local men would help Fred put up ice off of Robinson Creek. Blocks would be sawed and stacked in an ice bunker, packed in saw dust to be kept into the summer.
Fred and Berta's son Harry graduated from South Fremont High School and attended the University of Idaho where he served as Student Body President and was active in ROTC. When World War II broke out, Harry served as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. 3rd Army in the Battle of the Bulge under General George S. Patton. During his service he earned the Silver Star, Oak Leaf Cluster, and a Purple Heart.
After the war, Harry returned home and helped his parents run the resort and was one of the four partners in Bear Gulch Ski Basin. He and his friend Clix Allen built the small log home across the Warm River bridge and called it Harry's bachelor house. He married Lillian Glover in 1951 and made their home in St. Anthony and living at Warm River during the summers.
The main highway to Yellowstone was rerouted up the Ashton Hill in 1957 bypassing the resort resulting in a great downturn in business. The old Rendezvous Dance Hall that had stood vacant and unused was burned down in the mid 1960's. Harry leased out the store and cabins to various parties during the 60's. Never wishing to go back in the restaurant business again, he had the cafe and bar building dismantled and a small home in Chester was built with its salvaged material. For several years Bonneville School Dist, ran its outdoor education program out of the old resort.
Harry pursued business interests in title insurance, realty, and taught high school at South Fremont High School.
In the late 1960's Harry remodeled the old Keppner home and built on an addition opening a supper club and bar called the Ranch House. The business was sub-leased at different times to local restaurateurs, Jill Lehmkuhl, Harry Housley and Larry Hossner.
In 1974 after the old store and cabins had sat idle for several years, Harry approached the Orvis fly fishing equipment company about opening up the first Orvis endorsed fly fishing lodge, catering to serious fly fishing clientele. The resort was renamed Three Rivers Ranch and expert guides were hired to teach the new trend in fly fishing, catch and release. After 85 years of transition, the Three River Ranch remains a popular destination resort.
The Warm River area up until recently has remained quiet, with always a steady flow of vacationers in and out of the popular Forest Service campground. The farm ground on the north side, being poorer soil, has sat in the Gov't Conservation Reserve Program. This ground is now being sub-divided and large homes are now going up at a fast pace. The farm ground on the south side still remains productive, but the pressure is on for the families that have owned the ground for three generations to sell for development.
The area will see increasing pressure as interested people seek to live in an area that is a closer commute to their job, but still offers all the amenities of the great outdoors and great fishing.
Author: Thomas Howell (Written in 2005)
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