The Salmon River is the longest undammed river in the continental United States. But it wasn’t always that way.
In 1910 Sunbeam dam was erected on the Salmon above its confluence with the Yankee Fork. The dam was built to supply cheap power to gold mining operations along the Yankee Fork. The dam supplied power to stamp mills and dredges for just over a year before the mining operation went bankrupt and closed.
A historical marker adjacent to the river claims that the Idaho Department of Fish & Game contracted demolition of the dam in 1934. However, locals know a different story. Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus wrote in his memoir, “A party or parties unknown ran a dynamite-laden raft into Sunbeam Dam. The dam blocked the annual salmon run. The party or parties unknown were never caught, a fairly unusual circumstance in this thinly populated country. But history was against them.”
Crumbling remains of the dam still cross half the canyon while the river flows freely against the southern bank. Many people consider these remnants a blight on an otherwise pristine river but every time I see the corpse of Sunbeam Dam I smile. The ruins serve as a reminder that Idaho’s salmon are more precious than gold. They’re priceless.
Any Idahoan will tell you that the Salmon River and its namesake salmon runs are two of the things that make Idaho special. I grew up playing and fishing along the banks of the Salmon and now I work for an organization called Idaho Rivers United protecting and restoring Idaho’s rivers and native fish.
I like the story of Sunbeam dam because it offers a lesson from our history and vision forward to the future.