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October 26, 2012

Remote US Museum Survives in Hells Canyon

by Ted Landphair

The rushing Snake River cut America’s deepest gorge through Idaho in the Rocky Mountains of the American Northwest.

Today, it’s known as Hells Canyon.

Every few kilometers along the way, the river widened and scoured out sandbars.  There, protected from biting winds and howling snowstorms high above, Nez Percé Indians fashioned winter villages and buried their dead. Later, around 1880, ranchers took their place.

And in the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, ranch foreman Len Jordan and his wife, Grace, bought a ranch there that included a white-frame house, a blacksmith shop, and a rustic cabin.
Only in America-Hells Canyon Ranch

And because Grace kept a journal that grew into the book Home Below Hell’s Canyon, and Len would become Idaho’s governor, the story of their rough-hewn existence on the remote sandbar would spread throughout the Great Northwest.
This old blacksmith shop is part of the rustic museum complex in hard-to-reach Hells Canyon, Idaho. (Carol M. Highsmith)
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The only electricity came from a clever water wheel in Kirkwood Creek that Len had jerry-rigged out of cowbells, bolted to a wheel from an old Model-T Ford.

Grace cooked on a simple wood stove for her husband and three children, and dozens of smelly sheephands.

The Jordans sold the ranch in 1943, and it passed through several owners.  

In the 1970s, the U.S. Forest Service rejected proposals to dam the Snake River to provide hydroelectric power and irrigation to nearby towns. 

Instead, it established the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, restoring the Jordans’ ranch buildings as a museum and creating a spot where rafters could stop and picnic.

But there are only two ways to reach it, even today: by raft down the Snake, or on foot or horseback along a narrow, precipitous trail.  

Those who go there are reminded that there’ll be no cellphone service or Internet connection. Now that, in this day and age, is a hardship.