JORDAN VALLEY — The only fronton in Oregon stands by the side of U.S. Highway 95 in this village of 250 people, in the southeastern corner of the state.
The L-shaped structure, 30 feet tall and 100 feet long, was designed for playing the Basque sport of pelota, a version of handball related to jai alai. It was built in 1915 of local stone quarried, cut and mortared by skilled stonemasons who learned their craft in the Pyrenees foothills of their native Spain.
The open-air fronton is rarely used these days. Although the lines on its stucco walls are still brightly painted in the traditional Basque colors of green and red, the cement floor of the court is cluttered with frosty fallen leaves in late autumn. The adjacent heritage museum in the old Elorriaga House is closed for the season, its exhibits on the region’s roots in cattle ranching, sheep herding and silver mining safely secured until spring.
Jordan Valley didn’t begin as a Basque community. It was first settled in the 1860s as a provisions stop along a pioneer route between Northern California and Idaho’s Owyhee Mountain mines. In 1889 and 1890, however, numerous Spanish Basque immigrants found their way here — men with names like Navarro, Azcuenaga, Yturraspe and Arritola. Many were sheep ranchers, miners and masons; others became merchants and hotel keepers.
The Basque presence remains strong in Jordan Valley. The Old Basque Inn is the town’s best restaurant; its handful of shared-bath guest rooms on the upper floor perpetuate its boarding-house history.
Families like the Zaticas and Madariagas remain prominent community members. They and others lent their support to the restoration of the fronton, formally reopened with a Basque festival in September 1997. For the first time in six decades, young men again competed in pelota, pala (paddleball) and weightlifting. Basque musicians and dancers came from Boise to perform.
Jordan Valley sits at the foot of Pharmacy Hill on the north side of Jordan Creek, a tributary of the Owyhee River. The name of the quiet stream comes not from the Bible, but from 19th century prospector Michael Jordan, no relation to the famous basketball player. Though rarely more than 10 feet wide, the creek irrigates a wide, lush valley, dotted with cattle ranches and forage farms, surrounded by volcanic badlands and snowcapped mountains.
Other than the fronton and museum, there’s not a lot to see and do in Jordan Valley. It’s only during May’s annual Big Loop Rodeo, a tradition since 1962, that the town truly bustles. Besides the usual calf-roping and bronco-riding events, this roundup features cattle-dog trials and mule roping. But lodging and dining options are few and far between.
Luckily, there is a great deal to see within easy day-trip reach.
The Owyhee River
The defining geographical feature of this corner of Oregon is the Owyhee River. Rising in Nevada, the 280-mile-long river flows northwesterly through a corner of Idaho, then weaves through Oregon’s arid Great Basin country before joining the Snake River south of Nyssa. Its name was a mispronunciation of “Hawaii”; in 1819, three fur trappers from those Pacific islands disappeared on a scouting trip up the uncharted river, perhaps slain by native Bannock Indians.
Along much of its course south and west of Jordan Valley, the Owyhee has scoured a deep vertical canyon that in places is more than 1,000 feet deep. The best place to view this wild-and-scenic river canyon is an overlook on gravel Three Creeks Road, 17 miles south of U.S. Highway 95 from a turnoff 15 miles west of Jordan Valley.
Practically speaking, however, it is at the hamlet of Rome, 30 miles southwest of Jordan Valley, that most travelers glimpse the river. There is nothing grandiose about Rome itself; it is a tiny community that serves a few local ranches where U.S. Highway 95 crosses the Owyhee. A small cafe-store has RV parking and a couple of adjacent cabins; otherwise, the only point of interest is a launch site for whitewater rafting trips, maintained by the Bureau of Land Management.
Just downriver, opposite the point where Jordan Creek enters the Owyhee, is a wall of towering clay bluffs named the Pillars of Rome because of their resemblance to temple columns. They are easily seen by following a gravel road for about two miles north from Rome.
The only way to truly see the Owyhee, however, is from a rubber raft. River access points between Rome and Owyhee Dam — 60 miles as the crow flies, much farther via precipitous dirt roads — are few and far between.
Numerous whitewater companies, including Bend-based Ouzel Outfitters, use Rome as a put-in for trips during spring melt (April, May and early June). Most of the companies travel 63 miles in five days to a take-out at Leslie Gulch. Here, stark and colorful spires of ancient volcanic ash rise above a Bureau of Land Management campground near the upper reaches of Owyhee Reservoir, an important water source since 1932.
Also on the Owyhee, about 18 miles upriver of Leslie Gulch, is the Birch Creek Ranch. Its two dozen circa-1900 buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Neither Leslie Gulch nor Birch Creek Ranch is out of the question for a day trip from Jordan Valley, but it would be impractical to try to hit both on the same day. Although both sites are located about 25 to 30 miles off U.S. Highway 95, northwest of Jordan Valley, they lie on opposite sides of Mahogany Mountain. When this ancient volcano erupted more than 15 million years ago, it created a landscape of rugged lava across the region.
The Birch Creek road — you’ll need a topographical map to navigate this region, or Benchmark Maps’ “Oregon Road&Recreation Atlas” — skirts the Jordan Craters lava fields, created “only” 30,000 years ago by a distinctive cinder cone known as Coffeepot Crater.
Reminders of the 1800s
One of the easiest day trips from Jordan Valley is an excursion to the unincorporated village of Danner, about 16 miles west on U.S. Highway 95, then three miles north on a well-maintained gravel road. Danner is of particular note as the burial site of the youngest member of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Jean-Baptiste “Pomp” Charbonneau was the son of the famous Shoshone Indian guide, Sacajawea, and her French-Canadian husband, Toussaint Charbonneau. Born in February 1805 at Fort Mandan, N.D., and raised from the age of 6 by explorer William Clark at his home in St. Louis, Mo.
According to a 2005 biography, the younger Charbonneau traveled extensively in Europe and North Africa in the 1820s. Returning to the United States, he worked in the West as a guide and interpreter through the 1830s and 1840s. He did well in the California gold rush and settled in the Sierra foothills for 16 years.
At the age of 61, Charbonneau left California and headed for mining strikes in Idaho and Montana.
But he caught a chill after crossing the Owyhee and died at Inskip Station, now Danner, in May 1866. His body was laid in a well-marked grave about a quarter-mile north, where it is surrounded by three historical markers.
Another unincorporated village, Arock, about 10 miles west and also three miles off the highway on Jordan Creek, was founded in the early 20th century by Basque immigrants. Like Danner, it is surrounded today by cattle ranches; unlike Danner, it has a school, a church and a post office. Ruined homesteads stand side-by-side with more modern dwellings in both hamlets.
Two points of interest are located just south of U.S. Highway 95, about 12 miles west of Jordan Valley. One is an interpretive site that celebrates success in range management beginning with the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, putting an end to rampant overgrazing. An overlook offers a broad view of part of the 4 1/2 million acres of rangeland regenerated, starting in 1962, by the decade-long Vale Project; the acreage is now home to 220 ranches with 82,000 cattle and 6,000 sheep.
Nearby is a short road to four-square-mile Antelope Reservoir, built for irrigation in 1923 and now an oasis in a semi-desert landscape. It has become a popular trout-fishing venue, with boat launches and a small campground.
At Antelope Reservoir and throughout the Jordan Valley, I was impressed by the great variety of wildlife. On my visit last month, I saw pronghorn antelope, mule deer, ring-neck pheasants, ducks, geese, and several species of hawks and other raptors. I was told that the region is also home to bighorn sheep, mountain lions and bobcats, and to such game birds as grouse, quail and chukars.
A living ghost town
Although it’s 32 miles from Jordan Valley to the border of Idaho on U.S. Highway 95 north, the state line is actually only two miles east of town. This is the route to Silver City, and although the maps I consulted didn’t name it, locals call it the Silver City road.
The first few miles of the 26-mile road, leading past a handful of small ranches and homesteads, are paved. The second portion, which climbs into the hills to the Kinross corporation’s inactive Nerco DeLamar open-pit silver mine, is a well-maintained and oiled gravel road. But the final 10 miles, to the foot of War Eagle Mountain, are narrow and rough, not recommended for travel between November and May.
My knowledge of Silver City — the best-preserved ghost town in Idaho, possibly in the Pacific Northwest — stems from a previous visit, as snow prevented my travel to its 6,200-foot elevation last month.
When placer gold was discovered here in 1863, followed by silver a year later, this little town on the crest of the Owyhee Mountains experienced a classic mining boom. Silver City had the Idaho Territory’s first newspaper and its first telegraph service, and was among the first towns to have telephones and electricity. With a population of about 2,500 people, it was the Owyhee County seat for nearly seven decades.
Although Silver City’s mines produced more than $60 million in precious metals, World War II mining restrictions rang its death knell. Today the community’s residents live here only from late May to mid-October, when the Idaho Hotel closes for the season. The old-time hotel has been maintained in vintage condition, its 13 Spartan rooms served by shared bathrooms; it also has a small café and a licensed lounge. Nearby are the Old Schoolhouse Museum and Our Lady of Tears Catholic Church, both built in the 19th century.
About 75 wood-frame structures still stand in Silver City. Most are privately owned and not safe for public entrance. But hikes and horseback rides take visitors through more-remote ghost towns, past overgrown graveyards, to the entrances of hand-dug mining tunnels that honeycomb the Owyhee Mountains.
The miners tried to provide themselves with every convenience for comfortable lives. All that seems to be missing in these hills is a pelota fronton.