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Big Hitch Driver’s Relatives Reminisce as Wagon Days Parade Rolls
Sunday, September 4, 2022


Emery and Pam Helm had long heard the family stories about Sam Sanders, who drove the last of the Big Hitch ore wagons out of the mountains into Ketchum when the Ketchum Fast Freight Line Company closed down.

But they had never come to Ketchum to watch the Wagon Days parade that featured those tall skinny ore wagons that “Uncle Sam” used to drive until Saturday.

On Saturday their son Andy Helm drove them up the steep dirt Trail Creek Road that the ore wagons used to travel. Then they settled in along Sun Valley Road with thousands of other people to watch those ore wagons go by in the Big Hitch Parade.

“Sam was my grandmother’s older brother and he started driving those ore wagons at 15,” said Emery Helm. “And it’s said he was the best jerk line driver in the world.”

Helm said Sam Sanders’ father Joel started out in Oregon and then went to Montana before coming to the Wood River Valley in 1880. He hauled supplies to the Vienna mining district near where Smiley Creek is today and then brought ore back to Ketchum.

He had a batch of kids, Helm said—at least 17 and maybe 21.

One--Sam Sanders--went to work for Horace Lewis who established the Ketchum Fast Freight Line, in 1890. And within a year he was driving a 24-mule team—longer than the famed 20-mule Borax team—to Clayton.

He’d make the 160-mile round trip in two weeks, traveling between 12 to 16 miles a day and carrying as much as 18,000 pounds of ore. He often lost sight of lead horses as they made way around hairpin turns, but he would tug on the jerk line to communicate with the lead horse. The mules or horses were trained to step over the chain when they turned corners.

“My grandmother said her dad and brother told her the grades were so steep they had to tie a log behind the wagons to brake them as they went downhill. Supposedly, when they climbed the hill, they had some mules at the back of the wagons to push them up the hill, just like they sometimes have engines at the backs of trains,” said Helm.

While Sanders never had an accident—at least, not one his relatives know about—he did tell a story about two drivers who lost a bet that the wagon chain could make a turn on Trail Creek Summit without either man driving. Allegedly, the lead mule went straight and the others crashed into the canyon, giving way to rumors that there remains a fortune to be found in the canyon.

By the end of the 1890s, the freight line’s profits were dwindling, thanks to the completion of a rail line into Mackay. The mining boom ended and Horace Lewis moved to Seattle.

Joel Sanders went on to live at a ranch near Bliss and Sam went on to become Gooding County sheriff, occasionally returning to Ketchum where he periodically brought out the wagons until he died in 1956.

“I met Uncle Sam when I was little and, of course, I thought he was terribly old. He told how he caught really good fish in the Salmon River in the Stanley Basin,” said Helm. “As sheriff, you didn’t want to cross him—he was a tough old bird. Now, after having driven Trail Creek Road, I can’t imagine what it was like driving down that mountain in those wagons.”

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