The town of Triumph is nestled in the East Fork Valley, between the Wood River Valley and the towering peaks of the Pioneer Mountains. Photo by Roland Lane
between a rock and
The enduring mystique of Triumph, where history weaves mining with UFOs.
Driving up the East Fork of the Big Wood River to the tiny village of Triumph affords one of the more breathtaking views of mountain scenery available from an automobile in Blaine County. On a rise a few miles before town, the imposing palisade of the Pioneer Mountains juts skyward in spectacular fashion. The high country beckons in all its glory. The high peaks also dare you to go farther.
Traveling to Triumph can bring you to another time in history. It could also bring you into contact with extraterrestrial beings from another solar system. In some ways, history began in the Wood River Valley with the mines above Triumph. Where history leads the town's residents next is anyone's guess.
Triumph is a mining boom-gone-bust town that appears to have been discovered by Architectural Digest. Tailing piles, beams and ore carts give way to upscale homes suitable for the finest neighborhoods in Sun Valley. Extravagant gardens and a fancy sports car or two adorn renovated 100-year-old miners' quarters. There are old barns and mining-era buildings that seem to serve no purpose. At least one building is shaped like a flying saucer.
||"If the rest of the world were to go away, we would carry on just fine."
Eve Heart, Triumph resident
Matt Leidecker, a photographer and academic director of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, lived until recently in Triumph, with his wife, Christine, and their two children. He now rents out his place to newcomers and lives in Ketchum, closer to work and schools.
"We miss the sense of neighborhood and community in Triumph," he said. "It is like no place I have ever lived. If someone were coming home, they would stop in the street to talk. There would be impromptu town meetings. And you can hike right up a hillside out your back door."
The north-facing hillsides above Triumph are lush, with tall stands of spruce and Douglas fir trees. South-facing hills are barren, reaching to stony peaks that separate the East Fork drainage from Elkhorn and Sun Valley, only a few miles away as the crow flies. Under these peaks are 52 miles of mining tunnels, one mile for each permanent resident of Triumph. The tunnels were blasted, dug and scraped out for generations, leaving a legacy of impact from the early days of the industrial revolution.
For more than seven decades, starting in 1882, the Triumph North Star Mine produced ore that was rich in silver, zinc and lead. It employed as many as 200 men and yielded $28 million before closing in 1957. Rupert House, the last foreman of the Triumph mine and its one-time owner, spent 70 years mining in the Wood River Valley. House and his men endured bitter cold, tunnel collapses and other mishaps while removing ore from the area's mines.
"Independence Mine in Sun Valley was very productive, but steeper than a cow's face," House said in an interview in 2004. "It got to 36-below zero one winter in Triumph, and my pants were as stiff as stove-pipes."
Two years after House passed away at 92, a box of dynamite sticks was discovered on his 20-acre farm. The sheriff was called to remove the explosives.
Despite the obvious legacy of mining, nature has taken over again in Triumph. The bears know Friday is trash day and sometimes scavenge garbage bins for snacks. Hummingbirds flutter over porches hanging with hops. Last year, a dog named Groovy was snatched by a mountain lion.
"The elk like my garden. So do the deer," said Eve Heart, a psychological counselor who lives in a renovated bunkhouse at the south entrance to town. Since 1985 she has called Triumph home, leaving for a few years to earn an advanced degree. She says Triumph has a pool of talented individuals that sets it apart from other towns. They include a nurse, a solar engineer, teachers, mechanics, fishermen, hunters and builders. There is also an ayurvedic practitioner and a bookkeeper to keep accounts in order.
"If the rest of the world were to go away, we would carry on just fine. We have every skill you can think of," Heart said.
||"I have neighbors here if I need them, but I don't have to see them."
Daphne Murphy, Triumph resident
The resolve of Triumph's residents was sorely tested in 1989, when the Environmental Protection Agency decided to designate the village a Superfund cleanup site, based on an analysis of the town's drinking water. The designation would lead to a $750 million remediation effort, and a permanent taint on the towns' livability.
"There was a stigma. For a while you could not get a loan on your property," said 40-year resident Pat Murphy, a commercial fisherman who works these days in international development in Southern Sudan. "But they were never able to repeat the drinking water test."
Murphy's wife, Daphne, who has also worked overseas, taught school for 12 years at Hemingway Elementary in Ketchum. She tends an elegant flower garden that surrounds a rambling two-story home beside horse corrals that the Murphys have slowly expanded from an old mining cabin. Last year, a wolf walked by her kitchen window in broad daylight while she was sipping tea.
"I have neighbors here if I need them, but I don't have to see them," said Daphne, holding a rehabilitated barn cat named Jeeves. "Triumph has always been that special spot for us."
The Murphys and several other families fought the Superfund designation for nine years, siding with the state of Idaho. Remediation costs for cleaning up the old tailings and plugging mine holes were limited to $14 million. The project is ongoing, with equipment in place around town to monitor for toxins. Locals are eager to put that chapter behind them. But another legacy has also been hovering over Triumph for decades, one that may prove harder to shake. The town is widely known for its unidentified flying objects, or UFOs.
Bill Collins, a close neighbor to the Murphys, said he knows when it all began. He also said there were some "strange lights" over nearby Hyndman Peak about 15 years ago that he cannot explain. A saddle-maker, fisherman and shooting instructor, Collins lives with his wife, Wendy, a Science of Mind minister and equestrian therapist, in a house surrounded by natural beauty. From the Collinses' porch can be seen a beaver pond that is visited from time to time by river otters. Beside their house is one of the few lawns in town, a lawn where Olympic ski racer Picabo Street played as a kid.
||"You don't leave town for a quart of milk, but you might borrow one from a neighbor."
Bill Collins, Triumph resident
According to the Collinses, a Methodist minister named Milton Haar and his wife, Vernette, and a few other couples bought the entire village of Triumph (minus the mine) in 1960 for $56,000. They came to the area from North Dakota where Milton had come to be known as an extraordinary person, someone perhaps from out of this world.
"He told me there was a shooting at a market in his hometown and the man who was shot had a wound that healed over immediately," Bill Collins said.
The man became known as a healer who could cure blindness and other illnesses, but church leaders thought it was the work of the devil, so the Haars left town and settled in Triumph.
"They said this was a place where 'vortexes' came together," Bill Collins said.
During the 1970s, there were UFO conferences held in the old bunkhouse. A newspaper was printed for participants who came from all over the world.
"Milton was kind of a prankster," Collins said. "One day he came to tell me 'the aliens are here to get us,' and pointed up in the sky. It was a hot air balloon, but for a minute he had me going."
Another time, Milton was working after hours on a spaceship-shaped building when county inspectors came to ask who was working on the unpermitted structure. Milton answered blithely that it was being built by space beings at night.
"When the inspectors left, I asked him why he lied to them," Collins said. "Milton said he was not lying, that we are from outer space, and that he was working at night."
Wendy Collins said Vernette Haar channeled, through automatic writing, a spirit called St. Germaine.
"They were very religious, and very kind," she said of the Haars. "Vernette never talked much about UFOs, but she did say there are intelligent beings around us that are lovable and supportive of us."
Bill Collins contributes to the town's alien mystique when people come by asking about the UFOs.
"I ask them, 'Do you mean the cigar-shaped ones, or the saucer-shaped ones?'"
Triumph has been gentrified since the mining days. Newcomers will no longer find screaming deals on real estate. An ill-fated development nearby recently succeeded only in eliminating a mining road that once connected the eclectic community across steep hills to Sun Valley. As a result, Triumph is even harder to get to than a few years ago. But according to the locals, Triumph has become the place it is not despite its remote location, but because of it.
"You don't leave town for a quart of milk, but you might borrow one from a neighbor," Bill Collins said. "This community has kept close because of its isolation from the Wood River Valley."