A Snake River Town Surrounded by Attractions
By Shirley Metts
When I was fourteen, my parents moved from a GI Bill farming project north of Rupert to a farm located south of Hazelton and northeast of Murtaugh. That was the first time I had heard of Murtaugh, which is located halfway between Twin Falls and Burley, at the beginning of the middle section of the Snake River, near the entrance to Snake River Canyon. This chasm running between the fertile farmlands of the Magic Valley reaches depths of more than five hundred feet. My parents’ farm was a half-mile north of the rim of the canyon and about four miles east of Murtaugh. To get into town we had to cross the canyon by driving down a winding, narrow road, over an old wooden bridge, and up the winding, narrow road on the other side. Many drivers who braved the old Murtaugh Grade when they were young and inexperienced can tell you how frightening it was to head downhill and see the road disappear in front of you. You had to turn the car to the right to see the road again, and not go over the edge.
One mile upstream from the Murtaugh Bridge lies what the early explorers called the Devil’s Scuttlehole, now known as Cauldron Linn, Star Falls, or the Devil’s Cauldron. The original name came from the wicked way the water boils and churns at the bottom of the falls, not unlike what a witch’s brew in a cauldron might resemble.
The first recorded attempt by white explorers to go through the falls was in 1811, when the Wilson Price Hunt party was sent by John Jacob Astor to find a route to the Pacific Ocean, according to Virginia Ricketts’ 1998 book, Then and Now in Southern Idaho. The Hunt party would also explore the lands of the Northwest Territory, opening trading posts along the way. After leaving their horses at the headwaters of the Snake River, the party built canoes to float down the river. On October 28, the explorers entered a canyon, where they made the biggest error in judgment of their entire trip. Coming to a deceptive waterfall, they tried to go through it and capsized two boats. One of the men died. The men made another attempt to navigate four other boats down the canyon below the falls, but lost all four of those vessels and the provisions and furs they carried.
After sending out scouting parties to explore the area around them and downriver, they cached some of their remaining supplies and furs and traveled overland, along the Snake River to Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia. It took them three months to reach the mouth of the Columbia River. On their return trip, they found that their caches had been vandalized, and everything was either destroyed or missing.