The History of Cooks Cabin Lives Through Backcountry Blaze

Wildfires throughout North America, taking lives and endangering countless more, ruining livelihoods, and destroying utterly irreplaceable pieces of our past. While the heartbreaking devastation visited upon Maui, including the decimation of historic downtown Lahaina, is fresh in the national consciousness, our own area of the world is no stranger to the terrifying force of mother nature set ablaze.

Idaho’s broad swaths of forest and relatively untouched wilderness provide a specific difficulty in managing and containing wildfires. Most notably, the Great Fire of 1910 decimated nearly 3 million acresin Western Montana and Northern Idaho. “Trees by the millions became exploding candles,” according to documentation from the U.S. Forest Service. “Millions more trees, sucked from the ground, roots and all, became flying blowtorches.” Due to near hurricane force winds and other environmental factors, the bulk of the damage occurred in a mere six hours.

In the last ten or so years, 2012 had the most area burned at nearly 2 million acres, while 2015 was the worst recent year on record for air pollutants emitted despite having barely more than half the total acres burned (2021: Idaho’s Year in Wildfire ( To put these numbers into a bit of perspective, Idaho Department of Lands Fire Management division partners with a pair of Timber Protection Agencies, rural volunteer fire departments, and other groups to manage, suppress, and prevent fires over 9 million acres of state, federal, and private land. The total acreage of the state of Idaho is approximately 53 million, so, in just the two years mentioned, more than 6% of Idaho’s land was touched by wildfires.


While these numbers are certainly terrifying, they pale in comparison to the experience of Doug and Phyllis Tims, conservators of historic Campbell’s Ferry and the site of Cook’s Cabin, in August of 2015 as they witnessed the destructive might of a raging forest fire from an uncomfortably close vantage. Campbell’s Ferry is located in a remote area of Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area, part of Payette National Forest, which you may recognize from recent news of yet another wildfire ravaging the region. Spurred by 90MPH winds, the Elkhorn Fire started a half mile from Campbell’s Ferry and consumed 25,000 acres of woodlands in late July and early August of 2023. Several settlements, including Allison Ranch and Yellow Pine Ranch were gravely affected, though Campbell’s Ferry and all the history it represents remains intact.

Campbell’s Ferry is 48 air miles from the closest town of Riggins and is so remote it is only accessible by airplane, boat, or, for the truly industrious, foot. Located high on the rim of the canyon overlooking the Salmon River, the 85-acre ranch was claimed in 1898 by William Campbell in order to provide ferry service to those on their way to the Thunder Mountain Gold Mine by way of the also ominously named Three Blazes Trail.

The Thunder Mountain Gold Rush reached a fevered pitch between 1900 and 1902, during which William Campbell transported an estimated 1,800 men across the river on their way to and from the goldfields. He also allowed miners to camp on his property when crossing was impossible, keeping them content with batches of homemade applejack distilled from apples from his orchard. Campbell mysteriously disappeared in 1902, though residents of Campbell’s Ferry continued to shepherd prospectors, travelers, freight, mules, and horses across the river until 1956. Traffic quickly slowed, however, as Thunder Mountain Mining District failed to live up to its promise, seeing its operations slow in 1905. The death blow to the mining concerns came in 1909 when a flood destroyed the town of Roosevelt, and by 1910 most mines were closed or closing.

Following Campbell’s disappearance, the Ferry passed through several hands before being acquired by Joe Zaunmiller, who, with the help of both his first and second wife, operated the ferry from 1933 to 1956. By 1940, it would often be weeks in between crossings, and by the 1950s damage and deterioration of the boat itself made crossing quite dangerous. Frances Zaunmiller, a celebrated local newspaper columnist and wife of Joe, initiated a campaign to compel Idaho Senators to fund the construction of a foot bridge at the site. The US Forest Service built an airstrip to import supplies and workers, and the bridge was completed in 1956, officially ending the ‘Ferry’ portion Campbell’s Ferry’s existence. To underscore the event, the ferryboat was cut loose from its moorings and left to drift away, carried by the Salmon’s current. In June of 1994, the bridge was named Frances Zaunmiller Wisner Memorial Pack Bridge in her honor.

Thirteen elements contribute to the National Register of Historic Places listing for Campbell’s Ferry, including the landing itself, a number of outbuildings, an airstrip, barn, and orchard. The oldest and most notable structure on the site is the Cook Cabin, which was built in 1906 and served as the primary on-site residence until the early 1960s. The simple, one-and-a-half log structure contains a living room with stone fireplace, kitchen featuring a cast iron cookstove, a small bedroom that was added on later, and a two-room attic. The attic is still home to France Zaunmiller’s desk, on which she wrote her weekly articles for the Idaho County Free Press detailing the trials and tribulations of subsistence living in backcountry Idaho. She wrote about a great many changes to the site and the area, including a detailed the process of transporting and installing the cast iron range in the cabin’s kitchen. And she also wrote about her resistance to some of the changes proposed by her husband. From an article penned in 1954:

For years Joe has wanted to put running water in the house, but she [Zaunmiller always referred to herself in the third person] doesn’t want it. Running water would make a lot less work but Joe does not promise that the little water ditch that talks its way past the cabin door, would not be taken away—so she will keep the ditch, and listen to the water tell its tales of the places it has been. You should hear it brag sometimes.

Frances passed away in 1986 after a nearly three-decade battle with throat cancer. The site was obtainedby the Trust for Public Lands in 1988, then a restrictive was purchased by the US Forest Service in order to preserve and maintain it. In 1990, Brad Janosh, Douglas Tims, and other Campbell’s Ferry Partners purchased the property. Douglas and his wife Phyllis served as caretakers and resided on the property from April to October every year until 2023 when they passed conservatorship to Megan and Steve Wells.


During their time in the backcountry, the Tims not only oversaw the maintenance and restoration of much of the site, but also upheld Frances Zaunmiller’s legacy by publishing their own accounts of backcountry life on the blog Wilderness Whispers. From here, we are able to read Phyllis Tims’ harrowing account of the Campbell’s Ferry Fire in August of 2015.

Several days of violent afternoon thunderstorms preceded the August 13th blaze. Bursts of wind ripped one of the pear trees in half and tore open the door of an outdoor freezer, sending a frozen piecrust sailing across the lawn like ‘a pastry Frisbee’. On the fateful day, Phyllis was driven from the Cook Cabin porch by a curtain of rain that ‘was being shot instead of falling.’ As the storm moved up the cabin and the skies cleared, Doug called attention to an ominous plume of black smoke billowing from the ridge rising from the property.

Lightning strikes are one of the more common natural causes of wildfires, but this one was particularly unique. First, it came on the heels of a torrential rainstorm, which one would be forgiven for thinking was highly unlikely. Second, there was a fire on this very spot in 2006 which had cleared out most of the underbrush and lower hanging branches. This is one of the organic benefits of wildfires – clearing out the understory of forests, removing brush and downed trees, enriching the soil and providing space for new growth to occur. It is also supposed to insulate the area from further fires in the near future given the lack of easily flammable material and scant time for new growth to take hold.

Neither of those were the case, however, and the Tims sprang into action. Doug emailed the Forest Service Fire Management Team, and they set up sprinklers around the buildings to soak the perimeter. Within an hour, a spotter plane was swooping over the ridge. As the fire moved slowly but deliberately down the hill towards them, a crew of four firefighters arrived at the landing strip via helicopter. They split up, two heading out to scout the fire, and Dough helped the other two set up a pump to draw water from the river to supplement their own water system. As night fell, there was nothing to do but wait and watch and hope.

After dinner Doug and I sat on chairs near the walnut tree, mesmerized. The fire had burned the crest and was now encircling the breadth of the mountain. In the darkness it was a necklace of fireflies slowly lengthening as it worked its way down.

By morning on the 14th, the fire had encroached to within mere yards of the property line, about 100 yards away from the one-room Crowe Cabin which was added to the property in the 60s. From there, they watched as an airdrop of supplies was delivered and the firefighters scurried to secure the parachutes attached to five packages of gear and necessities. At 2PM, a breeze began to build, growing into a strong, steady wind within the hour. The increased airflow stoked the blaze, and the fire began to rise, burning faster, fiercer, and barreling right towards them. As Phyllis put it, “The wind became a relentless, persistent Demon.”

When night fell, the wind shifted a full 180 degrees, but lost none of its ferocity. The slope that was burned to the ground in 2006 was now a towering inferno and the wind continued to build. By the morning on the third day, more reinforcements arrived, bringing the total up to 21 folks working to beat back the blaze. A wayward group of backpackers narrowly avoided being cut off from the trail and escaped to safety. The firefighters dampened the perimeter, continued to dig ditches, and orchestrated a backburn (which clears an area of scrub and brush by starting a new fire that burns in the opposite direction of the line of an advancing fire). With darkness descending, it appeared to Phyllis that due to all the lights at various heights, “You could have sworn that Campbell’s Ferry had high-rise neighbors all across that hill.”

As if that weren’t enough, on the fourth day, while preparing to move from the Cook Cabin to their renovated Crowe Cabin, Phyllis knocked a cast iron skillet off the stove, crushing her foot, and leaving a “hematoma the size of Chicago.” On the morning of the fifth day, her foot no better, they arranged for a flight to seek medical attention. Waiting nervously far after the plane was scheduled to arrive, a breeze finally blew enough smoke away for the flight to land and Phyllis was off to McCall by way of Cascade.

The flight out was bumpy and the air was very smoky, not good visibility at all. The mountains we flew through were vague, soft, undecided – ghost mountains – looking both insubstantial and menacing at the same time.

A diagnosis of two crushed toes and a decidedly un-stylish walking boot later, the Tims were winging back to their embattled homestead. For the next eight days, the fire continued to burn, eventually claiming more than 5,000 acres of land. Thankfully, it never got any closer to either of the cabins or the rest of the property. The Tims hosted the 21 firefighters for the duration, where they were able to come and go via helicopter and jet boat as needed, have easy access to fresh water to clean and drink, shade from the orchard trees, and were able to feast upon the ripe peaches, pears, and apples, though they had to compete with some wayward bears for the fruit. As the fire receded up the canyon, Phyllis recounts:

What remains is the smoke. It is a little like living in Brigadoon, isolated by smoke instead of clouds. We feel the smoke in our throats and taste it in our water. Much of the time we cannot see the trees on the other side of the river. The sun and moon are the color of neon tangerines in a dull grey sky. Everything is muted. In the end the fire was beneficial. Some trees will die but there is now open space under the forest, making it much safer from future fires and more beautiful. We wait for rain.


Older buildings are particularly susceptible to the elements, and it is vital that our historic landmarks continue to be used, inhabited, and kept under careful watch. Had the Tims not immediately contacted the proper authorities, who knows how much worse this fire could have been. And while fire is certainly the most dramatic, wind and water damage can be equally damaging, further underscoring the need to keep these buildings in use and in good working order. Thanks to the tireless work of conservators like the Tims – and now the Wells, coordination from the IDL Fire Management Department, and countless professional and volunteer firefighters, an untold amount of life and history would be turned to ash.


In 1989, in cooperation with the Trust for Public Land and the U.S. Forest Service, the Idaho Heritage Trust worked out a cooperative agreement to restore the homestead, put protective scenic easements on the property and resell the ranch to a conservation buyer. In 2008, IHT provided engineering consultation to the owners to help them continue the conservation of the site and has continued to make our technical experts available in the ensuing years. IHT also awarded grants in 1991 and 2014 to shore up the log walls with new mortar and replace windows in Cook’s Cabin.


Cover Photo: IHT’s Board of Trustees were lucky enough to visit Campbell’s Ferry in July of 2017, where we were able to hear much of the history of the site straight from Dough and Phyllis Tims. Their presentation took place beneath this splendid English Walnut tree, which was planted in 1963 to commemorate France’s marriage to Allen Vern Weisner following the death of her husband Joe the year prior. Doug and Phyllis were kind enough to lend their vast knowledge to a short video detailing the history of the site, which you can view here: Campbell’s Ferry – YouTube.

The full Wilderness Whispers blog is linked above, but here is the section pertaining to the 2015 fire saga including photos: August | 2015 | Wilderness Whispers (

Unless otherwise noted, historical information for this article was sourced from the Campbell’s Ferry’s application to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2007, which can be found here.

Keep tabs on current fire activity throughout the state with the interactive map found here.

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