In 1948, after more than a decade on the road and riding the rails, Richard Zimmerman got an idea. Working along the banks of Idaho’s Salmon River, fishing and doing some small-scale mining, he figured it was time to settle down. At the age of 32, the restless hermit figured the best place to settle was right there in Salmon, Idaho—inside the hill, in a cave dug with his own hands.
The people of Salmon soon coined a new name for Zimmerman, who became “Dugout Dick.”
Realizing that the rocky slopes of the mountains could be hollowed out to make cozy quarters, Dugout Dick got to work using only a pickax, a shovel, a wheelbarrow, and his bare hands. He outfitted his cave with scraps and castoffs and moved in. Then he made another. And another. Until his death in 2010, Dugout Dick carved out an entire village of caves, renting some out to campers, sojourners, and like-minded “off the grid” homesteaders ($2 a night, or $25 a month).
Dugout was never actually deeded the land, and although essentially a squatter, local authorities and the Bureau of Land Management understood his place in the history of Idaho wanderers and settlers. They granted him lifetime rights, with the understanding that the land would be reclaimed by the BLM after he passed away. He squeezed as much time as he could out of the deal, living off the land until the age of 94.
After Dugout died, the BLM came in, and—to the dismay of locals and media alike—destroyed the caves citing health and safety concerns.
Newspaper publisher Roger Plothow enlisted all the support he could to create a memorial to Dugout. After the bulldozing there was one small cabin they left behind, built by Dugout, into the hillside. With the help of local high school kids and the BLM, a memorial was added in front of the cabin, with signs celebrating the life and creations of Dugout Dick.
The hillside along the Salmon River off U.S. Highway 93 shows little sign of the former cave village, but follow the old wooden bridge and dirt road to the former site and there you’ll find the memorial, the old cabin, and the story of an Idaho legend.
If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s new book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.