July 13, 2024

#TBT: Boise, a quick history

The City of Boise, Idaho is the most isolated metro area in the country, depending on what population criteria is used. The closest population center over 500k is Salt Lake City, UT, which is 339 miles southeast. In the early 1800’s, the area was known as “The Wooded River,” and pretty much any attempted settlement was stopped at the hands of the Bannock Indians. In the 1820’s, French trappers arrived, and with them a translation of the area’s name – “La rivière boisée.” The name debate was finally settled in the 1830’s, when Captain Bonneville, a French born US Army officer, while leading a party to Oregon, crested a hill southeast of the area and proclaimed “Les Bois!” (“The trees!”) upon seeing the cottonwood lined river in the distance. (Hence the city’s slogan – The City of Trees.)

It took until the gold rush in the Boise basin for the city to really take hold. In 1863, a US Army Fort Boise was established in the current area of the city. Previously, Fort Boise, a Hudsons Bay Company post, had been 80 miles west, but it was abandoned after Shoshone warriors attacked and killed 19 pioneers nearby. The second fort was the US government setting an outpost for securing The Oregon Trail from the Bannock and Shoshone tribes after more attacks occurred. 

Finding gold and silver in the Boise Basin is what allowed Boise to flourish. The site of the fort was under US Army control until 1913, and the military presence kept the tribes at bay and all of the money pouring out of the mountains as secure as possible.

In 1865, Boise ended up as the capital of the Idaho Territory, which at the time pretty much encompassed all of Wyoming and Montana.

Map of the US West - 1864
Map of the US West – 1864

The issue was that the town of Lewiston – several hundred miles to the north, was already supposed to be the capitol. However, people were leaving Lewiston in droves because the gold supply was tapped out. Depending on whether you’re a Bronco (Southern Idaho) or a Vandal (Northern Idaho), the state seal and constitution was either moved or stolen to “where the people are.” Since Idaho wasn’t technically a state yet, there was no state court to decide the matter, and the territorial governor was a guy from New York who really couldn’t care less, in Boise it all stayed. (This is really one of the more fascinating events in Idaho history…much more here.)

In 1890, Idaho gained statehood, and with it Boise became the defacto capitol of the state (AND EVERYBODY NORTH OF THE 43rd PARALLEL CAN STFU ABOUT IT ALREADY.)

Being so isolated, Boise always had to generate its own culture. There’s no quick train or horseback ride anywhere from there, so citizens had better learn to make what they need and entertain themselves. In the year 1900, there were around 6,000 people in town. They opened parks, a library, a theater, churches, stores, bars, restaurants… and increased the population by an additional 10,000 people by 1910. In 1912, the beautiful new limestone capitol building was complete.

The first run at the capitol - 1919
The first rendition of the capitol – 1919

Things started happening very fast after this, even in a town that it might seem sometimes like time has forgotten. Newspapers started and failed, a Union Pacific train depot opened as did a new art deco theater, and an airfield (for what would become United Airlines but was air mail delivery at the time) was built on the current site of Boise State. The 1930’s were a time of fairly slow population growth, but even the great depression didn’t slow down the city too much. Boise Junior College opened in 1932 (Go Broncos!), after the airfield was moved to the current location south of town. The first Albertson’s opened in 1939, creating the most widely known Idaho business to the outside world since potatoes.

The 40’s were tumultuous, but mostly because of WW2 and those outside factors. However, didn’t stop Alf Engin (the father of powder skiing) from opening Bogus Basin Ski area in 1949 – its been operating ever since. The 50’s brought prosperity, and also scandal. In 1955, investigations began and arrests started over homosexuality in the city. Three men were arrested, and a moral panic ensued. By the time it was over, 100 boys had been implicated for being involved in sexual acts with a ring of adult homosexual men. Over 1500 people had been questioned, and fifteen men were sentenced to terms ranging from probation to life in prison. The Idaho Statesman fanned the flames with incendiary editorials, and between the heavily conservative culture and the horrid misunderstanding of homosexuality at the time, things got very tense. Maybe it was a power play by some in state government to keep the city’s liberal ways down (this has been part of the Boise narrative for a while – its a small bastion of liberal politics in an ocean of conservatism). Maybe it was a targeted investigation meant to bring down someone in power who was closeted. Either way, it was only after the national media got involved that the investigations stopped. The scandal left a mark on the city, and it’s still not fully recovered. While there is now a thriving and visible LGBTQ community in Boise, it took another 40 years and a lot of amazing work by strong people who stood in the face of fear to get there.

By 1970, the city of trees had almost 75,000 residents. A new Bronco Stadium opened, but still with green turf at that time. City leaders had also decided that the river needed cleaning up (some Idahoans love to dump trash in random places), and the best way to do that would be to make it public. A greenbelt system was planned, and is now a 30 mile riverbank jewel, flanked by parks and outdoor beauty the whole way.

Boise Greenbelt in the Fall

In 1974, Boise State College was granted University status a few short years after becoming a 4 year institution. A few shots were taken during the 70’s at bringing Minor League Baseball into the city, with two teams only managing to make it for three years total. Growth continued with hospitals and public spaces opening, and by 1980, Boise had 102,000 residents.

Boise has pretty much been under rapid growth since then. Bronco Stadium expanded, The Blue turf was installed, the basketball arena at BSU was opened, a LDS temple was built, and the Boise Hawks minor league team finally took hold in 1987, after relocating from Tri-Cities, Washington. One of the more interesting civic happenings was deciding what to do with downtown. The battle had been on since the 60’s – some city planners and politicians were wanting to raze entire blocks of historic buildings to build a massive mall right in the downtown core. At the time, downtown was considered a seedy place full of bars and barely functioning businesses. However, the mayor and city council were voted out in the mid 80’s and the mall idea was moved to West Boise (where it flourished). Before they could be saved, there were several historical structures, including all of Boise’s Chinatown district, that were torn down. But since then, the city has recognized how important a thriving downtown is, and through investment, encouragement of small business, and thoughtful planning, have made it one of the better city centers in the country.

Boise River sculpture, Grove Hotel, Boise ID
Boise River sculpture, Grove Hotel

Boise’s come a long way since the days when fortunes were made with pans in the mountains and the state seal had to be basically stolen to get the capitol in the right place. It’s gone from a small forgotten about town to making top places to live lists in multiple publications. It’s an outdoors paradise, a center for culture in the middle of the sagebrush ocean, and home to 214,000 people just trying to leave this place better than we found it.


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Tami Dooley 142 Articles

Tami is from Idaho. She's a fan of the Boise State Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks, college football on the whole, and almost thought about becoming a baseball fan for a minute one time. Send whiskey.

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